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From panel dividing saw to online interface

A saw with internet access? Not so long ago, this would have caused many to shake their heads disbelievingly. Today, however, woodworking machines are increasingly networked under the banner of Industry 4.0. Where is all this leading and how will the industry develop? A journey into the future provides answers to these questions.

An article from the specialist magazine HOB (agt agile technik verlag gmbh, Teinacher Str. 34, 71634 Ludwigsburg), 03/2017, www.hob-magazin.com

We are now in the year 2030: Julian and Emilia are looking on a tablet computer for new cupboards and shelving units for their sitting room. They are discussing their ideas with a chatbot. This online robot equipped with artificial intelligence is the perfect advisor. It immediately finds a suitable design, gets them to send photos of the room, asks for all the relevant dimensions, develops a solution and presents it on the tablet. "Looks good," Emily comments, "but can we add two more shelves to the unit on the left and leave out the glass cabinet?" Of course: the bot makes the changes, updates the parts list and calculates the price. "Perfect!." the two exclaim in unison. "Place the order." "Wonderful, then you'll get your new furniture in two days' time," promises the bot. It forwards the order together with the parts lists and automatically optimized cutting patterns straight to a networked batch-size-1 production solution from HOMAG. 48 hours later, Emilia and Julian hear the door bell ring: "Good morning, we've brought your new furniture."

Just science fiction?

"By no means," says Arne Mömesheim. The HOMAG product manager for software in the field of panel dividing technology explains, "As far as technology goes, all this is conceivable. A considerable number of things have even already been put into practice – for example by our customer 'meble.pl' in Poland. In a production hall there, networked machines covering a distance of several hundred meters are interlinked with each other, from the storage unit and saw right through to all the downstream stations." On delivery, a forklift truck transports the panels from the truck to the stacking station of the 75-meter-long storage system. From here on, everything is completely automated. It is not until a part is ready for dispatch, that a human being takes charge of the goods. meble.pl even goes one step further: customers – mainly joineries but also some end customers – can configure and order their parts via the Internet. The data given in the order passes straight through the work preparation department and on to the machine.

In automation matters, the Polish supplier has long relied on solutions from HOMAG. Mömesheim knows why: "Customers like meble.pl expect turnkey solutions that work smoothly and effectively and come from a single source – for maximum efficiency and reliability in production. We are the right partner here because we have been offering our customers interlinked, extensively networked machines for more than 30 years now."

Automation is a question of production concept

Is such a high level of automation as can be found at meble.pl going to be the rule in future? Probably not, according to IT and software specialist Mömesheim, who emphasizes, "After all, highly networked production involves highly complex technology. That has to pay off, and this will only be the case if the digitalization measures fit in well with the manufacturing philosophy of the individual company." He believes that the level of automation will therefore always be a question of the production concept. Not everything is equally right and good for every company.

However, we should not shut our eyes to reality and ignore the advance of digitalization. On the contrary, manufacturers and users need the courage to give things a try and to invest in new technologies according to Mömesheim, who goes on to quote Clayton Christensen. From the economist and author of the change management bible "The Innovator's Dilemma" comes the insight: "There will always be good reasons for not taking a risk. But if we only ever do the things that worked in the past, one of these days we are going to wake up and find that we have been overtaken."

5 stages on the way to Industry 4.0

With a view to the company's own target group, Mömesheim has no worries on that score. "Among our customers there is not one that still works in a purely analog manner – not in the trade and certainly not in industry." Dealing with digital data has long become part of daily life, albeit in various forms and to varying degrees. The reasons for this depend first on the status of technological development in the individual companies and secondly on deliberate strategically and economically motivated decisions. For greater clarity, Mömesheim categorizes the development status of individual companies on the way to full digital networking in five stages. These can be described briefly as follows:



  • Stage 1: Companies collect production data electronically and enter it into the production machine. This is digital data networking at very basic level.

