Versatile is more than just a name

Laminated board is exiting the press. 

Photo By Photo: Wendy Swenson Photography

At Versatile US, the Nunica, Michigan-based wood products manufacturer, the company’s name sums up its mission statement: “Adaptable solutions, material flexibility, manufacturing innovation, We’re Versatile.”

From bowling alleys to offices, retail shops to restaurants, children’s furniture to medical offices, Versatile products have had a presence.   
Since 1985, the company has made a habit of taking on jobs of all types. 

The wholly owned, debt-free company started as a dowel manufacturer, moving into displays and fixtures, becoming expert at solid wood machining and later panel processing and high-end laminate work. 

“It’s gotten to the point where we do quite a bit of different jobs, niche manufacturing, office furniture, architectural millwork, the list doesn’t stop,” said Jack Schroeder, company owner and vice president of sales. “Our philosophy has always been to do things that other people aren’t willing to do. We’ve made our business off of taking jobs that large manufacturers might find too small or too labor intensive or just too annoying.”

From bowling alleys to office furniture, Versatile US can produce a variety of laminated goods. Photo: Versatile US

Diversity of products requires manufacturing flexibility. Because of this, the company is constantly looking for ways to make their products more efficient, said Shawn VanLare, VP of operations.

“We invest heavily in technology, and we’re always looking to find automation,” said VanLare. “Every year, we’re spending close to half a million dollars on capital equipment, so we’re as capable as anybody in the country at our size. And that’s where ‘the line’ came in.” 

The line?
The line to which VanLare is referring is a newly redesigned laminate line that runs approximately 120 feet in length and allows the company to concurrently do both cold press and hot press lamination on the same production line. 

To be clear, Versatile is not new to laminating products. It has done so for a couple of decades, and they have become adept at making these goods and getting the most out of the laminating technology. 

What is new, however, is the more efficient method of production that has been installed.

Previously, Versatile US operated two separate laminating operations. 
In one area of the company’s 55,000-square-foot factory, they performed cold pressing. There, they manually built stacks of panels and shuttled them into the cold press where they were held until the glue dried. That could take a while. Bowling lanes, for instance, often had to sit in the press for an hour while the glue cured and the stack could be moved out of the machine before another stack could be cold-pressed.

That was in one area of their facility. In a separate area of the facility, was a hot press lamination line where they did single-sheet laminating of high-end components. 

That meant that they had two glue spreaders, two-panel feeders, and two layup stations. Wasted space. More labor requirements. Less product flow. 

With the help of their laminate equipment supplier, Evans Midwest/Choice Machinery Group based in Holland, Michigan, they combined the two lines into one line, said John Riggs, plant manager. 
In addition, Riggs said that they added a second, higher-capacity cold press and installed material handling equipment. Suddenly, he said, three presses were available for concurrent use. 

With this more orderly system, for instance, they could build a stack of boards up to 25 inches high for automatic transfer and uploading into the cold press, build a second stack for the second cold press, and then layup single sheets for conveyance into the hot press. 

Riggs, who was one of the company’s first employees, said that the two separate lines “took up twice the floor space as compared to what we are using now, and we were running it with double the number of people.”

He said that when two lines were in operation, five people manned the laminate line. “The cold press alone took three guys and now we can do it with two,” said Riggs.

“And,” added Schroeder, “Now, we have improved quality.”

VanLare said that this added production capacity is a big advantage. “It gives us the ability to run a lot of different products. We can run a couple of sheets of veneer, do a couple of ‘onsies and twosies’ and then we can build a big stack and send it right into the cold press. So, we can use all three presses at once, and we don’t have the changeovers and disruptions that we used to have.”

An automated laminate rack allows for accurate positioning of the material. Photo: Wendy Swenson Photography
A board is conveyed from the layup station to the laminate press. Photo: Wendy Swenson Photography

Material handling
The material handling devices integrated into the line included vacuum lifts, scissor tables and powered roller conveyors. With the devices, workers could move the panels and rarely have to touch the board.  

The devices make work simple: Vacuum cups grab a board from inventory and the worker can easily move it from inventory to the line. 

Scissor tables index boards to accurately position them. Conveyors automatically move the sheets to the appropriate press. 

The laminate line has eliminated many of the touch-points from the process. Photo: Wendy Swenson Photography

One example of how the new material handling capability has helped improve efficiency is when building stacks for the cold press. With the new configuration, Versatile’s laminate line utilizes indexable tables that accurately lift or lower the boards, so they are always at the right heights, always accurately positioned. 

An automated laminate rack brings the material closer to the worker and automatically delivers it to the board

The old way was, as Schroeder puts it, “quite the process.”

“It would take three guys,” he said. “They would have to catch the laminate, set it down, line it up, hold up another board and line that up. Lower the table or raise the table. Push the stack into the machine. 

Then, they would run around to the back of the machine and catch the stack as it came out.” 

Fewer touch points can also equate to better quality, said Schroeder. “With the new system, we’re not touching the board as much and so we’re not contaminating the glue as much as we did, we’re not getting contaminants in it compared to the old system.” 

Every time a board was touched they ran the risk of glue getting transferred to the wrong place on a panel. Too often, glue would flake off the panel and get into glue,  contaminating the adhesive and affecting the quality of the lamination. 

In addition, the previous system’s conveyor belt would roll up on itself and transfer glue to the back of the panel.

The new line has not only improved quality, it has reduced clean up time and saved labor, it has shortened process time. For instance, overall process time for the hot press was “probably six to seven minutes a sheet,” said VanLare. “Now, we are doing a couple of big runs right now and they are producing laminated panels about every two minutes.” ✚

Versatile US’ capabilities

Store Fixtures

  • JC Penny, Kohl’s, Urban Outfitters, Gap, Banana Republic, Disney

Panel Products

  • Laminates, particle board, veneers, MDF, plywood, solid surfaces, metals & acrylics

Juvenile & Adult Furniture

  • Spot on Square juvenile furniture
  • Lolly & Me for Target and Kohl’s

Solid Wood Products

  • Complete process from raw lumber to finished machining, moulding, edge & face gluing, CNC & boring

Fully Assembled Units/Casework

  • Store fixtures, furniture, displays, casework
  • Ship complete units for customer direct to end user
  • Restaurant
  • Healthcare
  • General casework
  • Retail
  • Education


  • Waterborne
  • Solvent based
  • Latex
  • Stains

Edge Banding

  • Contour
  • Straight Line
  • Veneer & solid wood edge banding

Custom millwork, Custom Architecture & Design services
Additional in-house capabilities

  • Layup line
  • Rough mill
  • In-house knife sharpening
  • CNC’s – nested based & pod and rail
  • FSC Certified: BV-COC-012533

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About the author
Larry Adams | Editor

Larry Adams is a Chicago-based writer and editor who writes about how things get done. A former wire service and community newspaper reporter, Larry is an award-winning writer with more than three decades of experience. In addition to writing about woodworking, he has covered science, metrology, metalworking, industrial design, quality control, imaging, Swiss and micromanufacturing . He was previously a Tabbie Award winner for his coverage of nano-based coatings technology for the automotive industry. Larry volunteers for the historic preservation group, the Kalo Foundation/Ianelli Studios, and the science-based group, Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST).