By: JEAN HYLAND
'IF IT AIN'T broke,
don't fix it,' conventional wisdom tells us. But sometimes conventional
wisdom is best ignored when a product or process can be improved upon --
even if that requires ripping everything apart to make it whole again.
Such was the case with Island Precision Cabinets Ltd., in Saanichton,
Over the years this commercial cabinet shop
had added a panel saw, edgebander, and computerized boring machine, and
purchased cutlist and optimizing software to speed production, improve
quality, and reduce labor times. Management also had begun developing
ways to automate and speed
the company's estimating process.
Owner Brian Timothy was amassing the right elements to bring the plant
into the 21st century, but he lacked the common thread to cohesively tie
this technology together. Although the boring machine was linked to the
front office, nothing else was. Timothy envisioned greater things for
his 12-man factory.
So, three years
ago he took a bold step and completely reengineered the
9,500-square-foot plant. He updated and enhanced the software, added all
new state-of-the-art equipment and a conveyor system, built a mezzanine
to free floor space, and made a firm commitment to seamlessly integrate
the entire process, from estimating to assembly.
"In a very
short period of time we basically took our plant apart and put it back
together again," Timothy says. "As soon as we did, we saw a 25
percent reduction in labor."
been progressive," Timothy adds, "but this was a major change
for us. It involved tying all the elements of the manufacturing process
Island Precision is as technologically sophisticated as shops 10 times
its size should be, but often aren't. A mixture of Pattern Systems
software and in-house-designed estimating software fully links the
front office to the CNC equipment on the shop floor. Add to that a
unique color-coded and barcoded product routing system, state-of-the-art
material handling conveyors and lifts, and JIT manufacturing techniques,
and you have a small shop that effortlessly pumps out (Canadian)$3.8
million a year in sales.
"We can get a fair
amount of work through in a short period of time," Timothy says.
Sophisticated equipment, however, isn't worth much if there aren't
enough jobs to keep it running. That's why Timothy says the shop has
become so dependent on the front office.
To save time in the front end, Timothy, along
with Axel Wagner, operations manager, and Dean Crawford, programmer,
wrote their own takeoff software, called Take Off. It speeds estimating.
estimating software wasn't the shop's first attempt at automating
estimating. As early as 1986 it had developed an estimating
program in an obscure spreadsheet program called Words and Figures.
"That program worked well and was 10 times faster than doing it
manually," Timothy says. Then, four years ago it developed another
estimating program in Fox Pro. Now, after three years in development --
and written entirely from scratch -- the Take Off estimating software
moves the shop into a new dimension.
The shop's success now is based more on
estimating. It's bidding on -- and winning – more commercial projects
in the area. Using the Take Off software, the shop produces three times
as many bids as it could when it used its Fox Pro estimating program.
"We can estimate more quickly and accurately, and manage the
data," Timothy says.
Once a job is awarded, the shop now can reuse its estimating
data to manufacture its product. The actual estimate data can be
exported and downloaded automatically into Pattern Systems' Product
Planner software. Timothy says this capability eliminates the chance to
miscommunicate data between estimating and engineering.
After a job has
been downloaded from Take Off into Pattern Systems' Product Planner,
cutlists are developed and jobs optimized. Drill-Mate software, also
from Pattern Systems, generates boring instructions that can be
downloaded directly to the shop floor.
shops have difficulty automatically linking manufacturing software to
CNC equipment on the shop floor, Island Precision Cabinets has managed
to make it all work seamlessly.
are downloaded directly from the front office to a PC linked to the
Selco WN 200 panel saw. Wagner chose to have the cutlists downloaded to
a separate PC because it's faster than using the saw controller, and it
enables them to use the PC for other functions at the saw. For example,
to diagnose problems more quickly at the saw, the shop loaded the saw's
manual onto the PC. Now the operator can turn to the online manual
immediately instead of searching for the hard copy.
To route projects through the plant, Timothy
broke the plant into easily identifiable color groups, and then
developed a color-coded routing system. For each job, the engineering
department generates a color-coded label containing the sequence of
operations, cut dimensions, part name, project identifier, program
number, and banding color -- all in the color appropriate to the
machining operation in the plant. With this system, there's never any
doubt where a project should be routed next.
For each operation in the plant, the shop
also uses a time-tracking system called DataMinder. Employees must log
in to the system before beginning a new cutting, edging, drilling,
handling, or assembly project. This system provides valuable feedback,
giving the shop an accurate time per part per cutting figure to compare
the cost of a phase of an actual run to the estimate.
To keep material
flowing smoothly and quickly through the plant, the shop installed a
series of roller conveyors and lifts. "There's no use having a lot
of productive equipment if you have no way of moving it around,"
Timothy says. "Most plants do nothing with material handling."
From the saw,
parts are banded on a Holz-Her 1447 edgebander, then bored on a Biesse
Rover 342 machining center equipped with an automatic five-spindle tool
Run with it
Pattern Systems' Drill-Mate software interfaces with the
Biesse Rover machining center to produce boring instructions for the
parts. All of this is completed in the front office. Machine operators
do no programming; they simply punch in the project number and run with
The shop has been
pleased with its Pattern Systems software, especially Drill-Mate.
"Drill-Mate is the most unrecognized package on the market,"
Timothy says. "It's the one thing that sets Pattern Systems apart
from all the other packages out there."
Drill,Mate handles the problems it encounters with nonstandard case
dimensions, something other packages can't always do. "Drill-Mate
takes care of that link for a company like ours," he says. "It
ties a lot of elements together."
of Drill-Mate," adds Wagner, "is that as we change our
product, it changes with it. We don't have to remake everything."
He adds, "Not only is the product designed parametrically, but we
can do it all up front. A lot of people reprogram the controller through
parametrics, but they do it at the machine. The key is to do it up front
so the operator is running the machine as opposed to spending 80 percent
of the time programming and setting it up."
From the boring
machine, parts take a quick ride on a lift to the second floor mezzanine
for sorting and hardware. Parts then are transported back down,
assembled, wrapped, and
loaded onto a waiting 45-foot trailer.
rarely come to a stop before being loaded onto trucks. "We like to
make it and ship it out the door. That's throughput," Timothy says.
"That's what our whole shop is based on. Throughput and eliminating
The conveyors were
a key element in making the shop's JIT manufacturing techniques work.
"There's no value in cutting eight or 10 lifts a day if you can't
move the parts out afterward," Wagner says. "We looked at the
plant as a solely integrated process from unloading panels from the
trucks, to moving material through the plant, to shipping it out the
door. Everything's integrated."
Timothy learned a
bit about throughput and bottlenecks through books he read. But some of
his basic management and manufacturing techniques were ingrained in him
early in his career. He once worked at a high-end casework shop owned
and run by Germans.
opened my eyes about how you do things well, and do them quickly."
Aside from being simply great tradesmen, the Germans also had great
systems in place, Timothy says. "You could see how much you can
accomplish if you have both of those things."
Perhaps because of this
early influence, Timothy's shop operates more like a European plant than
most North American plants. The shop is immaculately clean and well lit,
and employees wear neatly pressed khaki jumpsuits. Conveyors transport
work in process efficiently and quickly from station to station and out
the door. And, most importantly, software links this process together.