Community Playthings needed a finishing line that would work first and foremost with the finishing product it was using and would also operate at peak efficiency to complement the rest of its production process. Making children's furniture efficiently is child's play for Community Playthings, an innovative manufacturer of wood furniture for school districts, corporate daycare and daycare chains.

But this manufacturer of solid maple cribs, desks, chairs, shelves, building blocks and children's play furniture isn't a factory it's a community. Specifically, the wood products are made by the Maple Ridge Bruderhof community in the Hudson Valley town of Ulster Park, N.Y.

"Through our production methods we can keep our lead time very short," says plant manager John Kaiser. "We're good at anything that is made to order or requires short lead times."

Tim Clement, manufacturing manager, says the company deals with smaller production runs by reducing setup times. Community Playthings uses its own product designs, is linked to other plants and has reduced inventory to almost nothing.

Going flatline

When Community Playthings expanded its plant and planned for a new finishing system, Clement and Kaiser started looking at different kinds of equipment, gradually believing they should go with some kind of a flatline system.

At IWF 2000, both Clement and Kaiser looked at all kinds of equipment, but then followed the recommendation of Burkhard Schuette of Venjakob North America that they should choose a finishing supplier first.

Waterborne finishes

At that point Clement says they started to learn about waterborne finishes, even though everything they looked at had long cure times, and they were cautious about using conventional UV lacquers because of the possibility of uncured monomers migrating to the surface.

Kaiser says they tested many conventional water-based finishes, but had problems with blocking.

"When you have finished parts that are dry, you stack them and go back a few days later and they stick," he explains. "In worse cases it will lift the finish off."

There was also what Kaiser calls a print problem; the surface is dry but still tender. "We have very short lead times," he says. "As soon as it's finished, we want to pack it, and that creates problems. Even cardboard can mark it permanently."

After testing four or five waterborne finishes, they decided on Becker Acroma.

"Once we decided on waterborne UV, and we determined that Becker Acroma was our vendor of choice, we went to Sweden and did further testing there," Clement says. "We used Becker Acroma's recommendations as far as line length, speed, temperature and so on. We left their factory with a very specific line layout.

"Then we journeyed through Europe and visited the various equipment manufacturers, and told them, This is what we want, can you build it for us?'"

Humidity concerns

Community Playthings had concerns, including the temperature of the line and its operation in high-humidity conditions. (Relative humidity in Europe is usually much lower than New York's Hudson Valley.)

"We made a special trip to Hungary to see a plant that had to deal with high humidity, to make sure this particular lacquer was drying without the dehumidification," Clement says. "We didn't want to buy a $100,000 dehumidification system."

Buying the equipment first would have been the backward way of doing it.

"But many people do that," Clement says. "You have to do your research first, and you have to pick your finish first."

Kaiser says that CP ran tests and determined that the adhesion on the Becker Acroma finish was very good, and yellowing was much less than its competitors. "The product we were testing from Becker Acroma was in production for six years in Europe," he says. "Both products from the competitors at that time were new products with no track record."

Finding the right supplier

"You have to do testing but it's more important to find a good marriage with a coatings supplier," Clement says. "If your coatings supplier isn't going to help you in the future with some unforeseen problem, you're stuck.

"That's the best advice we got from different people: Establish a three-way relationship between you, the equipment supplier and the coating supplier."

Kaiser says that a coatings supplier should be able to provide answers about viscosity problems, the best curing parameters and drying temperatures. As far as equipment, he says that Venjakob offered service and dependability, as well as a good fit with CP.

Finishing configuration

The U-shaped finishing line made by Venjakob starts with the dust extractor, followed by the finish applicator with reciprocating heads. The finish is Becker Acroma Aqualight clear waterborne and solvent-free. The reclaim belt is an important part of the line, and the flash-off oven is next. Pieces follow a curved conveyor and then enter the first jet-dry oven, which applies 1-1/2 minutes of high velocity, 100 F air. The second jet-dry oven is next, followed by the UV cabinet, in which two emitters shine UV light. Cycle time is eight to nine minutes.

(Pieces are dried but not cured by the jet-dry ovens, so they have to be cured with UV. Straight waterborne can be dried very quickly, but typical water-based finishes can require seven to 30 days for a full cure.)

All parts get the same finish: two clearcoats but no stain. There are many different shapes and sizes of parts. A single piece goes through the line once, through the Fladder AUT denibber, then through the second time on the same side. Then the piece is turned over and goes through the line twice more. The Fladder can handle curved pieces and has a closed vacuum system that can hold very small parts down.

For the future, CP is looking at a water-based, non-UV finish, but with faster drying time. Kaiser says they are also reconsidering spraying parts before assembly. On one product, a wood frame around a clear plastic part must be oversprayed, then the paper covering the plastic must be removed.

CP is testing alternatives to this process. If successful, they may move the entire assembly function after individual pieces are sprayed, putting together finished parts at the end.

Manufacturing process

Improvements in the process aren't limited to finishing. Community Playthings starts its wood processing with pre-ripped soft maple along with some plywood blanks warehoused in Chester, N.Y., and sent to Ulster Park as needed. Inventory here is kept as small as possible.

Kaiser says that CP used to have a rough mill at the plant, but now half the material is already cut to length and they are moving more in that direction. The manufacturing plant layout has been changed to accommodate a cut-to-length operation with fewer saws.

Clement says CP is now a JIT shop, but at one time CP made thousands of every component. "We used to fill up our warehouse with finished parts to get ready for our busy time in the summer," he says. "So we had hundreds of thousands of dollars of inventory stored in our warehouse waiting for orders to come in. We were very efficient per part, but it was very costly."

The pre-ripped soft maple first goes to a Weinig Unimat 22 moulder, where as many as 10 profiles may be produced in a day. Close attention to the moulding process and experience from making the same products from the same material has allowed CP to refine its moulding to the point where no further machining or sanding is required.

"We've been doing our own moulding for 50 years, so we have a lot of experience with it," Kaiser says. "We've always used soft maple, so we tailor our tooling to that specific wood species."

Eliminating set-up time

CP has eliminated set-up time on most machines by having jigs and tooling ready for each job, so other machine operators do not have to be familiar with the parts or spend any time on setting up the machine. The moulder is one of the exceptions.

Machines are grouped together in different work cells named for cities and states. CP uses a Balestrini tenoner, a Balestrini mortiser and a Balestrini linear profiler for putting in grooves and shaping parts. A chamfering machine built here makes crib legs, and a custom drilling machine drills holes in crib legs.

A glue dosing system measures glue and uses mortises and tenons, or dowels, for assembly. Components are put together and drilled, then dowels are inserted and the piece is sanded flat for panel assembly.

A new dust collection system from WolfeAire recirculates air in the plant. Wood chips stored in the silo can be used on the community's farm. Each machine is vented only when it is in use. Offcuts are burned in a wood stove to help heat the building.

Changing tooling

In the tool room, CP uses a Weinig Rondamat 966 grinder for moulder blades. Kaiser says that CP is moving to more insert tooling since it has become more accurate and quality of carbide has improved.

A new CMS Pentax five-axis CNC machining center was added two years ago, and it eliminated table saws and hand shapers. Kaiser says CP went from seven processes to one on the machining center. The CMS is usually used on jobs of 12 to 20 pieces.

Community Playthings has used a CMS NCPF102 for nine years. This is a basic twin-table machining center used to cut complex parts such as those used for a chair. The machine reads a small chip on the cutting board that provides the job parameters.

CP buys quality equipment, but isn't afraid to tinker with its own processes and develop solutions that make setup easier or reduce material handling. That combination makes the whole operation more efficient. s

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