Like their counterparts in many other sectors, furniture manufacturers are in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution. There’s still a way to go before they achieve the intelligent, self-organizing factories of Industry 4.0, but their production cycles are much simpler and shorter than ever before – irrespective of production run size. This is due mainly to the rapid rate of development and innovation in control systems and software. Networking, digital integration, robotics and auto-ID technology all have a key part in this.
Today’s furniture production lines can go from raw particle board to fully finished one-off product in just four hours. What’s more, that one-off piece of furniture is just one of millions of possible product variants that the customer can choose from and that the manufacturer can produce with equal ease and efficiency. Initially wary of the cost implications of this inexorable trend towards product individualization, furniture manufacturers are now reassured by the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the production solutions available. Today’s furniture production lines combine the twin benefits of high capacity and extreme flexibility. The production machinery and equipment is modular, so that plants can easily be scaled up as the manufacturer’s business grows. This modularity means that workpieces can proceed reliably and rapidly through production chains that comprise any number of stations and steps, from planning and work preparation, to cutting, sizing, edge-banding and CNC machining, right through to assembly and packaging.
These integrated systems are made possible by interoperable software modules that are compatible with the data interfaces of the various CNC machines and which ensure a continuous and seamless flow of both parts and information. Using these hardware and software modules, the manufacturer has total flexibility in terms of system configuration. Set-ups involving 100 CNC axes are not uncommon. And there are modules available for practically any process that’s required. Storage and transport modules can rapidly transport wood panels to any storage location and just as quickly retrieve and ready them for processing on an upstream CNC center. Still other modules can automatically collect offcuts as they arise and transport them back into storage. There are even machine-unloading software modules that tell the human operator or robot where to place workpieces in readiness for the next processing step. There is also a whole class of optimization software that minimizes material consumption and maximizes material yield by enhancing all kinds of processes – everything from production planning to cutting and machine management.
Today’s integrated furniture manufacturing plants also rely heavily on parts logistics systems than span the entire process chain. For example, automated saw-storage combinations are now used to pre-pick materials from storage, keep track of inventory and ensure optimal material resource management. The software that manages these combinations selects between several hundred different panel types depending on the order. It can also analyze the efficiency of the storage and warehousing system and generate suggestions for improvements.
In terms of workpiece tracking and tracing, auto ID technologies are now the solutions of choice for all kinds of wood-based industries, from furniture manufacturing to window construction. Options here include scanner-readable printed barcode labels that automate the programming of processing machines by “telling them” the sequence in which various parts should be processed and how they should be processed. RFID technology is another auto ID option that offers greater information density. RFID can work with barcode labels and with transponders implanted in workpieces. The transponders can be tracked through the entire process chain and can be used to manage all plant process parameters. The auto ID data is typically linked to the manufacturer’s ERP system, where they are automatically cross-referenced and updated. To give an example, modern liquid surface treatment plants use auto ID technology to automatically select colors, control drying temperatures and feed rates, and load color formulas.
Of course, Industry 4.0 is not the exclusive domain of machinery manufacturers. Tool manufacturers, too, have embraced the trend. Increasingly, they are providing innovative tool management systems. These include software applications that enable users to quickly and reliably prepare tool consumption and cost analyses and service life projections.
Among the new developments already on the market are the first machine control architectures that use integrated learning systems and digital product memory to realize customer-specific requirements. In the not-too-distant future, planners and architects will be able to send their designs directly to the furniture factory, which will then automatically execute them to create one-off productions. Workpiece processing decisions which today are still made by human operators will very soon be made autonomously by intelligent machines. The whole process flow will be supported and driven by data, resulting in transparent, seamless and reliable integration.
To discover the current state of the art in digitally integrated furniture production, don’t miss LIGNA 2015. The show runs from 11 to 15 May in Hannover, Germany.
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With revenue of 312 million euros (2013), Deutsche Messe AG ranks among the world’s ten largest trade fair companies and operates the world’s largest exhibition center. In 2013, Deutsche Messe planned and staged 119 trade fairs and congresses around the world – events which hosted a total of 41,000 exhibitors and some four million visitors. The company’s event portfolio includes such world-leading trade fairs as CeBIT (IT and telecommunications), HANNOVER MESSE (industrial technology), BIOTECHNICA (biotechnology), CeMAT (intralogistics), didacta (education), DOMOTEX (floor coverings), INTERSCHUTZ (fire prevention and rescue), and LIGNA (wood processing and forestry). With over 1,000 employees and a network of 66 representatives, subsidiaries and branch offices, Deutsche Messe is present in more than 100 countries worldwide.