When J.R. Stephens moved into a new building in 2004, it started with a clean slate and all new equipment.

"We consider ourselves a mid-sized company that provides full service," says company president Jim Stephens. "Among mid-size architectural millwork producers we've been told we're one of the most automated."

Doing both the millwork and casework has given the Arcata, Calif., company an edge compared to competitors in the area that concentrate strictly on casegoods.

"It gives us the opportunity to bid the job and keep everything in-house," Stephens says. "We're doing a lot of cabinets, but we're also doing more custom work. That gives us an advantage over others, if they don't have the capacity to do the custom work."

Stephens' primary focus is architectural casework and millwork, such as courthouses, medical centers, schools and libraries primarily in the Bay Area, Sacramento and northern California. The company recently completed a large project for Stanford University, including cabinets and architectural millwork for lobbies, waiting area, administration and the medical center.

"We do mainly public works projects, and it's open bid," Stephens says. "We have good relationships with several dozen general contractors, and they will list us even if we're not the lowest bid."

Jim Stephens moved to the area from southern California as a journeyman cabinetmaker and started his own company in 1979 and built up the business from a two-car garage. The company grew slowly, as a broker, at first outsourcing all of its work, but is now the largest millwork producer in the county.

New saw technology

Productivity got a boost when a Selco EBTR120 Twin Pusher replaced a three-year-old Selco EB100 front-load saw.

"When we purchased the line of equipment from Biesse, we oversized our CNC machining center, edgebander and case clamp," Stephens says.

"We figured the saw would be our first bottleneck, but our CNC machine became our bottleneck. We bought a Rover 24 that would do end panels and all custom routing, and the more custom work we did the more the Rover got tied up." A Skipper was purchased to handle casegoods line boring, and that made the Selco EB100 saw the new bottleneck. Stephens looked at several saws before purchasing the Twin Pusher displayed by Biesse at IWF in 2006.

The EBTR120 Twin Pusher features two independent cutting stations on the same beam saw. The two pushers are automatically controlled according to cutting pattern, so the grippers are opened or closed in the needed work areas.

The saw can crosscut two strips with different lengths at the same time and crosscut a headcut (four-foot wide dimension on a 4 x 8 foot panel) panel while ripping the main panel. It can also load from the lift table and align the stack as it completes the cross cutting.

"We have the side loader so that once you put a unit on the side, it automatically loads the saw," Stephens says. "The saw can cut up to five sheets of 3/4-inch thick panel at a time."

It squares up the boards, brings them forward and if they need to be rotated for a headcut, it will automatically pick the stack, rotate it to a four-foot section, bring it forward and cut.

"Let's say you had a 4 x 8 sheet that needed two 12-inch rips off the end that were four feet wide, and then needed four 12-inch rips that were six feet long," says Stephens. "On a traditional saw you would have to head cut it, and then you'd have to pull the whole thing forward and turn it around and put the stack in and crosscut the six-foot pieces.

"This machine will bring in the eight footer one way, then rotate it, and send it forward, and take the two cuts. It will pull the panel back, rotate it again, and while you're taking the two pieces over for crosscutting, it will bring the panel forward, and as it's crosscutting these four, it's grabbing the (first cuts), pulling them back and spinning those pieces out.

"It's like having two active saws," he says. "We've increased productivity four-fold. At certain times it gets so fast we have to put three people on the outfeed side. We have two label printers, all of our parts come out with label printing on 5/8 inch wide edge labels.

Arcata location

Stephens and the company's 42 employees started with a clean slate at the new Arcata location in 2004. "We had an empty 42,000-square-foot building that we set up a brand new manufacturing facility in," he says. "There's no equipment in the building that's older than 2004."

Stephens starts jobs with Pattern Systems Draw Power, and uses all of their modules to create shop drawings, which are pulled into Product Planner and DrillMate to produce parts. All CNC equipment is networked and bar coded.

The primary equipment investment is in the casegoods line, which allows the company to produce casegoods very efficiently using automation.

Workflow starts at the east end of the building, with material going to the EBTR120 saw, then to the Biesse Stream 9.5 edgebander with a Thomas return conveyor, through the Biesse Skipper, which was bought at the most recent AWFS Fair, to the Koch dowel inserter, to the door area and to the Comil CF2000 case clamp. The Rover 24XL large point to point is now used for custom applications and as backup for the Skipper.

Stephens says that material moves straight through the core of the building.

"We have roller conveyors and transfer carts through the entire plant, set at 24 inches high off the floor, so everything is ergonomic for our employees," he says.

The Arcata plant also has an SCM sliding table saw, three Blum Minipresses, a Felder sliding table saw and a Wulftec SP stretchwrap machine. Stephens does a lot of preassembly of interior components, and uses pressure-treated wood for the toe kicks.

Casegoods and custom

The Arcata location includes a solid surface division, custom shop, finish shop and metal shop. Those are more traditional, manual operations than the casegoods line. The custom shop has a large, open space to handle big and odd-sized projects. The metal shop includes welding, a shear, punches, and can make brackets, supports and seismic clips.

The solid surface division can do v-grooving and thermoforming, and has a v-grooving machine from M-Tech in Quebec, Pinske Edge thermoforming oven, two Striebig vertical saws and a Pro Miter 100 miter gauge from Salazar Solutions.

"We purchased as much equipment as we needed to do any solid surface job," Stephens says. "Our first project required more than 700 sheets.We're the only ones up here that have v-grooving capability. We also have a thermoforming oven, so we can do desks and curved pieces.

Outlook is positive

"Even though we do a lot of architectural millwork, our core line of work is casegoods. I don't see a drop off in that for quite a while. They built thousands of schools in California during the baby boom and they're all near the end of their life cycle.

"Right now we do not feel any threat from imports from China," Stephens says. "The architects specify the materials, colors and hardware. And we have to field measure and fit the product within the given window of time.

"We try to stay on top of all the latest developments," he adds. "We go to Atlanta and Las Vegas every year, even if we don't plan to purchase equipment, so we can keep up with the latest technology."

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