New age brackets are growing as a percentage of the wood industry workforce: those in their sixties and even seventies, and those in their twenties. 

“For the first time in modern history, the manufacturing industry consists of four different generations spanning over almost 70 years,” says Thomas Allott, manager of of Stiles University, a training center for machine operators. 

For both groups, technologies are being added that can radically alter working conditions – for the better. For the older generation, whose joints are aging as well, there are exoskeletons - bionic suits that displaced workloads or give a pneumatic assist in during load lifts, or while wielding heavy tools.

For the younger generation, there are intuitive computer production interfaces, that can guide newer workers, bringing them up to speed more aptly than a line supervisor shouting above the din on a cabinetmaking line. These include improved graphical user interfaces on individual machines, as well as plant floor control systems - known as Manufacturing Execution Systems, or MES for short, that network the individual work cells together. 

But an added benefit: the systems can also coach less-experienced workers step-by-step through parts assembly or hardware insertion. In some cases, younger workers may even be more comfortable getting guidance from a familiar source, a video screens, rather than a supervisor, who can sometimes be gruff. In the case of the Production Coach from RSA, the MES draws 3D views from the same CAD/CAM design files that drive the CNC machining center, showing the worker exactly what to do at his workcell and specific step of the job workflow.   

Work Cell Manufacturing Execution System

WB Mfg.'s Cabinet Division began using a Manufacturing Execution System to optimize plant floor production way back in 2005, when it was known as Wisconsin Bench.

Nearly 15 years later, the company has expanded the use of its MES system. Now the majority of the nearly 5,000 parts processed daily in one workcell section of its 250,000 sq.ft. plant, move into and through production with no paper trail or human intervention in the process management - other than barcode printing and scanning.

WB Mfg.'s operation had been described variously as an example of Industry 4.0, an Automated Work Cell, or Batch 1 production. But the enabling technology does have a precise name: a Manufacturing Execution System, or MES for short.

So what is an MES? In industries other than the wood products sector, the concept of the Manufacturing Execution System has been around since the 1990s. But in recent years, driven by labor shortages, and enabled by more automated machining systems, Manufacturing Execution Systems have been picked up by wood manufacturing firms. Examples range from smaller businesses like Muskoka Cabinets in Ottawa; or garage cabinetry firm Monkey Bar Storage Systems, in Rexburg, Idaho; to mammoth firms like American Woodmark, among dozens of others.

Often mislabeled as an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, the Manufacturing Execution System has a much more distinct purpose: it is aimed specifically at integrating data that drives and manages plant floor manufacturing.

As the name suggests, a Manufacturing Execution System concentrates its usefulness on production, serving as the link between the CAD/CAM design systems, and the delivery of information about work in progress and work completed to the ERP above it. Unlike an ERP, the MES tracks all the individual components comprising a cabinetry or furniture project

An MES updates job status of individual parts (including outsourced hardware and components). It also tracks cabinets and entire projects at each step along the way, through shipping. It is even possible to run an MES, and skip the ERP. Some managers feel they get more bang for the buck by concentrating data efforts in manufacturing instead of trying to write the entire business.


 In the case of American Woodmark, as well as Muskoka Cabinets (shown at left), the manufacturing system was developed internally, and it relies on RFID codes embedded into individual parts.

At Monkey Bar Storage Systems, which operates two 32,000 sq.ft. plants, the MES application is called Production Coach, distributed and implemented in the U.S. by RSA. WB Mfg. uses 2020 Insight, which has been continuously developed and was relaunched at IWF 2018.

Detailing their uses of a Manufacturing Execution System at EBC 2019 will be Kent Barby, Cabinet Div. Manager, Wisconsin Bench. Barby will travel to San Jose for the 2019 Executive Briefing Conference in San Jose in April, and provide a snapshot of the WB Mfg. application of 2020 Insight. He will be joined by Henry Nisiobincki of  American Woodwork, and Kris Nielson, CEO of Monkey Bar Storage Systems and the three will recount their experiences using Manufacturing Execution Systems at their firms.

Powerlifters: Exoskeletons spare joints  

As the working population ages, factories around the country are giving their workers a boost with exoskeletons, wearable devices that use springs and pulleys to assist in handling heavy loads.

Exoskeletons help carry weight that a single individual might not be able to handle; or assist in awkward lift angles that present risk of injury; as well as repetitive movement such as unloading a skid and moving stacks of panel.

The exoskeleton contains a frame that goes around a user’s body or part of the user’s body. The frame is sometimes made out of a hard material, such as metal, and sometimes out of soft material, such as special kinds of fabric. Some exoskeletons contain sensors, which monitor and respond to users’ movements.

Among suppliers are San Diego-based Levitate Technologies, which makes the AirFrame. "It is truly a meeting of human and machine," the company says.

Just as there are different kinds of frames for exoskeletons, there are also different ways to power them. Exoskeletons can be motorized or mechanical. Some run on electricity, while others, which don’t need electrical power, offer more freedom to their users.


Exoskeletons are beginning to appear in construction and wood manufacturing settings, according to Berkeley, California-based SuitX, which offers three types: legX, which protects knees and hamstrings and can be used while still wearing and using tool belts; backX to provide additional support; and shoulderX - with some workers even wearing all three.

Exoskeletons originated to help disabled people walk, and have measures of built-in intelligence. SuitX, which has sold devices to a number of millwork and construction companies, says its legX is an intelligent system that can distinguish between walking, ascending/descending stairs and squatting. legX also has a locking mode, where the exoskeleton can be used like a chair.

A plant tour of Mission Bell Manufacturing, part of the 2019 Executive Briefing Conference in San Jose in April, will see workers using the SuitX devices and an explanation of the various technologies. "We will give demonstrations of how Mission Bell is using its industrial exoskeleton technology on the job site to benefit both their installers and customers," says Glenn Ripley, CEO. Learn more at

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