Cutting Costs and The Cutting Edge: Scaling Automation with Luke Elias of Muskoka Cabinet

The Automation Journey

When Luke Elias took over Muskoka Cabinet Company in 1989, the concept of automation in woodworking was still nascent, especially for smaller, more traditional workshops. Elias, however, foresaw the potential of automation to revolutionize production processes. His initial steps towards automation were modest, driven by the need to streamline internal communication within the company, which was then heavily reliant on paper-based systems. By focusing on building an internal computer network, Elias set the stage for a more radical transformation.

The real shift began in the early ’90s when Muskoka started to introduce specific pieces of automated equipment. This period marked the introduction of point-to-point machines, CNC routers, and horizontal boring machines—equipment that was crucial in increasing the precision and speed of production but was still in its relative infancy in terms of broader industry adoption. The pivotal moment came towards the end of the decade, around 1999, when Elias was introduced to nested based manufacturing.

Back then we had machines that did the toe kick cut outs and then a different machine that did the grooving and a different machine that did the horizontal. There was a lot of material handling going on between these machines. So nested based manufacturing was one single machine that did all those operations. We were the first one to get a nesting machine in Canada or in North America from Biesse and that’s kind of where it really started to take off.”

Adopting nested based manufacturing was not without its challenges. As early adopters, Muskoka faced significant hurdles, particularly related to tooling and machine calibration. The initial tools available were not capable of meeting the demands of high-speed operation without causing damage to materials. This led Elias to seek solutions in unconventional places, such as online forums. It was through interactions on platforms like Woodweb that Elias connected with other industry professionals who could offer practical advice and share their experiences. This community-driven problem-solving was instrumental in overcoming the early technical challenges.

“This is what we go through as early adapters: everything looks good on paper, but when you actually go to use it in a production process is when all the flaws come out. Even the manufacturers might not have all the answers.”

Despite initial setbacks, these advancements not only improved the operational efficiency of Muskoka but also set a benchmark in the industry for what could be achieved with the adoption of automation. The journey of automation, led by Luke Elias, transformed Muskoka from a traditional cabinet maker into a leader in technological integration within the woodworking industry, showcasing the significant benefits of embracing technological change.

 

Approaching Automation

Luke Elias’s approach to automation at Muskoka Cabinet Company was far from impulsive; it was meticulously planned and rooted in a comprehensive understanding of data and workflow. The initial step in Muskoka’s automation strategy was always to collect and analyze data extensively. This data-driven approach allowed the company to understand its current performance levels across various metrics, setting a baseline from which improvements could be measured. The insights gained from this data were crucial in determining the specific needs for automation equipment and ensuring that any investment made would yield a tangible return on investment.

“The first step starts with data collection and analyzing the data. We need to know for sure what our baseline is and what our goal is, and we calculate the payback. Because when we invest, we usually go above and beyond all the data. We spend all the time we can collecting and analyzing data because optimizing production costs us a lot of money. With most purchases we make, we end up spending much more because we look for complete integration and question what is happening just before and after a machine.”

The analysis is not just about understanding how machines could speed up production but also about identifying areas where time and labour are wasted, thus freeing up resources for other value-adding activities. For instance, understanding the flow of materials through the shop floor helped Muskoka pinpoint where bottlenecks or redundancies occurred and which processes were candidates for automation or deletion. This could mean automating a single high-labor process or rethinking a series of tasks and the location of machines to create a more streamlined workflow.

 

Value Stream Mapping

Muskoka Departments working with Production Goals.

Muskoka Cabinet Company’s utilization of Value Stream Mapping (VSM) represents a cornerstone of their approach to continuous improvement and operational efficiency. VSM is a lean-management method for analyzing the current state and designing a future state for the series of events that take a product or service from its beginning through to the customer. At Muskoka, VSM was not just a tool to identify waste but also a strategic element for enhancing the entire production process.

The initial implementation of VSM at Muskoka involved assembling a cross-functional team from various departments to map out every step in the production process. This exercise was crucial in highlighting redundant steps, delays, and bottlenecks that were previously unnoticed because they had become so embedded in the day-to-day operations. For instance, during one of their first VSM sessions, it was discovered that a significant amount of time was being wasted in the movement of materials from one end of the shop floor to the other. In response, Muskoka reconfigured the layout of their equipment to minimize unnecessary handling and transport, resulting in a more streamlined workflow and reduced labor costs.

Today, Muskoka has several full-time employees in its continuous improvement department called SMARTWorks. This dedicated team is responsible for planning, engineering, developing, programming and implementing many of the production system’s the company uses like MES, RFID, AMR’s and robotics.   Elias believes that success in the woodworking industry will be dependent on embracing technology and upskilling employees to use this technology.   Leading to significant gains in productivity and thus better paying more attractive careers.

