Asia is well known as home to a robust manufacturing landscape, with a diverse mix of small-, medium- and large-sized factories, especially in manufacturing hubs such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Serving a wide range of customers, from interior designers, fit-out specialists to end-users, these factories specialise in the design and production of wood-based products such as flooring, windows, doors, and furniture.
HOMAG, a provider of integrated solutions for the woodworking industry, has been playing a key role in the furniture manufacturing ecosystem by partnering and supporting manufacturers of all sizes in their growth journey—be it upsizing or upgrading factory capabilities, or increasing efficiency through automation and the use of data.
Here, the company provides insights on the common challenges faced by manufacturers; how the pandemic has augmented the need for automation; how to ensure a smooth transition away from manual processing; as well as the emerging trends that are shaping the sector.
Addressing Common Pain Points With Automation
It is common for factories of differing sizes to each face unique challenges, especially amid shifting consumer trends and increasing industry competition within the Asian manufacturing market.
These, compounded by a year-on-year surge in demand for wood and furniture products for domestic use and export, require factories of all sizes to keep up with production, maximise efficiency and ensure high-quality output.
To facilitate the gradual shift towards automation and digitalisation, it is important for customers to first recognise the existing challenges faced on the factory floor.
In many Asian factories, specifically in the Southeast Asia region, many manufacturing processes are still labour intensive—performed manually by workers, with minimum machine assistance.
In trying to meet rising output and quality demands, factories frequently encounter production bottlenecks, defective products, and a lack of skilled manpower.
For Malaysia-based Simfur Design Sdn Bhd, an end-to-end solution provider with over two decades of experience in the design and manufacturing of custom wood furniture, the automation and digitalisation of their processes has helped to solve several pain points such as over-reliance on manual labour, and the human error that often ensues.
“Previously, when everything was done manually, there were multiple steps needed for each part of the cutting, sorting and assembly process, which along the way led to a lot of human error,” said Jason Sim, Project & Factory Manager at Simfur. “As the company grew, we also faced issues with product consistency; the varied experience and skills of our carpenters posed a challenge in accurately interpreting drawings and customer requirements.”
Mr Sim, who has invested in multiple HOMAG machinery and software since 2016, explained how his investment in the products such as the EDGETEQ, DRILLTEQ and CENTATEQ machining centres, among others, have helped reduce reliance on human labour.
For example, previously, during the cutting stage, workers had to manually think about how to optimise the panels. Now, with HOMAG SAWTEQ, the automated panel dividing saw that facilitates a precise and efficient cutting process, the job load of their staff has been significantly reduced.
Traditionally, on the storage front, manufacturers rely on workers to manually sort, store and retrieve required panels and parts. This typically takes up a significant amount of time and floor space, and workers find it challenging to keep track of all the varied panel options and numerous parts, and tell each order apart.
With their upcoming investment in HOMAG’s STORETEQ intelligent storage system, Simfur will completely automate its panel storage and sorting process. The horizontal storage system will also help to save valuable production space and allow for more material diversity.
“One of the challenges we face is the size of the factory, and we have to solve the issue of insufficient space,” said Mr Sim. “Using a horizontal storage system to stack all the panels in one area, we will have more capacity to handle bigger volumes of panels.”
It is also very labour intensive for his team to manually identify over 30 to 40 panel types and colours, and having to navigate and move pallets around the factory floor just to retrieve a few pieces often causes bottlenecks and panel damage.
“We frequently experience a lot of damage to panels as they are being moved around manually. With HOMAG’s STORETEQ robotic picking and sorting solution, we can reduce damage and confidently handle more exclusive products such as high-gloss panels,” concluded Mr Sim.
On top of the HOMAG machinery, Mr Sim is bent on digitalising his manufacturing process. The addition of HOMAG CUBE, an Internet-connected central module that connects the Sorting Production Set app to a set of racks and label printers, ensures optimum interaction between people, apps and other elements in the work environment.
The Sorting Production Set app, together with HOMAG CUBE allows Mr Sim to automatically sort workshop components into respective racks and compartments and, via a tablet, get an overview of the components needed for each order.
In a similar vein, PT Sinergi Interior Project (Sinpro), a full-service contractor for interior design projects prominent in Indonesia’s IT sector, quickly reaped the many benefits of automating their processes.
According to Hendris Chai, CEO of Sinpro, the factory floor faced multiple issues especially with production capacity and defective products.
“Due to the number of customised projects and the large sizes of the panels required, we found that some panels could not be processed efficiently and accurately, and the material flow was not smooth,” explained Mr Chai.
“This is why automation is the step in the right direction. After investing in and installing the HOMAG machinery including SAWTEQ and EDGETEQ, we have more efficiency and fewer defects, and our production has increased by ten times compared to when we were using traditional processes.”
As Sinpro’s commercial customers demand specially designed and high-quality cabinets and display counters, the addition of CENTATEQ and DRILLTEQ allows them to perform unique drilling, and EDGETEQ allows them to produce high-quality edges. These machines become an integral part of their manufacturing competitive edge.
