Photo: ContributedWMMA President Paul Wilmes
The job of the Wood Machinery Manufacturers of America (WMMA) is to advocate for U.S. manufacturers of woodworking machinery, cutting tools and supplies. This includes showcasing the competitive position of U.S. manufacturers versus foreign competitors.
As such, the WMMA considers itself to be the gateway to American woodworking technology and has worked to increase the productivity and profitability of U.S. woodworking machinery companies for more than 120 years. And as WMMA President Paul Wilmes explains, this is one of the many reasons why Canadian woodworking manufacturers should buy from WMMA member companies.
Paul Wilmes, who is also the CEO and president of Mereen-Johnson, says there is one word that describes what is going on in American woodworking technology today and he believes that word is going to be a key word for the foreseeable future -- “automation.”
“What that means is that we need to replace functions requiring human hands with advanced automated machinery,” Wilmes said. “As you are keenly aware, the biggest crisis facing many industries, and particularly the woodworking industry – is the fact companies cannot hire the hands needed to meet their production needs. This gap can only be filled with automation.”
Wilmes believes this is a gigantic problem, which is why Mereen-Johnson created a new division called 1905 Automation. “Mereen-Johnson has always done automation, especially as it comes to material handling,” said Wilmes. “But we saw the labor shortage has created a demand in woodworking for automation beyond just material handling, which is why we created a division dedicated to automation in all its forms.” And it’s not just Mereen-Johnson, but WMMA companies more generally that are embracing the demand for automation in the future.
“We have been in the field and seen firsthand from customers who are very short on workers who are looking to automation,” said Wilmes. “One example was a recent sales call to a customer who needed 45 people to run his facility, but he only had 18. The lack of labor was putting a real cap on his sales – the only solution was automation.”
Wilmes outlined it wasn’t just the shortage of labor, it was also the type of work in a lot of these facilities is not “desirable work.” “Let’s be honest,” said Wilmes. “A lot of the work inside of woodworking facilities is dull, dirty and dangerous, which is another reason it is often hard to hire people. Automation frees up human beings from this kind of work to do other work that they would prefer to do.”
Times have changed according to Wilmes. “There was a time 20 or 30 years ago in which you could find people at a reasonable wage who were okay with feeding boards into a saw or pulling them out of the back end. It doesn’t work like that anymore. It’s a lot harder to find people willing to do that work at any price. And most people today would rather push buttons than push boards.”
“And one of the other trends we’ve been seeing over the past few years,” said Brandon Alberts, general manager of 1905 Automation, “is that the cost of labor has gone up significantly, while the cost of machinery, automation, electronics and robots has come down. This means you are getting a lot more capability for your dollar. Now more than ever, it makes sense to take advantage of that trend and start implementing automation in your company.”
Wilmes said it used to be customers would ask for a two or three-year return on investment, any longer and it would be too much. The issue now is companies can’t hire help, period. And while the return on investment is obviously always a consideration, the main concern now is “can I get the production done that I need to get done.”
“This is not to be judgmental,” said Wilmes, “but times have changed. The reality is that unless we can automate our processes in the United States and Canada in the woodworking industry we are going to be in trouble.” According to Wilmes, that is why American wood machinery technology is focused on one word – automation.
“Automation is where American woodworking technology will be seeing the most innovation in the coming years,” said Tony Sutton, Mereen-Johnson’s VP sales and marketing, and chairman of the WMMA’s Membership Development Committee.
“Automation is already starting to fill those gaps as more and more companies are adding increasing levels of automation.” Wilmes adds, “we also happen to think that robotics and artificial intelligence is going to be where the future of American woodworking machinery is going.”
“Automation can mean a lot of things from a technical standpoint,” said Alberts. “Automation can be automating the data and how it flows through the plant, it can be helping machines make decisions on their own without human input, and one of the biggest needs is material handling.”
In many plants there are a lot of bodies that are moving material between machines or performing sorting operations, stacking and feeding operations and those tasks fit the 3-D’s (dull, dirty, dangerous).
As Alberts said, “The 3-D’s usually involve a lot of heavy lifting, they are not healthy, they are dangerous and they are things that are defined as waste in a lean manufacturing operation. The point is not to take away those jobs, the point is to replace the hands that can’t be hired and to meet the demands of their customers.”Why Canadian woodworkers should consider American machinery
“Trends sometimes take a long time to gain traction,” said Wilmes. “A trend that has been in play for quite some time, but is really starting to gain traction now, is the importance of the supply chain. I know you’ve heard this from talking to other people; there are a plethora of supply chain issues every company is dealing with right now. It’s just unbelievable.”
“We have a manufacturing plant in Indiana and one in South Dakota where we make machines can have 5,000 to 20,000 parts in them and it only takes one missing part and that machine can’t be shipped,” said Wilmes.
He added that anything that comes from overseas has been a huge issue. The cost of shipping is many times more expensive that it was 18 months ago. And the amount of time to get something has more than doubled.
“If you are a customer who needs equipment, the cost of that equipment and the time lag is making that overseas equipment and parts more expensive and it is taking way too long to get,” said Wilmes. “As a result, that trend of buying more local - in this case from North America - is really taking hold. The supply chain needs to be closer to home. That’s another important advantage for Canadian customers when looking to buy machinery from the U.S.”
“This is a big mega trend that is going to influence our industry and buying decisions for the foreseeable future,” said Wilmes. “Those machines made in Europe or Taiwan and elsewhere overseas are going to be more expensive than they were 15 months ago and getting that part or that piece of machinery over here is taking longer as well. And so what that means for Canadian and American producers is that having that supply chain closer to home is very, very important.”
