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Finishing is a complex issue and proper planning is essential

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Operations Excellence by Sepp Gmeiner
Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions please email s.gmeiner@lignum-consulting.com

Finishing is one of the most complex processes we have in the woodworking industry.
Unlike other processes, its outcome is influenced by the material selection, consistent and accurate upstream processing, the right chemistry of finishing materials and consistent application and precise curing.
Only when these processes/materials are aligned, can consistent and repeatable results be achieved. 
To implement a new ‘finishing line’ is a big undertaking and should not be taken lightly. Too often I see companies ask a finishing equipment supplier to propose a line. This can work if you are listening carefully to the supplier(s).
Any good equipment supplier will ask you a lot of questions in order to determine your needs. A key question is the type of finishing materials you will be running on this equipment. This brings the finishing material supplier into the equation. When digging deeper into the subject, you will find that the options are growing as you learn more about the subject. You’ll find that you want to see what other suppliers have to offer as well. And you will realize how interconnected this project becomes. The equipment supplier asks what lacquer is being used and the lacquer supplier wants to know how the line is configured. The message is clear; you must take control of the planning process!

Product marketing
What finish do you need? Establish the colour range of stains, based on what substrates, build up, and gloss level(s). Do you have wood stains and clear finishes or are there opaque finishes in the line-up.

How ‘green’ does your product have to be?
Do you need water based because this is the trend or are you open to select other materials? This is the time to go outside of the factory and ask questions at tradeshows and to lacquer suppliers internationally. Check what the leaders are doing. What are the requirements for durability, repairability, light stability and other criteria?

What is the finish you 
want to have? - Establish 
the finishing material
Work with your finishing supplier(s) and select specific material types. Request samples for documentation and approve with marketing. Check if the application and curing method works for your entire product. For example, if you have flat-line automatic spray finishing, how do you finish the bulky 3-D parts? If you have UV-curing at your line, how do you match off-line products cured traditionally?
Some manufacturers successfully mix products from different suppliers in the finish build up. For reasons of simplicity,  I would avoid that. If something does not work, it is much easier to get results if you can point it out to one supplier rather than several different ones.

Establish the process steps
The finishing material suppliers will supply you with the required process steps. They can establish the application quantity, dwell time, flush-off time, and curing time, including different air-velocity and temperatures. Make sure you ask for this data in different ways. What is the minimum requirement? What is the preferred /best way? Dig as deep as possible! Does pre-heating/warming of the panel help? Will extra dwell time help? Also push the envelope for future development. What if you need to provide darker stain finishes in the future? Will you need more curing time? Is the technical process data from one supplier only? Are you limiting yourself to certain materials from one supplier only? By selecting the data accordingly you can create a more flexible line. Include sanding as a finishing process.

Establish the target volume
It sounds simple, but projects sometimes miss their point by not sufficiently forecasting the expected volumes. It is impossible to forecast the future accurately, but with some methods you can achieve good estimates. 

Establish the 
equipment layout
With the above data, the equipment supplier can specify the appropriate line for you. Utilize their experience on optimizing the line. Focus especially on the flexibility of the line. How often do you need to change material type and material colour?

Partnership
It is most important that the material supplier and the equipment supplier for the project come to the table at the same time. The material supplier needs to be confident that his material will work with the line provided, and the equipment supplier needs to be sure that his line will provide the required process conditions. In any project there is always a risk that something gets missed or certain things do not perform as expected. Only by having the key suppliers together at the table can you minimize the risks of initial project failure?

Testing
It is advisable to test the critical processes with the proposed material and with finishing lines identical or similar to the proposed line. These tests are imperative, especially when a company is trying to 
implement new materials and processes. In order to replicate the future process, different labs or production facilities have to be used. In the end you, the customer, needs to be sure you can produce the finish at the target cost on your new line.

Chemical storage
Often, new equipment requires additional storage facilities for the chemical material. It will make a significant cost difference if you have solvent based, flammable material, or water-based material. Significant money can be saved if you are doing the required homework on this subject. 

Permits and code compliance
Depending on where your facility is located, you need to comply with the different provincial and/or municipal codes. Whenever you exhaust to the outside, you need to get the necessary permits from the environment ministry. The use of chemicals inside your facility needs to comply with the ministry of labour. In Ontario, you will also need to have the Prestart Health and Safety Review. Additionally, in order to obtain the ‘Hydro Sticker,’ the equipment’s electrical needs to comply with code. In some jurisdictions the fire marshal and insurance companies want to see /approve your plans. Just because a similar machine is already installed nearby, does not mean you will not have some surprises with yours. It is much more cost effective to deal with all these issues before you have issued the purchase order. Dealing with issues when the machines arrive is bad. It is bad because the corrections usually cost money and time. If it came as a surprise to you, you are most likely to pay for it in the end. The relationship with the suppliers suffers, the ‘good will’ of the authorities is dwindling fast and you are out of time. Do the work ahead of time and enter the project with your eyes wide open.

Training
You also need to give some thought as to who will be trained to operate and maintain the equipment. Sometimes it will take longer to train the right person than it takes to bring in the equipment. Check with your suppliers, and if possible, other factories on what skill levels are required?

Conclusion
If a project is well researched, planned and executed, it may seem effortless and one might question the necessity for such investment into detail planning. However, if there are significant gaps in the research, planning and execution, it can turn into a costly nightmare because of production delays and cost overruns.


Sepp Gmeiner is a partner with Lignum Consulting. For feedback, questions and/or suggestions he can be contacted at s.gmeiner@lignum-consulting.com

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