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Automating Craftsmanship

RFID helps furniture makers improve production processes, expedite orders and enhance customer service.
By Jennifer Zaino
Feb 19, 2016

Furniture making is a craft, and professionals take pride in their designs, skills and custom products. But like other manufacturers, furniture makers must deal with supply-chain issues, from inventory to demanding customers, all of which can be challenging, even problematic, at times. As business picks up and orders increase, so does the need to better manage processes and operations to succeed in a competitive market.

That's the position that American Woodmark, a Virginia-based manufacturer and distributor of kitchen cabinets and vanities, was in when it began exploring RFID in 2009, to better compete in the remodeling and new-home construction markets. Today, American Woodmark has deployed the technology at seven facilities, as well as at two U.S. and two international suppliers. The company RFID-tags cabinet doors and drawer fronts and tracks them at key points in the manufacturing process, including door build, finishing, quality control, stocking and shipping. The RFID solution has enabled American Woodmark to manage inventory in real time, reduce errors, improve customer service—and achieve a return on investment (see Manufacturer Uses RFID to Put a New Face on Cabinet-Making).

American Woodmark RFID-tags cabinet doors and drawer fronts and tracks them at key points in the manufacturing process, including door build, finishing, quality control, stocking and shipping. (Photo: American Woodmark)
Now that American Woodmark has an RFID "backbone," David Johnson, the company's materials technology and projects manager, is thinking about how to employ the technology to further streamline processes. Like other manufacturers, American Woodmark uses programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and computer numerical control (CNC) servers to manage networked machines on factory assembly lines and determine their positioning and motion. Integrating RFID with these systems, Johnson says, would enable fixed readers on the production line to identify the RFID-tagged doors and communicate information such as which edge details they are slated to get, to ensure the appropriate tool heads are automatically loaded for each custom job. "No one has to touch anything to put the right tool head that does the edge detailing on the machine," he says. "And when the next stack is read, the system will go and load itself with the right tool head for those doors, too."

Similarly, a production line could be set up to automatically accommodate different door sizes. "The system could just read the tag and know what size door it is working with and what to do with it," Johnson says. He also foresees the day when RFID will help American Woodmark better manage machinery maintenance. If machine parts were identified with RFID temperature tags, for example, they could be read regularly to see if they comply with the specifications in a database.

Johnson says American Woodmark's major competitors have explored the use of RFID for specific applications. They and other custom and office furniture manufacturers "are coming around to RFID," he says, because they understand how the technology can address manufacturing problems by providing visibility into the production process.

Other furniture makers worldwide are RFID-tagging parts and finished products to track work-in-process and shipments (see Poltrona Frau Uses RFID to Track Leather Materials, Custom Door Maker Turns to RFID to Better Manage Business, RFID Helps IKEA Furniture Maker Eliminate Shipping Errors and Walter Knoll Boosts Accuracy for Product Shipment, Returns). And there was "huge interest" among attendees at last spring's LIGNA trade show for the woodworking industry in Germany, says Andrej Ermlich, project management head for Abaco Informationssysteme, an RFID systems integrator and software supplier for the furniture manufacturing sector (see RFID Carves Out a Place in Woodworking Industry).

Still, getting RFID to work well in the furniture-manufacturing sector can be tricky business.

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