“We all know time is money,” Wilmes said, “and the big issue is the delay of getting machinery and parts. Just look at General Motors having to close plants and lay off workers because they can’t get computer chips. I am happy about the natural advantage that has been created for the Americas to have that supply chain closer to home. For example, at Mereen-Johnson all of our machines are manufactured in the United States. American-made products and most of the components of our machines are sourced here in the Americas, from Canada or the United States. “
This gives WMMA companies an advantage. “Having that supply chain close to you offers a big advantage,” said Wilmes. “For example, our operations are in Minnesota, South Dakota and Indiana and therefore centrally located on the American continent. WMMA companies are a trusted source for equipment, shipping and getting parts to Canadian customers in a timely manner. WMMA companies are in a much better position to do it today vis-à-vis our competitors than we were 18 months ago just because everything has been turned upside down.”
There are other reasons Canadian companies should look to U.S. suppliers. “The United States and Canada have a lot in common. Smart, industrious, hardworking people. And we have a lot of trees. While we are still behind Europe when it comes to using mass timber,” Wilmes said, “that is another area I am really excited about. Concrete and steel are being replaced a little bit at a time with mass timber and that is going to represent a huge market for us as it is being used more and more in commercial construction. That’s going to be the biggest thing to hit the wood industry in the last 100 years and we are going to catch up quickly.”
Sutton explained that environmental concerns are really going to drive that industry, with wood being the only building material that stores carbon. And as regulations are changing across North America to allow taller buildings to be constructed using mass timber, that industry will see some dramatic growth.
“You’ve got California where 40-storey buildings can now be made with mass timber and it will become increasingly popular and people like the aesthetic of mass timber better than concrete,” he said. “I think you are seeing the ball being picked up by Canadian and American companies that are getting into the timber business.”
“This mass timber thing isn’t a galloping horse, but it’s moving along at a good clip and it’s not going to stop,” Wilmes said. “The carbon sequestration of wood, the aesthetic thing which makes buildings more attractive and thus good investments for landlords, all those are big advantages of mass timber. Wood is beautiful and the economics are going to make it even more attractive in the future as more companies are getting into it. And of course, all of this represents great opportunities for American machinery manufacturers, these are new and growing markets for them.”
“As to the advantage for Canadian companies - and we’ve already discussed many of the issues - buying from WMMA members is a smart decision,” Wilmes said. “We monitor all of our quoting activity and our closing ratio has more than doubled in the last 15 months, because the pricing on overseas equipment has gone up and the supply chain issues are becoming so apparent that people want to have that supply chain closer to home. In all things business, economics are the big driver and that supply chain is such that it makes sense to buy from our members.”Quality & Proximity
Quality, said Wilmes, is also an important selling point for U.S. manufacturers. “While it may be a little more to buy a U.S. machine initially, the total cost of ownership on American-made machinery is unquestionably less because of the quality.”
WMMA members are known to produce long-lasting, quality equipment.
As important as quality is proximity. The U.S. market is closer to Canada than any other market. “The service is closer, and the parts are closer,” said Wilmes. “You are closer to the people who manufacture the machinery -- you might be a car ride or a short plane ride away from the manufacturer instead of across an ocean.”Why WMMA
The members of the WMMA have a lot to offer Canadian woodworking companies. According to Wilmes the biggest thing is technology. “American woodworking machinery manufacturers have always been known for their durability and reliability, what has happened in the last 10 years is the ramp up in technology. It is to the point now where it has superceded the Europeans,” said Wilmes. “Regrettably, at one time, we were a little bit behind and it kind of reminds me a bit of car manufacturing. Back in the 70s, America didn’t make very good cars. I remember my dad buying a Grand Torino back in 1972, a big clunky gas hog, and it didn’t handle very well either. But now look at what’s happening with the American car industry, now we have Tesla.”
Wilmes says the same thing is happening with U.S. woodworking machinery. “I’d like to think that Mereen-Johnson, along with the many other companies that are part of the WMMA, are true innovators,” said Wilmes. “As an industry we have made substantial investments in technological advancements in the last 10 years and U.S. companies are now exceeding the sophistication and level of expertise vis-à-vis our European competitors.”
Wilmes said the public policy mission of WMMA has been extremely active and dynamic and any association’s primary goal is to do for members what they can’t do for themselves.
“We have been on a dozen different trips to Washington meeting with government representatives and advocating for our industry,” said Wilmes. “From career technical education to attract more people to the industry, to advocating for mass timber and sustainable construction, which is good for our industry and of course, the environment, we have been active on a number of fronts.”
The WMMA has lobbied for government policies on everything from reforestation to changing regulations to allow mass timber and many, many more. WMMA has also taken a leadership role, along with nine other industry trade associations in the U.S. through the Wood Industry Resource Collaborative (WIRC), to launch a campaign to attract new talent to the wood industry. The www.youwood.com site and related social media campaigns are trying to attract younger workers and those who may be transitioning from other manufacturing jobs into the wood industry. According to Wilmes, “Our members and our customers need this new talent.”
The WMMA is also the co-sponsor of the International Woodworking Fair (IWF) held every two years Atlanta, Georgia, which is a showcase for the latest in American woodworking machinery and technology, and it also brings a high level of technology awareness to the industry, Wilmes said.
“I believe the trends we’ve seen towards keeping that supply chain close to home are going to benefit Canadian and American manufacturers in a big way because economics drives business and things are just less expensive close to home and that supply chain is a lot faster and more secure.”
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