IS THERE A BALANCE BETWEEN INVESTMENT AND THE NEED FOR SKILLS IN TODAY’S JOINERY INDUSTRY?

IS THERE A BALANCE BETWEEN INVESTMENT AND THE NEED FOR SKILLS IN TODAY’S JOINERY INDUSTRY?

In 1986, when as Managing Director of Sarek Joinery based in Sible Heddingham, Essex, I had the pleasure of presenting a Wadkin single end tennoner as a retirement gift to the machinist who had run the machine almost for the whole of his career, nigh on 51 years. It was taken home and took pride of place in his front garden in a glass case for all passers-by to see.

We had just invested in the latest state-of-the-art window line organised, at the time, by Weinig. We were also facing the issue of fixing brakes to all spinning blocks under the latest health and safety rules although the tennoner couldn’t be adapted. The new line would make window components to order, rather than to stock, and the result was expected to reduce our direct labour costs and inventory of components.

At the time we were making some 3500 timber window equivalents per week with annual sales in the region of £12m so the value of the window was quite low at an average selling price of £68.00 reflecting the fact that most products were frames-only with no glass or factory finish. The investment in what was known as FMS (Flexible Manufacturing Systems) was a nuance and coincidental with the consumer demand for better products, greater variety and a higher quality. The industry was suffering from the advent of the ‘double glazing’ craze and the opportunity this provided UPVC system providers through localised installers and fabricators. This came about because the wooden frame window and door industry had done itself no good with a long history of badly made products from unseasoned and untreated softwood leading to on- site deterioration and the subsequent need for replacement products.

At this time those of us in the industry, under the BWF banner, campaigned for, and lead, tours to mills for specific material to be provided by the Scandinavian and Canadian sawmills in the form of prepared blanks, and also made up engineered laminates, but to no avail. Most shippers and their mills really wanted volume demand so that high production of log sawn-timber could be produced with a relatively high yield. In Canada, for example, if it wasn’t 2 x 4 material for studs they didn’t want to know.

Notwithstanding that we persevered and managed to get some Swedish mills to prepare window blanks, that were already selected and PSE to go straight into the window lines, this was all in an effort to keep reducing our production costs and eliminate process waste. As time went on, more investment was made and with good collaboration with the machine manufacturers we slowly saw the development of machining centres. These would take out several separate machine process points and, with it, the skilled labour that manned these stations. Engineered laminated timber window blanks are now the norm throughout the window industry.

The retiree who took his tennoner with him was a very experienced and all- round skilled individual who had learned the art of setting out his own jobs, almost straight from the customer’s order, and was able to then produce the component parts for assembly.

The development of product configurator systems has now enabled us to finitely describe the product ranges that we see the need to sell in the market, whether it be a sliding sash window, casement or French doorset. The description contains all the design elements and material needed to make the product. These products have all been tested to the very latest performance tests for air permeability, thermal insulation, acoustics and security and comply with all the latest building regulations under the control of a third party certification body, in our case BSI, and the BWF-TWA scheme.

All of this information is available through the NBS specification clauses so that the designer and/or customer can describe easily to us the products they need for their project. They are easily understood, dynamically priced, and can be downloaded through the use of CAD drawings and industry recognised systems like NBS BIM and NBS Plus directly into the architects design model. Then after the order has been placed directly to us, and the machining centres in the factory commence, the skill today is in technical engineering, programme writing and maintenance of the equipment. There is little need for separate spindles, routers or profile moulders, or the need for operators, as all these jobs are now expected to be done on the machining centres. So, it is no surprise that there is a shortage of the traditional skills available in the industry, yet we still see the need for them. The Government accepts this and is trying to provide training funds to meet this demand.

The great opportunity we all have is to collaborate in using this modern technology to drive the detail all the way through the process, from the design stage to the machines in the factory, so that reliance on the old skills is no longer needed. Yet we still see the industry ignore these all-embracing modern designs that will match any heritage period as well as the new contemporary style. We have tried and tested these and they can all be configured, ordered and made available simply at the touch of a screen. The difference is miniscule and the opportunity for designers to make their mark is still there in the size and shape of the window they want, as is the finish and ironmongery choice, in all the different styles that are in the defined range.

This route must now be recognised so as to make the cost of procurement fit well with the size of the investment in the modern plant and machinery, rather than call for old skills that are simply not there any longer and, as such, the cost of the provision is becoming prohibitive.

So the investment has been made to de-skill the process and reduce the final installed cost but the industry still wants the old model with all the bells and whistles that take a longer time to make and increase the cost quite substantially.

To compete with the rest of the world, and in our case Europeans, we must be resilient and see the job through as it will not only protect the modern technician’s jobs but also grow the need for more.

 



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