Match people with process

Logistics equations that succeed include the human factor

Automation has changed the way Canada’s wood industry works. What once was done by hand and tool, or much simpler machinery — and often by more than one person — can now be done with the flick of a switch on a CNC panel.  Has this revolution resulted in the end of the role human beings play in this country’s wood shops? No. Instead, people now produce quality goods differently at reduced costs to deliver value to customers.

After all, that’s what logistics is supposed to be about: delivering value through operational efficiencies. That it’s now done through the greater use of automation doesn’t mean people are left out of the equation. On the contrary, the chances of business success are slim if people aren’t properly integrated into a plan for leaner manufacturing.

In fact, according to the logistics experts we talked to, the transition from manual to automated operations can often be done with current staff and without expensive training. According to Dana Fromunda, the principal at Fromunda Woodworking Consulting in Toronto, Ont., “Many graduates of basic woodworking courses know their way around a CNC panel.

Loewen has been able to survive and thrive making wood products by scrutinizing every detail of operations,  including machinery, lighting and and even floor paint.
Loewen has been able to survive and thrive making wood products by scrutinizing every detail of operations,
including machinery, lighting and and even floor paint.

“There are many ways workers can make the transition to newer machinery,” she says, “whether it is through outside programs, education and support provided by the machinery suppliers themselves, or training from knowledgeable people already on staff. In my experience, it’s a transition that doesn’t have to be difficult.”

Alex Boxhorn is production support and logistics manager for wood window and door manufacturer Loewen in Steinbach, Man. He also believes that much of the evolution towards automation can be done with existing personnel. According to Boxhorn, “Sometimes the people with the greatest understanding of the processes involved are those who have been doing it all along. With some retraining, the same people can do the same job, but with different tools. That’s all.”

However, Boxhorn says, the transition toward automation has not been without some pain: “During my 13 years here at Loewen, did we have to let some people go? Yes. But much of that has been the result of economic circumstances, too. So the newer technology has allowed us to make the best of a difficult situation. Otherwise, nobody would have a job.”

Fromunda also has a historical perspective on change in Canada’s wood industry. “It was back in the 1990s when we saw the first wave of CNC machines — routers, specifically,” she says. “Some of the larger wood manufacturers would have a backlog of these machines just waiting to have people trained on them. This was change that could not be avoided.” According to Fromunda, this first wave of CNC machinery had a significant impact on personnel, since one router could replace tasks previously performed by a number of people.
However, she says the follow-up wave of automation has had a less dramatic effect on human resources: “Let’s take edgebanding as an example. Unlike a CNC router or nested machine, which can do multiple tasks, a new edgebanding machine will do just edgebanding, so you are still only dealing with one process in a company’s operations. Basically, the same people who did edgebanding before can still do it with the newer technology.”

Despite this trend toward newer machinery, Fromunda notes that simply automating for its own sake isn’t the answer, either. “If you manufacture office furniture, for example, then it would make sense to buy one machine that does the same task over and over again,” she says. “However, let’s say, just as an example, you make unique store fixtures. These are more unique products that can’t be replicated through repetition. So, the same machines can’t possibly be the solution for all manufacturers. You have to be very selective in the technology you choose for your operations.”

The adoption of new technology in a wood shop requires a willingness to change with the times. Yet, it has been Fromunda’s experience that change comes too reluctantly in Canada’s wood industry. According to her, “You know, it breaks my heart to see it. Good people running an honest business just decide to call it quits because business is down. It really doesn’t have to be this way.

“The biggest problem I see in our industry today,” she continues,  “is stubbornness, pride — call it what you will. People think their way is the best way and they just don’t want to listen to consultants like me who have a lot of experience in this business. When I walk into a shop, instead of listening to my advice, they want me to make sales. It just doesn’t work that way.”

At the heart of the problem is a reluctance to branch out. Fromunda says, “People need to communicate. People need to network. People need to learn what others are doing to succeed. Otherwise, you can’t compete in today’s market. And I see too many good businesses failing because they can’t or don’t want to change.”

Collaboration is a word Fromunda uses as a solution for competitiveness. She says, “Wood-industry professionals often don’t trust their competitors. This needs to change. They need to collaborate. For example, I see some skilled workers going from one shop to another that are charging high rates on a per hour basis, and it’s often impossible to hire them when you need them. So, why don’t two companies get together and share this worker? Everyone benefits.”

This collaborative approach doesn’t only have to apply to personnel. Progressive manufacturers can share machinery, space, or whatever they can exchange as part of a mutually beneficial arrangement. Fromunda says, “Work with others. Learn what they’re doing. Successful companies in our industry are collaborating. Companies that isolate themselves are failing, unfortunately.”

At Loewen, which ships worldwide, a focus on logistics and lean manufacturing has been crucial to its ongoing success and survival. The company can’t be resistant to change, or outside help. Instead, it is always looking at ways to improve its operations. According to Boxhorn, “We have changed a lot over the years. It’s a very different compared to when I first got here. There was one department that we decided needed improvement, so the company brought in an entire team to assess the situation, including consultants. They went through everything and asked for input from everyone, including workers. The results were dramatic. We not only changed the equipment, but brighter lights were installed and more white paint was used — whatever it took to improve efficiency.”

This team-based, collaborative approach is part of Loewen’s philosophy of continuous improvement, which permeates the entire company. According to Boxhorn, “You need a situation where workers are volunteering suggestions for improvement, or even making certain improvements without asking. We’re always looking to do better. The more that people feel part of that process, the more productive we become.”

While manufacturing facilities often look inward for improvements, the flip-side of logistics is what occurs outside the company — specifically, moving goods to the customer in a timely fashion. In fact, many experts that say they specialize in logistics do just that: facilitate the transport of materials not only next door, but across the globe. In a world that’s only getting smaller, and more competitive, the need to ship goods long distances at low cost is crucial.

According to Boxhorn, this internal/external division of logistics is split about 50/50 at Loewen. He says, “We have some people who specialize on the production side inside our own facility, and we have other people who look after the movement of materials in and out of that facility. You can’t focus on just one. You have to be lean on the inside, and well organized on the outside, too.”

Whether it’s on the inside or the outside, improvement of an organization’s logistics will only occur through people. Human beings are the ones making the decisions, and human beings are the ones carrying out those decisions. Even though automation has become a sustained trend in the industry, it’s by working collaboratively or through teamwork that long-term success can be sustained.


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