There was a time when the design department and the hands-on-fiber manufacturing side of a woodworking business were like clashing cultures – or maybe more like a left-brain, right-brain, sometimes-strained, relationship.
This dysfunctional business scenario is changing with the development of new and improved software packages – on the design side, as well as in the production arena. Even better, those formerly disparate software products have been co-mingled to create a more harmonious, integrated family of design-to-build options.
Architects and designers have more options to integrate with the production floor
With mass customization leading the charge for successful wood-based manufacturing companies, D-to-B takes on a more elastic meaning. It’s no longer a case of: “If you design it, we might be able to make it.” That’s evolved to: “If you design it and we can make it, how many do you want?”
There was a time when there was a tall wall between the designers and architects and those who take those computer-generated designs and convert them to g-code for their CNC equipment. Peaking through the door to the plant just doesn’t hack it anymore.
It wasn’t too long ago when blueprint drawings were the norm (in some cases they still are) rather than the rule. That’s also why pencils have erasers. (“Computers are just a fad and won’t catch on,” the CEO of a MAJOR office furniture company once said. Not surprisingly, he’s a long-time ex-CEO.)
In some cases, designers and architects were more akin to draftsmen – a situation that often stifled creativity and slowed the entire design-to-build process. That meant longer lead schedules, more labor-eating time in the plant and, ultimately, a drag on profits.
Not too long ago, this sometimes-ineffi- cient process was nearly universal across the entire industry, with every sector – whether it be furniture, cabinets, architectural millwork, store fixtures or anything that falls under the umbrella of “woodworking” – adhering to these time-honored practices. “Paperless” meant you were out of drafting paper.
MACHINE-SOFTWARE COMPATIBILITY MACHINE-SOFTWARE
The other side of the software compatibility coin is whether the product will interface seamlessly with any or all CNC brand machines. According to one vendor, it all starts with the up-front decision-making process.
“The common problem stems from the software being too technical and hard to use,” says Ken Frye, sales manager for KCD Software, Inc. “The decision to purchase software is made by those who are involved at the manufacturing level and not enough emphasis is put on the design end of the software.
“The software purchased should be able to be used by all the people involved in the process,” Frye adds. “Time and time again a company will purchase software that promises the ability to create anything dreamed up. With a great deal of extra work, many companies can make this software work at the manufacturing level but it is usually impractical for every day design.”
Still, there are some doubts about whether there actually exists a smooth, seamless integration of design and manufacturing software systems. Saying you can accomplish something like marrying these computer-generated entities is one thing, doing it is another, skeptics say. Safe to say, there have been some stumbles along the way.
Yet, according to Clay Swayze, a software developer with Microvellum, Inc., design and manufacturing software integration is no longer a concept or a goal. It’s a proven reality. Plus, machinery brand is no longer an issue, at least for some software suppliers.
“For us, the challenge isn’t interfacing with CNCs of any brand, since we’re able to connect with virtually any CNC out there.” Swayze says. “We write direct g-code for all CNC brands and treat each post as unique so our users can get the most out of their investment.”
Education, with a small degree of training, creates the needed lynch pins between concept development and production. To soften that point, software suppliers say, a comfortable indoctrination to that design-toproduction interface process is at the top of the must-do list for those seeking to widen their perspective on their entire business operation, not just the design side.
“Today, we rarely even send someone onsite to complete connections, except in the rate occasion when a vintage CNC is purchased by one of our customers,” Swayze says. “Still, if you’re only evaluating technology for what it can do at this moment, you’re already behind. The key to a great business decision is being able to ‘see under the hood’ at what can be achieved.”
THE DESIGN-MANUFACTURING RELATIONSHIP
Architects and designers must understand at least the rudimentary concepts of how that integration process works, as well as having a basic knowledge of what the associates in the shop or factory are capable or doing and what they are not able to produce, software suppliers say.
So what about the architects and designers? What is the challenge there, if any?
“Why would you want to purchase software that skips the most important step – design? First, the software needs to be tested with all involved, especially the designers. If the designers are comfortable with the program and create designs then you are half way there. If the designers are creating successfully, then the CNC manufacturing becomes a whole lot easier. If the manufacturing department is reworking the job to make it correct for CNC output, then you have the wrong software.”
Flexibility in all phases of software integration is a major ingredient for successful implementation.
“Architects and designers mostly use AutoCAD, the very engine and backbone of our technology. We need to keep in mind that these architects and designers are working with more than boxes, so they require the power and flexibility of AutoCAD. Our users are able to harness the work already done – meaning data management – and push it forward into manufacturing.”
Swayze says the learning curve issue for architects and designers is, in some cases, a non-issue.
“The casework and millwork portion of a building is such a small part, architects and designers typically don’t take the time or learn enough about our industry to provide real manufacturing data,” he says. “Our customers just don’t want to have to do the work again – and they don’t have to.”
On the flip side, end-user manufacturers should know how the design software creates g-code, Swayze says.
“We recognize there is a distinction between a cabinetmaker and being in the cabinet business,” Swayze says. “Professionals in any business sector must be on top of technology and trends. Data management throughout the entire organization and processes is imperative for companies who want to be as LEAN as possible, right from the office, allowing the machine operators to simply browse the jobs at the controller and start running the code.”
So what about the issue of a plant having multiple CNC machines?
“Using our batch processing technology, we can simultaneously send g-code to every CNC in a shop,” Swayze explains. “To take it one step further, we can automatically route parts and g-code to certain machining centers based on part names, machining on individual parts or any other user-defined instruction.”
“Business is coming back, but prices are tight, so the industry is faced with lower profits or running their business better,” Microvellum president David Peel says. “A great exercise for any business is to clearly define all of their processes and to find all the ‘islands of information’ and ‘redundant processes’. Once identified, they are advised to take steps to eliminate what amounts to waste.”
As the economy forces manufacturers to adjust to changing economic conditions, it also provides impetus for product adjustment and marketing, the need for creativity in developing those new products is a key ingredient, Peel says.
“If the ‘Great Recession’ taught us anything, it’s that we can’t expect business as usual anymore,” says Peel. “We’re amazed at how many of our customers are serving completely different market sectors than they we just a few years ago. We empower our customers to excel at pretty much anything they conceive to do with our technology, so they have to be able to move to where business exists and thrive once again.”
Complete a questionnaire to receive a complimentary 1-year subscription to Surface & Panel, the only magazine focused exclusively on the design, manufacture and marketing of panel-based furniture and casegoods.
fill out the questionnaire