For smaller shops wanting to implement VSM, the process does not need to be overly complex or resource-intensive. Small business owners can start by gathering a team of employees who are involved in the daily operations and conduct a simple walk-through of their processes. The key is to document every step, no matter how minor it appears, and then review these steps critically to identify any potential improvements. Even without sophisticated software or consultants, small shops can gain valuable insights by using basic tools like whiteboards or flowcharts to visualize their processes.

Additionally, small shops should focus on incremental improvements rather than complete overhauls, which can be costly and disruptive. The aim should be to make small, manageable changes that can have an immediate impact on efficiency. Regular VSM sessions can help maintain momentum and ensure continuous improvement, adapting the process as the business grows and changes.

 

Measuring and Managing with an MES

Credit: Muskoka Cabinet Company

At Muskoka Cabinet Company, the implementation of a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) was a strategic move to further enhance operational efficiencies and ensure the accuracy of production data. MES systems serve as a crucial bridge between the planning layer of a business, typically handled by Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, and the actual physical processes occurring on the shop floor. For Muskoka, the MES was pivotal in providing real-time data that could be used to monitor production processes, track progress against production goals, and identify areas needing improvement.

The MES at Muskoka facilitated a much more dynamic approach to managing production. It allowed for real-time tracking of each component and assembly through the shop floor, providing immediate feedback on the status of various jobs. This capability was instrumental in reducing downtime and bottlenecks, as issues could be identified and addressed much more swiftly than before. Furthermore, the system improved communication across the factory floor by providing a common platform through which all relevant personnel could access up-to-date information about production activities.

“MES is a subset of ERP but really, production tracking has to do with the process and the execution on the shop floor- how, for instance, the parts travel around and tracking them. You can’t set it and forget it. If you put in a system like this, you are going to be continually updating it. But it’s like so many other things – the value that you’re going to get far outweighs the time that it’s going to take to keep this system implemented and up to date. If you were to take the leap and hire a person to implement and maintain the system, that would pay for itself in spades, especially if you want to grow.”

For smaller shops looking to adopt similar technology, the advice from Muskoka’s experience is clear: start small but think strategically. Even a basic MES can provide significant benefits in terms of improved data accuracy and operational visibility. Small shops should begin by identifying their most critical information needs—such as job tracking, machine utilization, or inventory levels—and implement a system that addresses these areas effectively. The key is to choose an MES that is scalable and can grow with the business.

Small shop owners should consider the potential for reduced waste, improved production times, and enhanced ability to respond to problems as compelling reasons for the investment. It’s also important for small shops to ensure that the MES they choose can integrate seamlessly with any existing systems, such as design software or customer management systems.

Implementing an MES system also requires a cultural shift within the company. Shop floor employees need to be trained not just on how to use the system, but also on how it can make their jobs easier and more productive. Adoption by all users is critical to realizing the full benefits of the MES.

 

Trade Associations and The One Thing

Robotic Cabinet Assembly

Muskoka Cabinet Company’s active involvement in trade associations, particularly the Canadian Kitchen Cabinet Association (CKCA), has played a pivotal role in its development and continuous improvement strategies. Elias has emphasized the value derived from participation in these industry groups, which serve as platforms for networking, knowledge sharing, and collective problem-solving among peers.

“I always I call it ‘the one thing.’ And it started many years ago. We attend a lot of the trade shows, and if I learn one thing that will change something in my business it’s worth it. We are one of the only industries that doesn’t mind sharing. In May the CKCA is hosting an event with multiple shop tours and we’re going to have Miralis touring Cabico’s factory. Well, you’re never going to see Ford touring GM’s factory, right? Yet we open our doors to each other.  The value of the CKCA is tremendous for that one fact alone. We’ve been members of the CKCA for a long time but I didn’t participate as much because I was thinking ‘what am I even going to see?’ But I changed my attitude because I’ll go into a small shop or a big shop or any shop and I’ll see that one thing that I would see going to an event like IWF. Whether it’s dealing with employees or vendors there’s a vast array of activities that go on in a business and you always learn something. So, I go to all of them now and I love them. I really love them. I promote them highly.”

The value of trade associations extends beyond just the acquisition of new knowledge. They also offer opportunities for businesses to influence industry standards and policies, which can have far-reaching effects on market conditions and operational environments. For smaller shops, the benefits of association membership are even more pronounced. These businesses often operate with limited budgets for research and development, and gaining access to a concentrated pool of industry knowledge and experience through association activities can be transformative.

Luke Elias’s experience at Muskoka Cabinet Company exemplifies the profound benefits of embracing automation and strategic planning in wood manufacturing. By implementing data-driven approaches like MES and Value Stream Mapping, Muskoka has significantly boosted efficiency and productivity. Additionally, Elias’s active participation in trade associations highlights the importance of industry engagement for gaining insights and driving innovation. Manufacturers of all sizes are encouraged to explore how automation can enhance their operations and to consider the benefits of joining trade associations to stay competitive and informed.

Tyler Holt is the Editor of Wood Industry / Le monde du bois magazine. He has a master’s degree in literature and publication, and years of experience in the publishing and digital media industry. His main area of study is the effect of digital technologies on industrial and networked production.

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