For many, talk of automation in the woodworking industry relates quickly to reducing personnel or enabling higher quality manufacturing with lesser trained staff. That’s not the way Kevin Ward sees it. At his company, A Ward Design in Winter Haven, Fla., high-tech cabinet production also means a solid investment in people, too.

“You’re nothing without your employees, no matter how many CNC machines you have,” says Ward.

As much as Ward proudly shows off the Holz-Her CNC beam saw and Weeke Optimat BP80 machining center that are key to his productivity, he’s equally quick to point out the contributions of key employees, including one who was actually homeless when he was originally hired.

From garage to CNC 

Cabinet production at A Ward Design starts with a strong commitment to 32mm construction methods, CNC equipment and related software. But the roots of the company are not high-tech at all. In fact, Ward didn’t know anything about cabinets when he first started out. He was actually an electrician first.

But a stint working for his father’s construction company led to more work in homebuilding and a connection with a local building supply. He was asked to spearhead a cabinet division, which he eventually bought to make a go of it on his own. That low-tech, garage-based operation dramatically changed when Ward paid his first visit to the IWF trade show and learned about modern cabinet production.

He bought a Holz-Her vertical panel saw, an edgebander, and a Ritter line drill and moved into an old warehouse. At the time, Ward says, he didn’t even know how to operate the machines, but he learned fast.

He absorbed Bob Buckley’s book True 32 about 32mm construction and figured out his own system. That quickly led to trading the vertical saw for a new Holz-Her CNC beam saw and replacing the line drill with the Weeke machining center.

Software to drive production

Just as Ward believes in a strong investment in modern equipment, he knows that the right software is crucial to success. The shop uses AutoCAD and Microvellum as its primary design and manufacturing tools. He uses SmartLister to generate cutlists and Eurosoft Ardis to create part labels.

Ward says that his son Eric, who is vice president of the company, is now taking the lead on the software side. “Eric coming to work here was a breath of fresh air,” Ward says. “These kids have a knack for that.”

Technology for people, too 

The latest technology inroads in the company have to do with tracking costs, particularly those costs related to personnel. “A few years ago, we lost track of our costs,” says Ward. “We used to use old-fashioned time sheets and an Excel spreadsheet, and it was haphazard.” They moved to dedicated time tracking software and most recently are converting over to the TaskKlock program. Everything can be entered on a terminal centrally located in the shop that is part of a “command center” to make it easier to keep track of all jobs and people. The biggest benefit, says Ward, is “We found that our ecosts were not aligned with our estimates.”

Now they can take action to correct that, which includes adding On-Screen’s Takoff construction estimating program.

Employee development

But don’t get the idea that Ward is treating employees like cogs in another machine. He’s as much a believer in investing in people as he is investing in technology.

“We want an environment where people like working together,” he says. “As much time as you spend working together, that’s important.”

That means there are little things like a sophisticated sound system for music in the shop. But it also means taking the time to work with the individual needs of employees and groom them to be highly productive members of the team.

As an example, Ward proudly points to his finisher, who was actually homeless when he was first hired years ago. Ward helped the man turn his life around, and now he adds tremendous value to the company’s products through expert finishing and custom carving skills.

A matter of control 

While Ward outsources doors from CalDoor and drawer boxes from Hardware Resources, he mostly likes to keep as much production as possible in house. He recently added a U.S. Concepts radius arch moulder to be able to easily produce curved mouldings. “I want complete control over manufacturing,” he says.

One area where the shop takes control is in machine maintenance and repair. While Ward lauds the tech support he has gotten from Holz-Her, he believes it is primarily the shop’s responsibility to maintain equipment.

“If you really want to be in this business, you have to have the ability to fix your own machines,” says Ward. “We know the machines inside and out now.”

New generation 

Currently, Ward is in the process of grooming his two sons Eric and Bryan to run the business. Kevin Ward says it is important that the business continually improves and adapts to change as needed.

“My business goal is to create a perpetual motion machine,” he says. “It’s like creating some kind of life form.”

Eric echoes those sentiments and emphasizes how important it is to constantly make improvements and involve the entire team for maximum efficiency. He cites current plans to reorganize parts of the shop while still maintaining production.

“It’s like trying to repair an airplane while you’re flying it,” he says.

Community service and networking 

While many Florida shops have been especially hard hit by the recession, A Ward Design is keeping busy. Part of the company’s secret is a commitment to community service and networking.

The company is active in community fundraisers and charity events. The shop has donating products and services, such as signage. And employees have pitched in at events. They are especially involved with the Boys and Girls Club and built a giant piggy bank to collect donations at a major fund-raising event. They also built cabinetry for a reception area at the Boys and Girls Club.

On the trade side, Ward is active in the Cabinet Makers Association and gives talks on automation for custom shops. He is slated to speak as part of the next CabinetMakerFDM Woodworking Business E-vent.

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