By some accounts, panel processing in Europe is 10 or 15 years ahead of North American manufacturing. The 2000 Homag Group Tour of Technology, organized by Homag Group and Stiles Machinery, Inc., sought to bridge that gap a bit.

In late October, 30 representatives of furniture and cabinet manufacturers, architectural millwork and component makers met in Barcelona, Spain, to spend one week touring five Spanish and two German plants, and to see the Homag and Holzma factories in Germany. This writer took part in the tour, and was able to see an interesting variety of equipment and methods. The good-natured group was easy company, making the busy travel schedule more enjoyable. Despite the full schedule, there was time for a tour of Barcelona, seeing flamenco dancing up close, cuckoo clock shopping, some memorable dining experiences and even a drink or two.

The tour was intended to provide examples of technology that could be used in North America - not highly specialized, too-costly equipment. Participants on the tour typically wanted to achieve a higher level of automation, handle reduced batch sizes or make changes in their plant layout. (For information on future tours, contact Stiles Machinery at 616/698-7500).

What did they see? More advanced material handling, machines linked together for more rapid processing and individual machines that do many things at once.

Tour participants were also interested in salaries and the number of shifts used (generally one, although some companies had additional employees operating key equipment or performing other functions after hours). Some plants in Spain offered fairly low wages, while some German plants offered pay comparable to or above prevailing wages in the United States. The tax bite in Europe is large, however, often about half of gross pay. Workers in Germany tend to be much better trained (largely the result of apprentice programs offered by many companies), more skilled, motivated and loyal to employers.

Differences in safety standards were noticed by just about everyone. Eye protection, for example, was absent in all but a few places.

Seeing new technology  

Specifically, those on the tour wanted to see new technology and ideas they might be able to use back home.

"We came to see European technology," said Chris Ward, industrial engineering manager, Century Furniture Industries, Hickory, N.C., a 1,700-employee manufacturer of high-end residential furniture. "One of our goals is to reduce lot sizes and do even smaller batch sizes."

"I came to look at new technology, especially material handling before, and between, machines," said Clay Smith, president and owner of 700-employee Royal Cabinets, a face frame and frameless cabinet manufacturer based in Pomona, Calif.

"We manufacture European frameless cabinets, and we wanted to see how far we were from what they do in Europe," said Jim Mullen, manager, plant projects and maintenance, Ultracraft Co., Liberty, N.C., a 230-employee maker of kitchen cabinets.

"We're expanding our components manufacturing capability, so I was interested in what they're doing in Europe," said Lynn Brandon, vice president of operations, Patrick Industries in Elkhart, Ind. Patrick has 1,600 employees in a number of locations, making components and other products, and offering custom laminating. "It's always interesting to go through plants in Europe. You'll always see something of benefit."

"I'm looking at innovations in how the plants operate," said Eric Peterson, president of New World Millworks Inc., a Sedalia, Colo., architectural millwork producer with 90 employees. "In Colorado we run small batch sizes. I'm looking for connection with in-line processing and manufacturing, blending those things together."

Advantage: Europe  

There was general agreement that in most areas woodworking in Europe was more advanced than in North America.

"Europe is probably 10 years ahead of us," Smith said. "There are many more operations done with each machine."

Brandon said that operations in Europe are state-of-the-art, and there are more 32mm operations.

"They seem to standardize here so they can make larger batch sizes," Peterson observed. "In the U.S., as an architectural woodworking company, we cater to each architect. Also, there seems to be a good work ethic in Europe, both in management and the workforce."

"European furniture is completely different," Brandon said. "It's all square-type flatline products. In the U.S. there are many more styles. Because they're more specialized they've progressed into CNC. There are more operations in one workcell. They have the production to do it."

Material handling, as expected, was of considerable interest.

"They invest a lot more money into material handling," Mullen said. "We have a driver and forklift, they have a stacker. [Meanwhile], we're drying up our labor supply."

"They will automate everything possible, while American companies add labor," Ward observed.

"We saw a lot of small innovations and efficiencies, especially in material handling," Peterson said.

"The European plants we saw were also a lot cleaner," Mullen said. "We keep a clean plant - but not to this level. Also, the aisles were well laid out and marked."