One of the most prominent industry trends is the shift away from mass production. Many manufacturers that deal with very big batches will move towards Batch Size 1 or lower batch production due to customer demands for individual, customised furniture. However, with each project being unique, the cost and risk can be a challenge for many manufacturers.
“Manufacturing defects are the main problem of the customised furniture industry; with a small production quantity, the cost needed to fix any defects becomes bigger,” commented Mr Chai. “For me, as automation has helped reduce the number of defects, production of customised parts is no longer a problem.”
Besides resolving production bottlenecks and increasing product quality, manufacturers are also keen on increasing operational efficiency using data generated and logged by their machinery. Having a clear understanding of their production metrics allows them to assess, set and maintain KPIs, and increase overall efficiency.
Another region-specific need that has been observed is the attraction and retention of skilled manpower. Through modernisation, manufacturers also achieve a cleaner, sleeker factory floor, attracting and retaining skilled manpower that are difficult to find or wish to move on to other manufacturing industries.
Coping Amid The Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic further added to the challenges faced by the industry; border closures, lockdowns and workplace capacity restrictions saw many factories struggle to meet production demands.
In Malaysia, the first movement control order imposed by the government in March 2020 saw a sudden disruption to Simfur’s operations. According to Mr Sim, automation allowed them to deliver the orders in time.
“The two-month lockdown caused a massive backlog of orders as the machinery and equipment sector was allowed to operate with just 60 percent of our workforce capacity,” recalled Mr Sim. “Our automated factory processes allowed us to maintain our production and output during that difficult time.”
In Indonesia, Sinpro’s business continued to soar even at the height of the pandemic, and automation also allowed them to increase production and cope with the influx of new orders even with limited manpower.
The global travel restrictions also highlighted the need for remote monitoring capabilities, and the ability to remotely view key performance metrics such as the main utilisation level, parts performance, and even the condition of the machines helped greatly with demand planning and optimisation.
Even with the gradual lifting of restrictions, the capabilities of smart machinery and software continue to be beneficial especially for companies with overseas factories; with remote monitoring, gone are the days when factory managers must be physically present to monitor quality and output.
Now, a consolidated overview of the data can be transmitted seamlessly from the machine to a mobile phone or tablet.
Ensuring A Smooth Transition Process
When it comes to automation and digitalisation, it is paramount that factories scale up in a manner that allows for a gradual transition especially when moving away from heavy reliance on manual labour.
Having a trusted industry consultant and partner is beneficial for the phase-by-phase growth that will make sense to factory processes. For example, entry-level machinery is usually first recommended for those who want to replace standalone labour-intensive processes, followed by the gradual implementation of other solutions and software according to their production requirements and capabilities.
With the belief that every customer is unique in their operations and expansion plans, HOMAG’s sales teams go to great lengths to understand customers’ needs and demands, to recommend the right solutions that fit their growth plan.
Apart from actual visits to the customers’ current facilities, the company also organises numerous video-conferencing sessions especially during the pandemic when travelling is restricted, to get a better sense of the customers’ existing workflow and potential areas in which their solutions can be implemented.
The company even developed an Intelligent Visualisation Platform (iVP)—a 3D software that allows customers to visualise their ‘dream factory’ virtually, all without needing to be physically present. Utilising virtual reality to design factory mock-ups—including the floorplan and complete machine lines—helped customers feel confident about their investment before purchase and implementation.
For customers that have already begun automating and digitalising some of their processes, the next step would be to see how they can achieve the possibility of connecting everything together.
The cloud-based tapio system, an industry standard for digitalising woodworking, has the ability to connect machinery and applications across different manufacturers and brands, including HOMAG, is one such tool that can help pave the way towards a truly smart factory setup.
It is essential to have the proper support at every step of the way. For example, the company’s after-sales specialists are localised in each country to help provide on-site support in the customers’ language, and the HOMAG Service Centre allows customers to report and broadcast machine service incidents and receive support using digital assistants.
According to Mr Sim, the support provided helped greatly during the initial machine and software implementation phase, during which they faced some challenges.
“Not only did we receive a lot of attentive support from HOMAG’s team, they also helped us by conducting training sessions and refresher courses, as well as providing tips and alternative solutions to navigate the issues,” said Mr Sim.
The Path Towards Growth For All Industry Players
Manufacturers here are gradually embracing automation and digitalisation, with more set to follow suit over the next few years. And as more factory lines get automated, manufacturers will look towards more automation in data generation and monitoring.
Thus, it is important for manufacturers to partner with a reputable company and consultant with in-depth industry knowledge to ensure that hardware and software perform cohesively and bring the most value to the production cycle.
Whether you’re a company that’s just starting out, an enterprise embarking on a journey towards expansion or growth, or one that plans to further advance your smart factory, a multitude of solutions awaits and it’s all about finding the right fit.
Armed with valuable knowledge on how these solutions can be implemented and scaled for continued growth, you’re on track to reaching your business and production goals.