April 23, 2012      

Furniture Today?AP Industries (Quebec, Canada) reported the installation of the first-ever robotic furniture manufacturing system in North America. The arm, supplied by Kuka Robotics, is nine feet long and can extend to twelve feet is being touted as the first independently functioning wood furniture robotics manufacturing system in North America.

“The unit does what about 15 human employees could do and is expected to speed production.”–Ken Loh, VP, sales

Named Arthur 1, the robotic system has been running 24 hours a day, five days a week, said Ken Loh, vice president of sales. “All we do is send it the pieces we need, the quantities we need and it takes its own judgment on how to manage that production,” Loh said. Named in memory of Arthur Houde, one of the two founders of AP Industries in 1950, it uses robotics to fully machine raw components and move them through assembly without human assistance.

The unit does what about 15 human employees could do and is expected to speed production, Loh said. Arthur 1’s flexible arm is centrally located in a cell surrounded by 10 tooling docks. The system performs tasks including sanding, sawing, cutting and drilling. It judges how to cut veneers and panels. It currently is focused on making components for bedroom groups. Assembly is handled by plant employees. Loh said robotics give the company shorter lead times, higher precision and quality, and more flexible price points ranges. This year, AP will unveil several retail-centric programs made possible by the Arthur 1 installation, he said. It gives the company the ability to retail a four-piece solid wood bedroom set at $1,999, supported with a made-in-North America story and multiple finish selections.

“All product in the showroom has been touched by Arthur to a high percentage, all drawers, all framing,” Loh said. “So this will be the first showing of his work.” He said company management started discussing robotics in 2008. Later, the company’s 20-year machining partner, Quebec-based Machineries Automatech, used its ties to German industrial robot producer Kuka to supply the robotic arm that was developed into the self managing and operating production system. Automatech supported the project’s programming and tooling and Kuka Robotics built the machine, Loh said.

As part of the first phase of the robotics program, AP plans to install a second system this year, and a third system later that will be dedicated to finishing, Loh said. One long-term goal is to have assembly as part of the robotic functions. The Arthur 1 machine cost about $655,000, he said, adding that overall phase one costs will be about $3.5 million. Additional robotics will be installed in a second phase, the company said. The systems will only replace retiring employees, Loh added.

Specialized robotics aren’t common to the furniture industry, he said. Some large manufacturers use robots in production but mainly for simple functions, like picking up and moving furniture pieces or pushing items down conveyor belts. They’re also used minimally in spraying finish applications. Loh said the Arthur system can do a lot. “It’s just a matter of once we install the schematics for a piece, it automatically takes that and begins to manufacture. There’s almost no limit on that end,” he said.

Quality should improve because of the robotics, he said. Some processes done by human hands, like 45-degree sanding around edges of drawer fronts, are not always uniform, he said. “When it’s cutting it’s as precise as a Computer Numerical Control machine,” said Loh. “The missed cuts, the sanding, right down to the veneering will be as precise as we can possibly make it.”

While it currently is handling primarily bedroom, the company has plans for robotics to branch out into all of AP’s products, including home office and entertainment groups.

See RBR50: KUKA Robotics