Starting in Spain  

The first stop on the tour was Mobel Linea in the Spanish city of Cervera. This company makes wood office furniture using panel processing equipment linked together. The process here starts with 7 x 18 foot panels, a common size in Europe. These are cut on a Holzma HFL 33 panel saw. A Bargstedt TBH22 stacker is linked to two double-sided Homag KF 20 edgebanders. Next in line is a Bargstedt panel feeder.

According to Homag, the linking of panel feeders and edgebanders in a Power line configuration results in 50 percent more production at 20 percent higher cost. Other equipment at Mobel Linea includes a Homag BAZ 20 two-spindle, laser-positioned CNC router and Homag through-feed edgebander, Biesse through-feed boring machines and two Homag KF edgebanders.

Mobel Linea does not use conveyors with its machines, and maintains a large stock area adjacent to its assembly and shipping functions. About 25 percent of finished product is assembled.

Office furniture and kitchen cabinet maker Masco Mobiliario also has a Holzma HFL 33 panel saw, Bargstedt panel feeder and one double-sided Homag KF 20 edgebander in a Power line configuration, used for PVC edgebanding. The Vic, Spain, company, part of the Masco Group, also has a Bargstedt stacking machine preceded by a cleaning station, Homag BAZ single-spindle CNC router, Morbidelli Author 600 CNC machining center with Tomassini handling equipment, and Biesse 325/L boring machine with Biesse RBO handling equipment.

In a separate building used for cabinet assembly, Masco has a Homag Optimat edgebander, Biele and Tomassini handling equipment and Alberti boring equipment.

The second day of the tour opened at Rafael Ruiz Garrido, a maker of kitchen cabinets near Valls, Spain. This company, the smallest on the tour, faces the challenge of small batch sizes, fast changeovers and all custom work. The firm makes 200 kitchens a month with a Holzma Optimat HPL 11 rear-loading panel saw. A Homag edgebander and unusually configured B.RE.MA vertical point-to-point machine are also used here. Four people in the assembly department can typically put together a single cabinet in one minute, with 15 to 20 cabinets used in a typical kitchen here.

RTA bedroom and kitchen furniture is the product at Fores Diseno in Calig, Spain. Production begins on an angular Giben saw and stacking system. Cut pieces go to one of several edgebanding lines, including a Homag edgebander for thin edges, used with a Biesse RBO panel feeder, and a Gabbiani double-sided edgebanding line. A Homag double-end tenoner is set up at right angles to the Homag edgebander to tenon edges not banded. A Weeke BST 100 is used for small batch sizes and quick setup and is connected to a feeder and stacker. Everything on the Weeke, feeder and stacker is set up from a barcode generated in the office.

Fores Diseno's 100 employees use conveyors to good effect and operate two shifts. No assembly is done here, and an expansion of the 110,000-square-foot plant is planned.

After dodging the effects of flooding in the Valencia area, the group visited Tableros Levante S.A. (Talesa) in Alcira. Here, 100 employees make veneered cut-to-size components. Operations are divided into three functions: preparing veneer, cutting boards and making the components.

First, veneer sheets are cut to length, then cut to width. Stitching machines and a Kuper veneer gluing machine are used. A Barberan laminating line is used with Biele handling equipment. A March veneer press is used for applying paper laminate to smaller individual pieces.

Talesa has a Holzma HFL 33 angular saw for 18-foot rip and 7-foot crosscut and offstacking capabilities. A Giben saw is also used for panel cutting.

A Homag Genius twin-spindle CNC processing center offers edgebanding, trimming and boring with a metal vacuum table. Veneered pieces are put through two double-end tenoners, a Gabbiani SAG and Gabbiani TMK, for final dimension and cutting of laminate overhang. The final step is sanding the top and bottom with sanders connected to each double-end tenoner. The company also has a Biesse Rover 30 router, and Biesse Techno Logic through-feed boring machines. Talesa's customers do their own edgebanding.

Made in Germany  

After flying from Valencia to Frankfurt, Germany, and spending a night in Heidelberg, the tour shifted to Germany. Undoubtedly one of the highlights of the tour was Scharf Buromobel GmbH in Worms, Germany, and its large, well-equipped plant built in 1970. The company's 265 employees at this plant work a 35-hour work week, and an agreement with the union allows the work week to run from 30 to 45 hours, depending on work to be done. The largest machines work on two shifts.