  • Stage 2: Digital production planning now takes place in the office. Data is then sent via an internal network to the machines.

  • Stage 3: These companies are already able to process data from customers in their production planning – from simple xls files to 3D data from CAD/CAM.

  • Stage 4: Individual machines are networked, which increases production efficiency – HOMAG saw-storage combinations are one example of this.

  • Stage 5: Now the Internet is added – and, ideally, the production facility receives automatically generated production data straight from the online shop.


So where do we stand today? Digitalization up to stage 3 has long become standard, Mömesheim observes. "After all, only small, easily implemented steps are required to attain this level. It's not rocket science!" Digitalization and automation in terms of Industry 4.0 starts at stage 4. Pioneers include, for example, companies that are working with modern saw-storage combinations or cutting cells such as HPS 320 flexTec. "HOMAG solutions, for instance in the area of panel cutting, lay the foundations for the next big step," emphasizes Mömesheim, "namely connecting the entire production process to an online shop with automated processes, for example.

The Internet will dramatically change the industry

If this step is successful, production processes will in future be able to run far more intelligently, interactively and efficiently. HOMAG solutions such as the CADmatic machine control unit and Cut Rite optimization software will play a key role in this, according to the expert. In his opinion, new modules and applications will enable these software solutions to collect and process even more data, for example realtime data on tool settings, on the work status at a particular station or on the production status as a whole. Communication between individual machines, for instance a panel dividing saw and upstream or downstream systems, will also be improved further. "Our fully automatic batch-size-1 cutting cell HPS 320 flexTec actually already exemplifies this today. This system is therefore virtually predestined for integration in the Internet and an online shop solution for end customers," Mömesheim believes. "With a solution like this, we would then probably have to speak of an online interface rather than of a panel dividing saw."

The expert is convinced that connection to the Internet will become increasingly important for companies in the woodworking industry. "It's the next logical step," Mömesheim continues, "even though configuring furniture via the Internet will present the industry with some tremendous challenges." The fact that these can generally be solved is demonstrated by the first online shops set up by the supplier industry and – in the retail market – for example the company Holzconnection.

Years ahead of its time

The Berlin company is a byword for reasonably priced customized furniture made in Germany. The furniture is produced neither at Holzconnection's company headquarters nor at their retail outlets across Germany, but at the facilities of external partners. This was already the case when Alf Nagel founded the company in 1984. However, the company only started to grow rapidly after the founder's son Denys Nagel put the business concept on the Internet and set up an online shop that "is years ahead of its time", as Mömesheim says. How does Denys Nagel describe the business concept? "I call it Cabinetmaking 2.0. We own the data, not the workshop. That's far more valuable."

The family business has in fact succeeded in setting up an online shop that is as user-friendly and practical as it is intelligent. End customers can put together basic items of furniture such as beds, tables, benches or simple cupboards, choosing from a variety of standard materials. Material and cutting costs are set up for each material. Customers can immediately see a photorealistic image of what they have put together and how much it costs. Thanks to Holzconnection's well thought out concept, the price of an item of furniture is often much lower than a traditional cabinet maker's could offer. If the order is placed, the parts lists and optimized cutting patterns, which have already been created in the background, go directly to one the the production partners. "We ourselves have nothing to do with the production process," Denys Nagel confirms. He explains, "To get this system up and running, we had to network leading software solutions, including Cut Rite PROFESSIONAL. We used the HOMAG optimization software from the beginning because it undoubtedly has the best algorithm." 

Heading for the future – with know-how from HOMAG

As the example of Holzconnection shows, using the opportunities provided by digitalization and combining them in an overall concept can lead to new standards being set. "This requires a high level of expertise in the areas of IT, software and networking. At the same time, you have to know exactly what data is essential for a smooth and efficient production process," Mömesheim stresses. "HOMAG has possessed this know-how for many decades. To ensure that our customers benefit from this even more in the future, we are focusing our global knowledge on the development of leading Industry 4.0 solutions." 

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