Building cabinets was a slow and tedious process for Kevin Hughes, owner of Kevin G. Hughes Inc., Lake Villa, Ill. Drawings were done by hand and minor changes equaled big headaches. Keeping track of reams of cut lists and guesstimating how much material to order wasn't efficient or accurate.

A CNC router, design software and a new manufacturing approach were definitely under consideration to speed up production and reduce bottlenecks. But the timing had to be right.

To be competitive, Hughes first had to solve several bottlenecks. "Our biggest problem was making the boxes accurately and getting a project's cut lists in order," says Hughes. "We needed quick access to measurements and other information, such as door specifications and if we were making or ordering them. I wanted to get away from cutting pieces to fit to cutting pieces to specification.

"We would manually cut all our sheet goods, make the face frames first and fit the cabinet sides to the frames and then make all the joinery by hand," says Hughes, "If we needed to cut more parts or remake anything all other production stopped."

As the shop's backlog grew, Hughes tried different construction methods to speed up the production process. "For some pieces, we tried pocket holes but I felt it wasn't as strong as classic dado joinery," says Hughes. "I thought about hiring another person but it's expensive and may not increase production."

Investing in technology

The router and design software had been on Hughes's wish list for the past three years. "I felt we now had enough work to support adding new equipment to our overheard," says Hughes. In September 2007 he purchased a C.R. Onsrud router and customized software from Planit Solutions.

"We spent three to four weeks altering the shop and learning how to use the machine," says Hughes. "Everything is laid out around the router. The shop is set up so pieces are cut on the router and assembled in a separate room to keep it working."

Reams of cut lists and tattered folders are a distant memory. All information is stored in one database and is easy to access. "In a matter of seconds, I know if a job has been measured, when it's due, if a deposit was collected and when we need to start work," says Hughes. "All changes are made instantly and drawings take a few minutes." If a customer can't picture how a room will look, Hughes can auto fill it and show them different options. He can then print the different layouts to aid customers in the decision process.

Quicker turnaround

The shop can now complete jobs in a week that would have taken a month or more. Information is entered into the software, and panel sizes and material requirements are sent to the router. "The software breaks down all designs into parts, so I have all of a project's cut lists on demand," says Hughes. "For any project we generate lists for face frames and doors, outsourcing, assembly and hardware."

The system allows Hughes to stop obsessing over cut lists and order supplies on a just-in-time basis. "We've verified the system and order a couple hundred or thousand dollars worth of product, and I know it's exactly what we need. In the past, we would get to a point, gather all the information for the next phase and place an order. If I forgot anything, the project would be delayed."

Because the software is linked to the router, Hughes has been able to bring doors and carvings in-house. The shop is making approximately 70 percent of its doors because less time is spent on casework. "I never felt comfortable designing a piece of custom furniture and then handing customers a catalog to pick out carvings or doors," says Hughes. "Now the only components we outsource are drawers, because they're really expensive for us to make."

Outsourcing carvings also created special headaches for Hughes. "Some of the carvings are clumsy looking when applied to a piece of custom furniture," he says. After adding the router, Hughes can create a finished carving in about an hour. "After the carving is taken off the router, it's cleaned up by hand because the machine can only do round inside corners," he says. "The handwork takes about 15 minutes and provides me with a custom carving that fits perfectly into a design."

Optimizing production

Hughes constructs his cabinets using blind dado joinery, a method most shops don't use anymore. Cabinets interlock and are screwed together for added strength and longevity. "For many of my projects, customers want me to model cabinets based on old solid wood pieces," says Hughes. "The only way you can tell the difference between the new cabinet and the old one is that we use sheet good materials for the backing instead of solid wood."

To duplicate old world construction without all the labor, Planit wrote custom software to create special grooves as the router cuts cabinet components. "It takes a little more time on the router and is harder on the tooling, but the cabinets are strong and assemble quickly," he says.

All pieces are drilled, joined, cut-to-size and are perfectly square. "Most cabinets can be assembled in 10 minutes versus 35 to 40 minutes," says Hughes. "If we drop a side and dent the corner, another piece can be quickly cut. The grooves eliminate any confusion because cabinets go together like a big puzzle."

Working smarter

After solving several production bottlenecks, Hughes is turning his attention to appropriate scheduling and better customer service. "Even though we can do more, we have to schedule appropriately to keep production running smoothly," says Hughes.

The shop now has weekly meetings for scheduling, which requires Hughes to be more aggressive in closing sales and getting design work out to customers.

"Now that I'm comfortable with the new system, I can take time to make calls and let customers know where a project is at," says Hughes. "I haven't really focused on the office side of the business. I need to get it as efficient as production. I don't want production to slow down or stop, because I didn't get my office work done."

Instead of hiring more people, Hughes is focused on getting everyone to work better together and further refining production processes.

"The router and software is changing the business's infrastructure," says Hughes. "It's a major growth experience and the evolution never stops."

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