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Investment in automation pays off

When Mark Anderson founded Proform Products, Malaga, WA, together with his two business partners back in 1991, he had no idea of the technology advances that would change his shop. Mr Anderson always held a strong belief in reinvesting in the business, and when automation began to prove itself as a practical solution for improving the productivity and profitability of small to mid-sized cabinet makers, he wasted no time in jumping on board.

Proform Products has become a leading and trusted supplier

Since its inception in 1991, Proform Products has grown steadily to become a leading and trusted supplier and manufacturer of quality components for the domestic and commercial markets.
“The idea to found our own business came from my ex-boss,” says Mr Anderson, who now wholly owns the business. “The idea was to make our own benchtops instead of buying them, so we decided to set up Proform together with another business partner. Benchtops still forms the biggest part of our business.”

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The company’s first major investment was a state-of-the-art Homag PVAc postforming machine imported from Germany, one of only a handful in Australia at the time.
Throughout the next decades, the company expanded to provide custom design and manufacturing of a wide range of prefabricated components for kitchens, bathrooms and all types of built-in cabinets as well as components for shop and office fit-outs.
Today, the company has three primary product families:
Postformed benchtops for kitchens, cut-to-size-componentry for office, kitchen or bathroom, and customised kitchens which is an area Mr Anderson is keen to expand. “We sell all of our components in a flatpack and our customers assemble the kitchens themselves,” he explains. “The difference between our business and imported products is our ability to customise while at same time meeting and exceeding the Australian Standards. Moreover, we offer a 7-year manufacturer’s warranty, while many imported products come with little or without warranty.”
In addition, Proform supplies vinyl, veneer, solid timber and lacquered doors as well as rolled edge melamine doors PROEDGE, and is an agent for the German Riepe® cleaning products.
“We are looking after Australian manufacturing,” he adds. “We cannot compete on price, we compete with a better product. While our kitchens can be more expensive, they are custom-made with efficiency and state-of-the-art machinery, which guarantees not only a fast turnaround, but also very high quality.”
At its 5300 m² manufacturing facility, the company does everything from CNC routing, benchtop production, cut-to-size and edging. Proform runs computerised beam saws for straight-line flat panel cutting, hot melt edgebanders, advanced CNC routers, and a through-feed PVAc hot press as well as a flow-through postformer using PVAc glue.

As part of an effort to stay abreast of the latest technology and to respond to growing just-in-time and batch-size-one demands, Mr Anderson recently purchased a new Weeke CNC gantry processing centre BHP 200 with fully automatic labelling as well as a Holzma HPL 380PC beam saw including Holzma’s Power Concept and fully automatic labelling.
“The reason to invest in the new Weeke and the beam saw was to increase efficiency for high-volume stack-cutting, but also to be more efficient when processing low volume work,” Mr Anderson says. “The additional nesting machine allows us to quickly react to low-volume customised orders, while the automated beam saw allows for very high output rates for standard cuts.”
Homag retrofitted the HPL 380PC with an automatic labelling system, which is the first of its kind in Australia. The printer is located within the pressure beam, so in the operator’s field of vision, and labels the finished top sheets, even if several sheets are processed at the same time, which is possible due to Homag’s unique Power Concept.
The labeller is part of Holzma’s so called “Domino System”, which ensures that the work area is quickly freed up, ready for cutting the next parts with high output quantities, such as are achieved when cutting with the Power Concept option. The Domino System also comprises a parts buffer, one or more destacking carriages and the corresponding software module "Destacking Display for Destacking Carriage" in the control. The software calculates the number of carriages and their configuration. At the same time, subsequent processing can already be stipulated by specifying that destacking should be related to production order, machine or process.
In addition to this, the beam saw is equipped with the energy-saving ecoLine technology that can bring annual energy savings of up to 20%.
“I first came across this system when we were in Europe during Homag Treff Exhibition in 2009,” Mr Anderson says. “The automatic labelling frees up a lot of time for the operator, which means more efficient operations.”
We are still using the labeller on the side when we are book-cutting. In this way individual parts within the book can be labelled, but as the details are already on the top part in the stack errors are eliminated.”

Cycle time reduced by 50%
“Our new HPL 380PC is probably about 50% quicker than our previous saw without this function, which is a Homag saw as well, but about 14 years old,” Mr Anderson states and adds that “On some products we now even achieve more than a 50% decrease in cycle time.”
The Holzma Power Concept gives the beam saw an additional efficiency push through its twin pusher system. The concept is based on an independent program fence that can be freely positioned. The advantage is that while the main gripper is still feeding the current panel for the final cuts, the second gripper is already collecting the next panel and getting it into position. Moreover, two stacks can be independently positioned over the cutting line to cut two different-sized pieces at the same time.
“The Power Concept works very well for us,” Mr Anderson comments. “This contributes considerably to our increased efficiency of even up to 60%.”
To even further increase Proform’s productivity, Mr Anderson installed roller conveyor systems replacing most forklifts throughout the factory. Furthermore, every machine is fitted with two scissor lifts, which further eases materials handling and accelerates high-volume processing.

