Sometimes the process is the tool
October 31, 2023 | 3:16 pm CDT
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Will Sampson is the Editorial Director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine. He is a lifelong woodworker and fan of entrepreneurial ingenuity.

There is a paradigm shift going on in professional woodworking. For years people have been focused on making machines go faster and more accurately. Now, many people are realizing that more time is lost in what goes on between the machines than while parts are being machined.

It’s kind of like the expression, “slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” often attributed to the U.S. Navy SEALs. The idea is to practice a process slowly until it is perfectly smooth and flawless, and then it will become fast. This is better than focusing on the speed from the beginning because that way does not help build crucial fundamentals.

In woodworking, for years we have focused on faster and more automated machinery to pump out parts in less time. But what happens to those parts? Often, they wind up piled on carts or stacked, awaiting sorting or moving to other machines and processes. Too often all the time saved on the machine can be lost to the processes that surround it. But more visionary people in the industry are seeing this disconnect and working to change it. Finally, material handling has become sexy.

When CNC routers were new in woodworking and nesting was just catching on, somebody told me the real secret benefit of nested-based CNC manufacturing was not in how fast the parts were cut, but in how little the parts had to be handled. But sometimes efficient nesting for better yield was the enemy of efficient material handling as parts for one cabinet might be spread between multiple sheets of material.

Today, software driven manufacturing execution systems (MES) combined with sophisticated material handling are literally making short work of what happens between each machine or process and making it possible to do one-off custom work as fast and efficiently as a whole bunch of repetitive identical pieces, parts, or projects.

Software can keep track of all the parts in a process, making sure they are all correctly processed no matter when they show up on whatever machine they go through. They also can be automatically shunted off to a buffer or storage unit to temporarily wait for their turn in the process. Then, when that time comes, they are seamlessly slipped in line where they are needed. Parts that go together can be stacked together automatically by robots right before assembly.

Even in manual operations, there are more material handling solutions coming to the forefront to address what happens to speed parts along in the process. Maybe you don’t have the money or space for a big, automated storage and retrieval system. But new ways of processing and moving parts could dramatically change how those parts flow through your operation.

Don’t overlook things like how often you are touching, moving, or sorting parts. What can you do to speed up that operation and eliminate wasted time and space? Slow down, make it smooth, then go fast.

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.