By Yap Shi Quan
Wood panel manufacturers of late probably have felt the effects of market challenges like inflation, manpower shortages, and supply chain disruptions on their production.
Rising prices of raw materials like wax and resin have brought down profits since raw materials comprise 50-60% of the cost to produce wood panels. When experienced workers who have worked decades in factories retire, they take away with them years of production knowledge. New hires have to learn the unique processes and intricacies of each piece of equipment, and efficiency — and possibly quality — suffers as a result. It takes a lot of time and resources to train new operators, bringing inefficiencies and production instability in the interim.
Although advanced methods of production such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and smart technology can potentially mitigate these issues, there is still some resistance within the industry towards their adoption. The preference is still traditional methods, as Hanoch Magid, CEO of SMARTECH, an Israeli technology provider to the wood panel industry, observed: “The first issue is there is not much development of AI technology in this industry. The second issue is that industry itself is reluctant to adopt new technology because new methods of production raise the level of risk to what has typically been a modest, though predictable profit margin.”
Bringing autonomy to production lines to increase profitability
SMARTECH was therefore formed to integrate highly innovative technology into the traditional panel manufacturing industry by targeting two aspects of production that bring high costs: manpower and raw materials.
“Lapses in the production line, such as the factory running over the weekend, differences in production output between morning and night shifts or between summer and winter, or the equipment not synchronised with combinations of different raw materials, can lead to inefficiencies and instabilities,” said Magid. “Combined with the recent manpower crunch, such variances in production can lead to not only losses in output and quality, but also opportunities to create more with less.”
SMARTECH has also witnessed instances where wood panel manufacturers did not fully take advantage of the vast amount of data in their factories. “As a result, we took the challenge to develop a one-of-a-kind AI-based solution that unleashes the power of data: the Autonomous Manewfacturing Platform to minimise such fluctuations and increase the production capacity by using AI and ML algorithms,” explained Magid.
The software begins by creating a profile of the line, then takes real-time information from the production line and the operators’ inputs. It manipulates the critical processes — be it, for instance, a continuous press or a multi-opening press — by taking control of the process. The software streamlines and uses the data by synchronising performance between machines, raw materials, processes, and operators.
As Magid explained: “Operating the press is not trivial and that is the reason why a shortage of experienced operators in the control room can be detrimental to the bottom line. Today the novice operator can function like experienced operators with our AI-based software, thus increasing the production capacity and decreasing costs.”
Furthermore, a typical line may have about 15-20 screens for operators to monitor. With Autonomous Manewfacturing, operators monitor a single screen where all the activity is shown and from where the line itself can be controlled. The system can guide the operator or be set to autonomous mode.
The main thing the operator needs to learn is how to troubleshoot failures when they occur in the line, according to Hansjorg Prettner, vice-president APAC and Europe for SMARTECH. He also stressed that their solutions aim to extract more value from the line and enhance its overall performance and efficiency: “Whether it is in Europe or Asia, every manufacturer faces the same issues: line efficiency and experienced manpower shortages. With our smart solutions, the factory becomes more profitable while mitigating the consequences of shorter tenured staff.”
Curious to know more? Click here to read on in the July/August issue of Panels & Furniture Asia.