Automation is key to remain competitive
There are many reasons why local cabinet makers like Proform are now considering automation. For some, increased pressure from low-cost regions is forcing them to reduce their direct-labour costs. For others, a lack of skilled labour encourages the use of robots or rollers to load and unload machines. It may be that the reasons to automate are not related to labour at all.

For Mr Anderson, automation is the future and key to remain competitive. He doesn’t only face fierce competition from abroad, but also from Australia’s eastern states, which according to Proform’s Managing Director are generally able to offer the same products at a lower price because raw materials are cheaper in the east than in WA. “I always thought automation and machinery is the way to make things better,” he says. “I learned from my farming background and my dad, who is a farmer in rural Western Australia, that you need the right machine to seed your crop at the right time the most efficient way. Sure you need a backup, but you gotta have the efficiency to put it in the ground quickly when it is time to seed.”
“This is also true for manufacturing,” he continues. “When it is time to process the product you have to process it quickly to let the customer grow.” Hence, being able to produce small batch sizes just-in-time is very important for Mr Anderson’s business, and he decided to invest in the new automated Weeke BHP 200 nesting cell. The machine was installed in November 2009 and subsequently Mr Anderson further expanded the business’ batch-size-one capabilities with the addition of a second Weeke nesting cell and the Holzma ProfiLine Power Concept saw.

Nesting saves material and reduces scrap
Nesting technology is based on advanced cutting algorithms specifically designed to optimise the cutting layouts in routing. It consistently delivers high utilisation layouts, significantly reducing the waste and maximising productivity. The required workpieces are routed out of fully-sized materials on a CNC processing centre in one workstep also including all necessary holes and grooves. In order to optimise the raw material cut, the programmed workpieces are automatically nested via optimisation software.
“From a trade perspective we see our future is in the customisation and batch-size-one,” he explains. “We use the Weeke nesting cell for cutting out single-sheet patterns which is more efficient than using the beam saw. While our main business is mass production, we do want to grow the batch-size one side of the business. Additional to off-the-shelf stock sizes, we can now also offer customised parts and customised kitchen cabinet carcasses to cabinet makers with short lead times.”

Software integration
Faced with global competition, today’s manufacturers need to use technology in a way that allows them to stay competitive or to gain a competitive advantage. These strategies often involve the purchase of new machines and other equipment. However, while the latest machines can do wonders for productivity, software packages shouldn’t be overlooked.
Mark Anderson can attest to this fact. As part of an integrated solution to make his production as efficient as possible, he has always believed in software.
“Business for me is finding the right solution, and software is what I believe is our future,” he says. “We employ three IT people and we develop our own software for our internal quoting system and production. We are also currently developing more software to manage the whole process from the point of data entry straight through to production.”
“I believe software is our future. Software and robotics will play a big part in the future of our businesses. It’s just about getting the volume to justify to do it.”
Proform’s in-house software talks to the Homag woodWOP and Cut Rite Nesting software, which is also capable of communicating between the different machines. “We have been using Homag’s Cut Rite software for about 14 years now,” Mr Anderson says. “When we were thinking about what routers to buy, one of the main things to consider was the software aspect. The software needs to be able to talk between different machines and integrate each machine into the production process, and Homag’s software manages this task seamlessly. This is the main reason we decided to work with Homag, although the other suppliers had good products and we were happy with the service we received from them as well.”
While Homag’s local support and service is a very important factor for the WA-based company, Mr Anderson also appreciates dealing with an international company like Homag who look back on many years of experience in the woodworking machinery business.

Expertise and local support
“Homag is doing so well in the market because they are offering support to the Australian market. We want service and flexibility, and when a machine breaks down we need it back going as soon as possible,” Mr Anderson says.
When Proform needed a customised software solution, Homag’s software specialist Ralph Kottmann adjusted the company’s Cut Rite Nesting software to the company’s needs. “We made several special in-house sofware developments for Proform,” he explains and continues to say that “Proform is one of the few customers in Australia who realise the potential for software and are not afraid to spend some money on it.”
The Cut Rite Nesting software controls both Proform’s sawing and nesting production through the one solution. The modular structure of the software allows users like Proform who are already controlling their sawing machine via Cut Rite to integrate the nesting module without problems.
Proform can now take parts sizes from its order processing system and send the sizes across to the software and then either send the job to the saw or the nesting machine, depending on workload. Moreover, the woodWOP nesting programs include all machining steps optimised according to travel ranges and tool changes. Combining cutting and final processing makes it possible to reduce material costs and to shorten total processing time.
“The software supports us to choose the most effienct way to process jobs, which contributes to our overall productivity and efficiency,” Mr Anderson states.
His passion for software and his belief in the endless optimisation opportunities through IT have also recently made him take over software company Benchfab®, which develops and sells postform benchtop production software that also integrates seamlessly with Cut Rite. “When company founder Gerry Wunderlich sadly passed away last year, we decided to take over the company,” Mr Anderson explains, who is using the software in his own factory. “We now own the software and we are in the final stages to service all existing and new Benchfab customers.”



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