Going from screen to machine
June 30, 2010 | 7:00 pm CDT

Processing the details for woodwork from screen to machine, I have heard it said on many an occasion, is the Holy Grail of getting the work done efficiently. There is no question about it, and many have been pursuing the quest to satisfy this very desirable task.

Compare this quest to what has gone before. I have seen work processing 30 years ago for a large manufacturer producing RTA furniture, with that side of the operation run by just two individuals. The company had product lines exceeding 6,000 different products and many more components. It was not screen to machine, but it was highly efficient never the less. Those were the days of large volumes and double-enders and such like. But today, the company is no more.

Custom vs. standard 

Screen to machine work processing for primarily standard product with modular construction details works well and is in place today in many organizations. However, when looking at custom products, whether modular or not, the story is a different one.

By comparison, my experience with a major closet company for almost a decade shows the quest for the Holy Grail is far from over. To elaborate, screen to machine has to be defined for this particular kind of business. Here the quest is to generate custom designs using a tool that is extremely user friendly while allowing a great amount of flexibility. Most often a custom layout must be done in a short time – sometimes even while the customer is watching. Once it is done, the expectation is that the manufacturing data is spontaneously created.

But from my experience even a program that appears to satisfy most parameters outlined on the front end will need endless modifications to do the bidding of the market. Remember, I am talking about custom closets and other pieces of household furniture, where the data is primarily generated by a sales tool.

In the architectural arena 

The criterion regarding customization stated is similar with much of the architectural contract work engaged in. Here is the difference; the work processing is done by engineers and AutoCAD operators. A totally different skill set is present here. I am also not suggesting that the work to be done is as simple by any means compared with closets and such like.

Achieving efficient screen to machine production here requires different answers. The design of contract work is done by others, and it remains with the supplier to evaluate how best to process the given information and generate data for manufacturing purposes.

Evaluate software carefully 

There is software on the market that will satisfy in-house processing of data and achieve the desired screen-to-machine effect. I am not going to tout any product in particular here, but a careful evaluation should be made of any available software. Consider your special needs, the available skill set, and to be sure, the price and final cost of getting it to do what is needed, including the costs of training and potential downtime before everything is running the way it should.

When the question is posed to me, my first recommendation is always to start cautiously by looking at the parts that need to be produced, rather than the finished product. Part drawings can be exported to layered .dxf files and read by all CNC machines. Part drawings are parametric and thus highly suitable for customization.

What is a piece of furniture after all if not the sum of its parts, or if you prefer, more.

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About the author
Gero Sassenberg

Gero Sassenberg has decades of experience in the woodworking industry on three continents, specialized in management and engineering consulting to cabinet and furniture manufacturers. He focuses on continuous improvement resulting in greater growth and profitability. He was a regular contributor to CabinetMaker and CabinetMakerFDM for many years.