High-tech for high-end millwork

Eastern Millwork Inc. doesn’t make cabinets, or countertops, or staircases. It creates spaces—including memorable multi-story atriums and soaring theater interiors. Like the proverbial stonemason who isn’t cutting a stone but building a cathedral, the Jersey City, N.J.-based architectural millwork firm brings vision, artistry, business acumen, and technological knowhow to every project it undertakes.

When Andrew Campbell, then 21, founded the company 20 years ago, he quickly realized that even if he could compete on quality and speed, he would have trouble in the area of price.

“We are located in the New York metropolitan area. Everything is more expensive here—power, real estate, labor,” he explains. “We had to do something to change this part of our dynamic.”

The answer came during a Stiles tech tour in Europe. Campbell says, “What I saw in Germany in 1998 was an entirely different use of manpower. Virtually all workers there possessed the knowledge and sensibility of traditional cabinetmakers, but they also had a true understanding and appreciation of modern technology.”

With the help of a consultant, Eberhard Reyer, the young entrepreneur recruited two engineers from Germany. One went home early on, but the other, Marko Herzig, stayed and is currently EMI’s plant manager.

Additional talent was lured from Europe to supplement a number of young and able American workers, so that today the firm boasts a workforce with a decidedly international flavor. At some point, Campbell found that he no longer had to go as far to find good people. “Heiko Sieling, our chief estimator, is from Germany, but he sought us out instead of the other way around,” says the owner.

Campbell says that once the new employees were in place, EMI rapidly embraced a new approach to business in general and production in particular. “We became determined to use technological solutions wherever we could in order to streamline our plant and make our operation as lean and efficient as possible.”

High-velocity manufacturing 

Campbell says he was intrigued by the concept of “high-velocity manufacturing,” as espoused by consultant Dave C. Grubb. HVM calls for a short cycle time—the time between the moment an order comes in and the fulfillment of that order.

The faster jobs are done, the less material remains in static inventory. Minimizing work in progress (WIP) translates into big savings, Campbell says. “When there is lots of WIP in a big factory, that work is sucking away production time. It’s a waste of human capital,” he says.

To eliminate this waste and maintain a smooth workflow, Campbell says EMI makes extensive use of AutoCAD and other 3D design software systems.

The company’s management team also is high on BIM, or building information modeling. EMI literature states, “The use of BIM is revolutionizing the construction process by reducing the repetitive development and deployment of information. Using Trimble’s RTS robotic total station we are able to upload existing building conditions and more precisely lay out installations. Recently, we upgraded our computer systems with AutoCAD 2012, further expanding our three-dimensional capabilities.”

One million and counting 

EMI estimates that a large remodeling job could involve a million or more parts. This is even more than you’d find in a 747 jetliner. “That’s the nature of the full custom work we do,” says Campbell.

To get the job done, he says, EMI uses versatile software packages not just for design work but to guide computer-controlled gear to move and machine the parts.

Featured equipment at the Jersey City plant includes the following:

•Bargstedt automatic storage and retrieval system to robotically store and collate materials for all automated manufacturing operations.

•Homag HPL 380 saw with a production capacity of 300 panels per shift and featuring automatic delivery through a rear load feed system.

•WeHomag KAL310 PC-based fiber optic controlled multi-function machine that mills all edge surfaces, preheats the board, and applies a wood edge with thermally activated adhesive.

•eke BHP200 CNC flat panel nesting machine with self-loading functionality, automatic spoil removal and outfeeding to the machine operator.

•Weeke ABD 100 robotic dowel shooter.

•A custom carting system to manage the flow of fabricated parts (every cart is labeled by work order number and built for a specific production route, thus eliminating redundant handling).

In one procedure, the Weeke flat-table machining center is used to cut components to size, optimizing board use and minimizing labor to the point where no human hands are involved until it time is to apply labels to the finished parts.

EMI’s owner says large-scale professional woodworkers are always chasing cheaper labor—historically to the Midwest and South, Mexico, Canada and China, and more recently to Vietnam and Indonesia. But, he adds, “No matter how cheap labor may go, it can never beat no labor at all.”

Tracking like FedEx 

In Campbell’s view, controlling parts is the most critical operation EMI performs. This has led the company to develop a proprietary information management system residing on Symbol Technologies handheld devices with a built-in barcode scanner.

Each part is labeled, and barcodes transfer the fabrication information between machines and
 functions. Once the machined parts are assembled, each is given a new product label with a barcode that continues the tracking through to installation. All production functions are also tracked electronically: by operator ID; by the type of operation; and by an assigned work order number.

Campbell says, “We extended this to our field operations as well, all on the Symbol platform. It is this advanced system that allows us to maintain tight control over the production and project schedules. This information also is available to our clients. In the near future, he says, Web-based platforms will allow the tracking of our work as you would a FedEx package.”

New home beckons 

Home to EMI is a 40,000-square-foot, multistory building in Jersey City. The woodworking company shares the property with a trucking company, and, as a result, the large parking lot is pockmarked with enough cracks and potholes to resemble a minefield. If there were no other reason, it would not be surprising that the firm is planning to move in the near future to a renovated location in nearby Bayonne.

But EMI does have other reasons. According to Campbell, it will gain about 10,000 square feet of production space and be able to consolidate more of its operations on one level. Most important, he says, “The new space is more conducive to our ongoing use of technology.”

The owner explains, “At the moment, we have production pretty much where we want it, but we can do better with integrating all the steps and putting them into sequence. We are specifically targeting materials handling and finishing.”

In addition, Campbell implies, EMI is not just positioning itself for better performance today, but to be ready for technological advances that are still on drawing boards or percolating in some innovator’s head.

And—even though the firm always is looking for ways to save labor—it will be taking on a few new workers, which will bring its total force up to about 60. As always, the company will be looking for candidates with superior talent and a desire to learn.

One new wrinkle, says Campbell: “We used to seek people who knew about wood, and we would teach them about technology. Now we are recruiting people who know and understand technology, and we will teach them about wood.”

The owner thinks his firm has something of an inside track for signing up top individuals. “We’re in a vibrant urban area, within minutes of New York City, the world’s greatest cultural center. We’re easily accessible by mass transportation, and we’re working with cutting-edge concepts, including automation and robotics. All this contributes to make EMI a highly desirable workplace.”

The company’s sales volume this year is projected at about $14 million, up from $13 million in 2011. Nevertheless, volume alone is not the goal, says Campbell. “We want interesting, profitable projects. We don’t place a lot of bids, but we will always go after a job where we can bring more value than anyone else.”

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About the author
Alan Richman

Alan Richman, former editor of Wood Digest and Cabinet Manufacturing & Fabricating, is a New Jersey-based freelance writer specializing in the woodworking industry. He has been a contributor to CabinetMaker and CabinetMakerFDM since 2007. Contact him at [email protected].