By Tony Kryzanowski
A$2.4 million investment into a new cut line—featuring more mechanization and high performance scanning technology—is helping Milette Doors, a Canadian manufacturer of wood interior doors, meet the high demand for its products.
The investment at the front end of its production line significantly increases volume throughput, improves board selection consistency and solves an imminent labor problem.
Canada Economic Development, National Bank, and Investissement Quebec supported the investment by St-Boniface, Quebec-based, Milette Doors. Its custom-made products can be found throughout North America in retail locations such as Home Depot. The company is well-situated between Montreal and Quebec City. They market their products across Canada, from Nanaimo, B.C. to Newfoundland.
The company’s service is highly customized, as they are able to construct nearly anything required for a wood interior door.
The new cut line features scanning technology supplied by Italy-based Microtec, working in combination with a new wood handling system supplied by System TM, which is based in Denmark. Microtec has installed many cutlines together with System TM in North America, both in the U.S. and Canada. Vancouver-based Springer Microtec is the Canadian distributor of Microtec products.
The Microtec Goldeneye 300 scanner analyzes the size, color, and position of knots on lumber at over 300 feet per minute and consists of 12 high definition cameras.
“Before we installed the new cut line, on a very good day we’d produce between 25,000 and 30,000 board feet,” says Simon Milette, cutline machine operator. “Right now, if we have a good day with the new cut line, we produce between 55,000 to 60,000 board feet.”
The company is now able to produce the same amount of material in two days that previously took five days—and the quality of door components is more consistent.
Installation of the cut line took place in spring 2017, with the entire interval between tear down of the old system and installation of the new cut line representing only a loss of about 10 days of production. With the help of local tradespeople, Microtec and System TM handled the entire installation, and stayed on site to train staff in operation of the new equipment. Prior to the installation, the suppliers custom designed the system to fit in the available space.
Prior to this installation, the door component selection process was handled by human graders, based on specific parameters set by the company to produce the components needed to manufacture finished interior doors. Now, that selection process is handled by the Microtec scanner, with its advanced computer vision technology.
“The system includes an optimizer which calculates the optimum cutting solution to minimize waste,” says Patrick Caron, cutline manager. “We have an average of only eight per cent rejection now, which we think is very good.”
Milette says that they have high expectations for how well the new cut line will perform; they are satisfied with how well it has performed so far, recognizing that because it is such a new system, it has taken some time to ramp it up to its full capabilities. Some system tweaking and new components are required. Both suppliers have been responsive to the company’s needs.
Milette Doors uses a variety of species that constitute the interior structural components of its doors. This includes clear eastern white pine, knotty eastern white pine, oak, maple, birch and primed lumber, which they source from a number of suppliers. The majority of the structural components for their doors are manufactured from pine. They appreciate pine for its stability, screwability, strength, and affordability.
The raw lumber is supplied in six-quarter thickness, usually 5” and 8” wide, in lengths from 4’ to 16’. Milette Doors kiln dries the lumber to between a 6 and 12 per cent moisture content. Prior to encountering the cut line, it is also planed.
Dried and planed lumber is scanned by the Microtec scanner for moisture content, with quality based on six preset parameters set by the company for its door products, and the best cutting solution. This information is conveyed to the System TM cut line. After the door components are sawn, they are conveyed into 70 sorting bins, and from there they proceed through a joining, moulding, and veneering process.
It’s the combination of these structural components that provide the hand-assembled interior doors with their style and strength. The company offers a variety of patterns and styles. It is up to the customer what species of wood they select for the structural components. Veneer glued to the components provides the doors with their visual appearance.
The actual manual door assembly process is a bit like following a recipe. A door style will consist of a particular combination of core and moulded components, that may also include a glass feature. Assembly staff know from a production or door assembly design what is required for each door style. Once it is assembled, the door is machined, sanded, painted, or stained as required, before it is packaged for delivery to the customer.
Production of each door requires a large degree of employee effort and input, says Chantal Frigon, director of sales and marketing. “Because wood is alive, you can’t just use robots to make judgments and manipulate it.”
No employees were laid off as a result of the investment in the cut line, as Milette Doors was faced with the potential consequences of an aging workforce. Frigon says the company knew that within five to eight years, based on the age of their employees, that they would face a labour crunch because it would be hard to replace employees who were retiring. So it made sense to seek a mechanized scanning, cutting and sorting solution on the cut line now, to address that issue.
The new technology was installed in March 2017, and began functioning within a week. It took the company about three months to become familiar and comfortable with the performance of the Microtec computer program and its integration with the System TM saw line. Patrick Caron is responsible for the operation of this part of the production line and he has received extensive and ongoing training to optimize the performance of both the Microtec scanner and System TM wood management system. Others are also being trained in the cut line’s operation.
The cut line project was the last capital investment made by company founder, Gerard Milette, before he retired. He believed that Microtec had the best vision technology in the world and System TM had the best wood handling system. After founding the company in 1967 and with the company celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017, he wanted to leave it in the best shape possible and with excellent future prospects.
“Now that we have more production capacity, we are in the process of making improvements and looking at greater mechanization to help us achieve our goals,” says Chantal Frigon. “I would say that we intend to invest another three-quarters-of-a-million dollars on various projects.”
The company began from very humble roots in 1967, with Gerard and his wife as the only company employees of the window and door manufacturer for the first couple of years. The business grew steadily. By 1978, they had built a second manufacturing plant, a warehouse, and had also invested in state-of-the-art tools. But tragedy struck in 1979 when fire destroyed three months’ inventory of finished product, as well as the Milette family residence. They had five children, and it was in the face of this catastrophe that they were forced to start all over again.
During the following decade, Gerard Milette decided to concentrate on solid wood doors and expanding his distribution network, always keeping quality in mind and being open to the acquisition of high quality manufacturing equipment. In 1987, he acquired what was considered at that time as an ultra-modern wood cutting machine.
The 1990’s were a period of significant growth for the company as Milette invested $3.3 million into the construction of a new 52,000-square foot plant and a state-of-the-art wood dryer. He transferred the majority of operations to the new plant. Moreover, being already involved in the family business, his five children become full shareholders. Two other company managers also joined the team as shareholders.
At the end of the 1990s, nearly 150 employees worked at the plant, and in 1999, the plant once again expanded to absorb the surplus of orders generated by exceptional economic growth.
The past decade witnessed the split of the company into a retail sales division and one dedicated to suit the needs of distributors, as well as the introduction of significantly more computerization within the company’s production, shipping, sales and invoicing departments. The stage was also being set for greater involvement of the next generation of Milette family members.
Most recently, the company has added maple and yellow birch to its wood species mix, and has expanded plant production, to 122,000 square feet. Its current co-presidents are Gerard Milette’s son, Mario, and daughter, Sophie. Milette Doors has 160 employees.
Considering the company’s history, it should come as no surprise that Gerard Milette’s final act, before he left the company, was to invest in state-of-the-art scanning and cut line technology to meet even greater demand for the company’s products, going into the future.
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