For Kevin Silveria, Mansfield, Mass.–based National Lumber Co.'s acquisition strategy unfolded at the perfect time. Three years ago, the Reliable Truss & Components account manager had hit a sales plateau as his New Bedford, Mass.–based employer stalled at around $5 million in annual sales providing roof trusses, floor trusses, and wall panels to commercial and residential builders throughout New England. "I think that at a certain level, you cannot grow [the manufacturing side of the business] without taking a big step forward in investment," Silveria explains. "Whether it is in technology, equipment, or inventory, you need that capacity to increase sales to contractors that are focused on increasing efficiency."

In February 2003, National stepped in to do just that, acquiring Reliable and spending approximately $7 million to outfit the shop with a component manufacturer's wish list of saws, material handling equipment, and productivity and efficiency tools. In addition, the dealer added a drive-through lumberyard and by May 2003 was open for business as a "one phone call" component and material supplier to New England contractors. "We are one of the few providers offering the whole package of roof trusses, floor trusses, wall panels, lumber, and building materials," says National Lumber and Reliable Truss president Manuel Pina of the updated and reinvigorated Reliable facility. "We will coordinate the whole ball of wax under one roof with one management team."

Total Automation

Even though Reliable, which had moved to the property in 1999, had made some capital investments, National largely redesigned the entire operation, extending truss lines, buying new delivery trucks, and building the drive-through lumberyard and a 39,000-square-foot wall panel shop. All told, the 19-acre property was completely transformed with new equipment, new technologies, and new work-flow patterns. "Material flow, machine placement, and machine capabilities are the keys to efficient component production," says National Lumber and Reliable Truss vice president of operations David Saunders. "We decided if we were going to get into this, we wanted to get into an automated state. So we went full steam ahead and made our investments all at once."

Using in-house designers, National remodeled the Reliable truss shop from the ground up as the company concurrently began green field construction on a wall panel building addition. One key strategy the company employed was to plan the location of all equipment prior to construction, requesting CAD files of machinery from its vendors for use during facility design layout. This tactic allowed the company to run almost all utility lines–including electrical and compressed-air piping–below slab, resulting in barrier-free aisles and traffic areas for forklifts and walking labor.

Above the slab, Reliable's updated equipment roster includes seven saws that provide a variety of cutting functions during the construction of the company's component products. Cutting of framing material for wood trusses is accomplished primarily with an automated MiTek Cyber A/T saw, an automated MiTek Omni saw, and a Monet DeSauw web and stud cutter. Using MiTek's MVP (MiTek Virtual Plant) software, manufacturing schematics and work task information are downloaded to touch-screen workstations throughout the plant. Armed with a tilted magazine feed, the Monet DeSauw cuts floor truss webs and studs at an amazing 70-plus boards per minute.

Saws supporting wall panel manufacturing include an automated Virtek NC saw for wall plate cuts and bevel cuts, and a Hundegger SC-1 CNC saw that can cut lumber products with dimensions up to 6¼ inches by 17¾ inches by 32 feet long. "The Hundegger is really much more than a saw," says Saunders. "Its multi-tool head can drill, notch, bevel, cross-cut, compound-bevel-cut, and mill the raw stock." Additional saws include a Holtec V saw, capable of cutting full bunk-units of lumber up to 66 feet in length with an accuracy range of 1 millimeter, and a PCS sheathing saw for cutting and marking panel sheathing. The shop also boasts one of only four MiTek FloorTracker truss tables in the country, which mechanically flips floor trusses to improve productivity and reduce worker fatigue. A 100-foot gantry roof truss table is outfitted with Virtek laser projectors that project the geometry of the truss to be assembled onto the gantry table to the nearest 1/16 inch to practically eliminate the manual jig and set of trusses.

In addition to MiTek's MVP software, Reliable uses ShopNet from wall panel software vendor Walplus+ to download panel designs to workstations throughout the plant. ShopNet automatically assigns material pulls, cutting, and subcomponent assembly operations to each workstation in the required order and feeds real-time manufacturing status back to Reliable's server. "Both MVP and ShopNet give you a range of visibility within the plant," says Saunders. "The systems are very detailed about their job status reporting."

According to Pina, all of the equipment providers were selected based on their track record of pro dealer support. Virtek, for example, recalibrates its laser projection system annually, but also will be at the plant within 24 hours if Reliable requires any technical assistance. Pina also points to the highest technical and automated capabilities as characteristics shared by all of Reliable's equipment. "We know that it is a big commitment with capital, but with the cost of benefits and the labor situation of today, automation guides our selection of saws, trucks, and even computers," he says. "Any machinery [that] reduces labor and makes things easier on the remaining labor force I think is the wave of the future."

All the Extras

Material handling and waste collection equipment installed at the plant also is making life easier on Reliable's labor force. To maximize facility acreage, the company opted not to include a loading dock, and instead is employing an 8-by-12-foot scissor lift loading platform that sinks flush with the facility slab when not in use. The platform can support more than 20,000 pounds–the weight of a pallet full of nails or truss plates plus the forklift to carry them–and is activated by a cabled push button hanging from the ceiling that allows forklift operators to raise or lower the platform without having to leave the wheel.

Also installed into the slab is a conveyor belt waste system that collects wood waste from plant machinery, keeping the shop floor clutter-free and eliminating a large percentage of manual cleanups. Plant personnel also enjoy men's and women's locker rooms, and a break room "cafe" with vending machines, television, air conditioning, pay phones, and a kitchen area with refrigerators, microwaves, and a sink.

One of the more unique features installed in the facility is a joystick-controlled, eight-camera monitoring system. While the safety and security benefits are obvious, Saunders says the real intent–and benefit–of the system has been in analyzing and adjusting productivity processes and work systems. "At a plant you have a lot of things happening at once: You have in-bound boards coming in from vendors, you have trucks trying to coordinate and load and arrive at doors," he explains. "Video allows an air traffic–type control, and you can study workflow zones and change labor and traffic patterns depending on how people are moving on screen."

The camera system also is a powerful sales tool. Over a secure URL, salespeople in the field or National executives at the home office can pull up live video feed over the Internet to show the shop's capabilities to customers.