With a heritage spanning over 150 years, the upholstery specialist, Alstons, has become one the best-known sofa manufacturers in the UK and continues to provide furniture outlets with British-made sofas from its premises in Colchester. Following the sale of the business in 2015, the award-winning manufacturer has continued to invest in its 8,000 square meter manufacturing facilities, purchasing a new Weinig Opticut S90 Cross Cut Saw and Powermat 1500 Moulder with EM100 feeder to increase output and reduce running costs in its saw mill.
In 2020, the decision to replace two of the companies most integral machines in its sawmill was taken. “After 23 years of service, our trusted Weinig Opticut 200 roller-feed cross cut and Weinig 23E moulder – which we had been using to manufacturer Birch piece parts for sofa frames – were showing signs of age,” begins Michael Parker, Facilities Manager at Alstons. “We look after our machines and make sure a Weinig engineer comes to service them each year but there comes a time when you have to weigh up the practical implications of running an older machine. At some point, they will become obsolete and spare parts will be impossible to find. The fact that Weinig still holds parts for a 23-year-old machine is testament to the build quality of these machines but we needed to think longer term and the knock on effect a failing machine could have on production at a later date. Then there was a question of technology, speed and automation. Machinery has come a long way in 23 years and we didn’t want to get left behind.”
In 2020, the cross-cut saw was replaced with a brand new Weinig Opticut S90 push-feed Cross Cut Saw, which removed the manual work involved in passing timber through the old saw, providing more accuracy to the ‘cut-to-length’ product and avoiding a further secondary cross-cutting process later in production. With a clear distinction between the output, quality and cost-savings associated with the new machine, the Weinig 23E moulder followed suit. In the summer of 2022, it was replaced with a Powermat 1500 and EM100 feeder. “The cost and time-saving benefits of running the two new machines side by side was immediate,” recalls Michael. “The set-up times on both machines were more than halved and the need for manual set-up and regular adjustments were a thing of the past.”
Alston’s moulder took the longest to set-up when working on small batch runs that required one of five different radiuses and profiles. “It was a laborious process and required a certain level of skill,” says Michael. “The operator had to change the cutter blocks, wind the heads up and down and amend the top, side and bottom pressures every time we wanted to complete a short production run. Now, the Powermat 1500 is pre-programmed and ready to go at the touch of a button.
“Weinig’s Powerlock clamping system also allows us to change tools within a matter of seconds safely and it’s really easy to do. This has seen the set-up times on this machine reduce from 20 minutes to just five. When you think we could be running 10 different jobs on the moulder in one day, the easy set-up process alone saves us over three hours a day and that’s before calculating the increased speed of the production cycle and reduced handling associated with EM100 feeder we installed alongside it.”
Additional time saving has also been put down to the moulder’s user-friendly design, which includes its intuitive machine controls and tool accessibility, and the additional EM100 feeder. “The EM100 feeder allows for cut to length material to be fed via the hopper feeder rather than feeding long lengths and then cutting afterwards. The long timber lengths caused some slippage from time to time and made working with timber as long as 4.8 metres labour intensive. Now, operators are not pushing timber through. They simply load the hopper and the machine does the rest. This not only streamlines the production but also feeds the machine uniformly, which eliminates marks on the timber.”
Intelligent tooling options were also included on Alston’s Powermat 1500 and supplied by an external tooling specialist. “We opted for a reversable Tip Tooling system with constant radial settings,” says Michael. “This allows the machine to run at higher speeds of 8,000rpm and not 6,000rpm and, if required, gives us the flexibility to remove more material more quickly, accurately and to a better finish, adding to our efficiencies. This was an upgrade but we knew it would allow us to effectively machine lower grade timber suitable for sofa frames.”
The intelligent inverter-driven motors also simplify the running and maintenance of the moulder. Michael says, “Like many manufacturing companies, skilled labour is often difficult to come by. The Powermat 1500 offers a solution. The machine monitors the complete machining process, including the top pressures and notifies the operator if it detects any potential problems, avoiding damage and expensive maintenance costs. The machine also comes with a remote monitoring package that allows engineers to dial into the PLC and access the machine’s diagnostics remotely to reduce any future repair costs. We’re yet to use this but it’s something we’re looking to use on both machines in 2023.”
Alston’s energy consumption has also greatly improved. “We couldn’t have foreseen the energy crisis but we’re pleased we made the changes when we did,” admits Michael. “The overall running cost of the moulder has reduced from 74kW to 58kW per hour and the speed each batch is completed has reduced by 20%. Plus, each energy-efficient IE3 motor offers us a 15% saving. It soon adds up. We’re also able to turn the motors down to reduce energy consumption when performing simple jobs like ripping.”
Due to the speed and accuracy of both machines, the sofa manufacturer now machines the same amount of timber in four days as it previously did in five – not only reducing energy consumption but also giving Michael the flexibility to use his operators in different areas of the mill. “Our wood mill is the most labour-intensive part of our business but thanks to machines like these, we see this changing. We will always need a skilled team of frame-makers and upholsterers on the floor but technology will allow us to create a more streamlined production process that makes our employees’ lives easier.”
Michael adds, “In my eyes, Weinig is one of the best machinery manufacturers in the world and they offer the best after-sales service we’ve had. You often read about happy customers saying all the right things but in our case, this is the honest truth. Weinig’s spare parts team and engineers are highly knowledgeable and really helpful – the best I’ve come across in 20 years. We’ve built a brilliant relationship with the team in the UK and they understand our business. The spare parts team know what we need, even when we don’t. They are like a family to us and that’s how it should be. They’ve even been happy to take calls on a weekend when we’ve needed advice. You simply don’t come across this level of service anywhere else. You might think you’re paying a premium for Weinig machines but when they last over 20 years, this pales into insignificance. You get what you pay for, so why would you look anywhere else?”