Scharf makes high quality office furniture designed for a flexible environment, including work stations and movable "space boxes." A large showroom on site displays a variety of the company's office furniture.
In the plant, sawing capability is provided by two Holzma panel saws, one an HPP 11. A large Bargstedt storage/retrieval system is used for large sheets.
Scharf has three IMA Bima 1000 machining centers, three Bima 810 machining centers, and three IMA MAW-Nottmeyer boring machines. There are a number of Homag and IMA edgebanders. All woodworking is done in house and metal components are outsourced.

Postforming capability starts with an IMA Torwegge double-end tenoner and Burkle postforming machine with automatic offstacking. Scharf emphasizes automatic feeding and stacking, but doesn't generally have stackers at the end of a line so people can inspect the material and stop the line if necessary.

Veneer and edgebanding material are stored in a separate humidity-controlled room. An IMA veneer line applies veneer to boards, which are then sanded on a Venjakob finishing line.
Scharf measures and establishes standards for each area of the plant, such as setup time, safety and output. The first goal is a safe and clean work area - much importance is placed on cleanliness here. Managers' offices are right on the plant floor so they can interact with other departments. About 80 to 85 percent of employees are part of work teams.

High volume is the emphasis at Nolte Mobel, the other German wood products plant on the tour. The company's 950 employees make 350 tons of bedroom furniture a day. Some 20,000 pieces are cut to size each day, and 3,000 to 3,500 units are produced. At the Germersheim, Germany, site several buildings are more than a quarter-mile long.

Nolte Mobel operates two shifts, with several departments on three shifts. Product is made for storage, then removed from storage for customizing. Orders are entered for each shift.
Space is tight in the plant, with much Bargstedt handling equipment linking machines. Here are a Bargstedt panel feeder, Holzma panel saw, Homag KF 63 edgebander, Weeke drilling and hardware inserter, and Priess-Horstmann panel feeder.

Melamine laminating is performed in a high-volume, highly automated new (built in 1999) particleboard plant in a separate building. Equipment includes a Wemhoener-Dieffenbacher laminating line and a large Holzma HFV 66 vacuum-fed panel saw capable of cutting large quantities of stacked 6.7 x 2.7 meter panels. The destacker has six lift stations, and a strapping machine bundles cut material.

Homag and Holzma  

After seeing edgebanders, panel saws and CNC routers in action, the tour wound up by seeing how those same machines are made, with visits to Homag and Holzma. At the Homag plant in Schopfloch, the tour saw the large assembly areas for edgebanders and CNC equipment, and they saw a demonstration of two machines. First, the Homag BAZ 220 CNC router was put through its paces. This machine has a gantry crane, twin spindles with tool changers, edgebanding unit, large vacuum work tables and a new controller.

A demonstration of the Power line edgebanding configuration featured a new development called "I tooling," which is designed to guide chips into vacuum holes.

In nearby Holzbronn, the tour visited the Holzma headquarters and factory. After learning about the company and region, the tour saw the plant that produces about 500 panel saws a year, seeing how saws are made, from start to finish. After seeing all of the wood plants, it was interesting to see the metal cutting, sawing, grinding and milling of steel bar, plate, castings and complex aluminum extrusions.

At Holzma the HFV 33 panel saw with board handling and off-stacker was demonstrated, and the HPL 23 was shown, which has a table that separates from the rest of the machine to accommodate rip and crosscutting.

High tech highlights  

For Clay Smith, Scharf was a highlight of the tour.

"I was very impressed with the way their plant was laid out - there was no wasted motion," he said. "They were probably the most high tech."

"At Scharf, I was very impressed with the work teams and how they depended on them to be self-managing," Eric Peterson said. "The teams made their own schedules and recommendations."

Jim Mullen also liked the idea of having combined offices right on the shop floor, as done at Scharf, to get management together daily.

"I was impressed with the variety of CNC equipment, and the combination lines, like Power line, where they have the volume," Lynn Brandon said.

"I was impressed with the ability of Stiles and Homag to sell a whole manufacturing system, not just a machine," Chris Ward said. "They can recommend and engineer an entire system."

All participants had an open mind and a willingness to look at different ways of doing things. So watch for more technology on this side of the Atlantic.

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