2015/02/23   |   New Zealand

TimberLab´s monster CNC tames engineered timber

Last year one of the largest and most sophisticated woodworking machines currently available in the world arrived at Auckland based company TimberLab Solutions.

Based at East Tamaki, TimberLab provides custom designed and engineered timber solutions for both local and offshore customers. The Company was formed in 2012 with a collaborative merger between McIntosh Timber Laminates and TimberBond Industries – two long standing players in New Zealand’s engineered timber design and manufacturing industry, working with Glulam, Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) and other structural timber products. With over 75 years of experience between them, together as TimberLab they offer sophisticated, innovative and efficient solutions for anyone working with engineered timber.                             

Sales and Marketing Director Owen Griffiths describes how the two companies came to merge. “McIntosh had over 50 years working with engineered timber design and fabrication in the commercial market. TimberBond had over twenty years working with structural glulam and mid-floor solutions” he explains. “We realised there’d be a synergy working together, and doing so would give us the critical mass we’d need to take the quantum step forward from manual to automated processing.”

With the two teams working as one they quickly embarked on a search to identify the most suitable machinery to suit their ambitions. They had already established that CNC production was the obvious step towards greater productivity, efficiency and accuracy - integrating their design and engineering processes with shop-floor production. CNC also offered the most effective way to ramp up the capacity for their traditional work while enabling them to take on work previously not possible.

“We started by surveying the market for what machinery was available” says CEO Grant McIntosh. “Given the variety of shapes and materials we work with, particularly the large curved glulam elements for which we are renowned, then the first decision we reached was the need for a gantry machine.”

Such a CNC machine (often called a “gantry portal machine”) travels over a static workpiece, picking up and using the appropriate tool for the processing required.

“It wasn’t long before we realised we needed 5-axis technology to enable the level of detail we wanted to be able to offer” says Grant. “We work with a lot of complex structural connections involving complex angles, rebates, pocketing, drilling and such. So being able to move a tool in five axes gives a lot more flexibility.” Other factors including cost, reputation and local technical support all came into the mix, and eventually they settled on a WMP 240 from the German machinery specialists WEINMANN, sold and supported locally by W & R Jack Ltd.

The WMP 240 is the biggest CNC bridge WEINMANN offer, designed specifically to cater for the large, often long workpieces available in engineered timber. The entire gantry is enclosed in a large safety housing 4.1 metres high, 9 metres across and 4.7 metres deep within which processing takes place. The maximum length of workpiece the machine can process is determined by the length of the rails it runs on 44 metres in TimberLab’s case. TimberLab have the area along the rails configured so they can work on one very long workpiece, or with two ‘zones’ – whereby the machine can be working in one zone while in the other staff can be working previous or upcoming workpieces. To ensure safety a removable two metre solid wall as well as light barriers keeps staff and machine processing separate. Another feature important to TimberLab is the ability to remove everything from the processing area, including all the support tables, to allow processing of extremely large elements.

Mounted to the gantry the WEINMANN has two 30kW processing centres. The first wields a massive sawblade measuring just under a metre across, while the other offers a variety of drills, cutters, and other tooling. In addition to the supersized router cutters, drills and hoggers there is also a deep drill capable of drilling horizontally up to 1.2 m into a workpiece, and a 450 mm chainsaw. Also part of the tool chest is a smaller, flangeless saw: perfectly smooth on one side, enabling the WMP to cut depths of over 500mm.

Another handy feature of having processing available in five axes is the ability to use a V-shaped router cutter to produce a 90 degree corner – by inclining the tool and driving down at the same time. All these tools are held in a tool-changing ‘room’ within the large processing cabin, to which the machine comes to collect and mount the tool as required.

As Owen explains, the benefits of having such sophisticated processing are many. “Previously we were manufacturing by hand, so the improvement in speed in particular is very significant” he says. “We’re also now quoting for and getting work we didn’t used to be able to do, so we’ve certainly widened our repertoire. Having this level of CNC capacity has also given us a credibility in both the local and international market - customers have a high level of confidence in our capability, and the finished result they’ll get.”

TimberLab often works from concept drawings, taking a project from these drawings through structural design to a very high level of prefabrication. The repeatable accuracy and quality available from their WEINMANN is giving them another advantage: “We have customers in regions of the world with limited skilled labour,” explains Owen. “To be able to provide a solution that not only fulfils the structural requirements of the project, but also facilitates simple construction is an added selling point. With the CNC being able to process such detailed rebates, bevels or cutouts then many of the connections between structural elements can be prefabricated to such a degree that joining them on site is simple, and fast. The accuracy has been machined into the elements we provide and so doesn’t need to be created at the building site.”

TimberLab knew an inevitable consequence of moving to CNC production would be a steep learning curve for their design department. “We’re doing a lot more work with 3D modelling” says Owen. “We’ve using Cadwork to design and model our project, drawing on both in-house and external resources depending on demand.” Perfecting the 3D modelling for a project before processing is crucial because the pieces TimberLab are processing are of very high value. “The machine will cut or route or drill wherever it’s told – and fast – so it’s imperative the details of the job are spot on” says Grant, “While the machine does have its own CAM software and can simulate operations to check for collisions, it won’t find errors with the design. So we’re doing a lot of 3D modelling before any machining to ensure that everything that goes into the CNC machine is 100% correct.”

Another factor essential to getting millimetre accurate results across huge workpieces is ensuring the WMP knows the exact dimensions and location of whatever it has to process. The machine projects a laser cross hair that can be lined up with the edges and corners of the workpiece – thereby setting reference points.

With a year of production under their belt the team at TimberLab can now look back at the revolutionary changes their production processes have undergone. “It’s hard to overstate the changes stepping up to CNC manufacture on this scale has thrown up” says Owen. “But with a hard-working team along with support from WEINMANN and Jacks we’ve worked through them. As well as learning how to operate the machine there are issues to contend with:  extraction; health and safety implications; implementing the design software. We’ve done a lot of experimenting with which tooling to use for which processes, and how the tooling behaves with different materials.” And as their production experience has grown, TimberLab has been sharing it. “We’re collaborating with others using WEINMANN machines in Europe” explains Grant, “sharing our learnings and hearing about theirs. As an educational opportunity it’s very useful.”

Education is a continuing theme in another area too - and that’s educating the industry about what Timberlab equipped with a WEINMANN WMP now offers. “Our gradual implementation has been a deliberate strategy” says Owen. “We knew it would take time to adopt new methods and we needed to accommodate our ongoing workload while we were learning.” But now TimberLab have reached the point where they’ve tamed the monster that resides in their factory, and are ready to let it off the leash. “What we need now” explains Owen “is the designers and fabricators to understand the enormous potential we have here, and together we can really investigate what engineered timber structures can offer.”

Source:TimberLab Solutions Ltd.


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