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- June 5, 2017
Craftsmanship and computer automated manufacturing technology work together in furniture making. Since 1972, when Tom Moser left his faculty position at Bates College to start making one-of-a-kind furniture, the company he founded has been a relentless exemplar of handmade design and manufacturing excellence. Today, the company employs some 70 craftsmen at its shop in Auburn, Maine. They work at benches making one piece of furniture at a time, often to a specific customer's specification. Once finished, the maker confirms each piece’s standard of quality with his/her own signature. At Thos. Moser, design leads. Technology, operated and inspired by the capabilities of their craftsmen and the potential of their premium wood resource, is then used to fulfill the execution of each design. One of the latest and most promising pieces of equipment in operation to support the shop is an advanced 5-axis CNC router relying on advanced multiaxis software (Mastercam CAD/CAM Software from CNC Software, Inc. Tolland, CT) for programming. SLIDESHOW Thomas Moser reveals CNC operations Thomas Moser furniture, technology, and craftsmen at work. “Thos. Moser is all about design, material quality, fit, and finish,” says design engineer Peter Basil. “All of these characteristics rely heavily on our craftsmen at the bench. But we also have to be competitive. While we are dedicated to craftsmanship, we are not averse to technology.” In 2015, Thos. Moser installed a new Onsrud 5-axis router with an additional sixth axis. To integrate the new CNC system into its corporate mission of hand-made excellence, Thos. Moser worked closely with the router manufacturer and its CAD/CAM software developer to create a CNC programming environment for supporting hand-craftsmanship, not replacing it. The two companies worked together as a team to fine-tune the post-processor and to insure that the sixth axis of the machine could be programmed via Mastercam. “Having teams from both companies on-site at the same time meant that what could have been a long process turned into a short one,” said Thos. Moser supply chain manager, Tim McIntyre. Two software engineers from Mastercam developed a post-processor that worked the way they wanted it to. They also created a machine model that allows the programmers to completely visualize setups and the routing process. This significantly reduces set-up time at the machine and assures that all machine and tool motions are both safe and accurate. Thos. Moser staffers also learned about software features that would help the company produce more accurate, near net shape components and get them into their hands for finish work and assembly faster. Simulation was one of these features. Another is a morph between two curves toolpath that efficiently blends adjacent surfaces so that the bench worker has to do less hand finishing. McIntyre said that the exceptional control Mastercam gives the programmer over tool angles translates into more precision and greater productivity at the bench. Components on Demand An initial objective in adding advanced machine and programming technology was to keep more of its higher volume of parts for contract furniture manufacturing projects in-house without disrupting the workflow of its custom residential furniture orders. McIntyre explained that being able to respond effectively to large contract projects has made it necessary for his company to develop a rather large network of suppliers. With typical lead times for outsourced parts in the 4 to 6-week range, Thos. Moser found it necessary to keep a substantial number of commonly used parts in inventory so that it could be responsive to its customers’ delivery requirements. As a result, the company had to contend not only with shipping costs but also the cost of holding inventory. McIntyre explained, “We wanted a machine that was flexible enough so we can drop down a component that would require operations on multiple pieces of conventional woodworking equipment and have it done on one machine. It has given us the opportunity to do some larger volume projects and not be dependent on our suppliers’ lead times. We are now able to build complex component parts for different SKUs, frequently with substantial customization, and do it on demand. We are more in control of our own destiny.” As of the first quarter of 2016, Thos. Moser brought in about 100 component parts that were being machined on the outside plus developed new products on the CNC router. Many more parts qualify for being produced with this technology. They represent a highly tangible opportunity for improving manufacturing flexibility. More Sophisticated Designs The new 5-axis router has taken on the manufacturing of Thos. Moser’s most complex and costly components, not only ameliorating lead-time and inventory issues, but also producing complex furniture components more efficiently. Components that used to require multiple setups on a 3-axis router can now be made in a single setup on the 5-axis system. Critical sculptured components used in Thos. Moser's “Hartford Collection” exemplify this benefit. This line consists of chairs, sofas, coffee tables, side tables, etc. with bow shaped pieces made from steamed walnut. Design Engineer, Peter Basil said, "All of the pieces in the chair’s frame, particularly the joinery, are complex. Yes, they can be made by hand here, but then no one could afford to buy them. Now our customers can.” It took about a week to program parts for the complete chair because of its complexity. Mastercam's ability to program the machine’s unique rotary-axis made it possible to rotate the part so that it could be machined on every side without having to move it through a series of fixtures. The back leg of the chair, for example, can be fully machined in just ten minutes. At the bench, there is still a great deal of craftsmanship required to assemble the chair and blend surfaces together. This goes faster because the exceptional accuracy of parts made on the 5-axis system has eliminated gaps and other joinery issues that would require additional time-consuming hand-work. Important Subtle Differences Although Thos. Moser is philosophically opposed to compromising design for manufacturing, the introduction of the 5-axis manufacturing system has resulted in some important subtle changes at the shop. It’s much easier for the designer and craftsman to collaborate with each other on prototypes when the parts in question are being manufactured in-house. The designer benefits from getting immediate feedback from the craftsman before and after the prototype part is manufactured. The prototyping sequence has also been altered. Furniture designs used to be created by the woodworking artisan from the designer’s sketches using a manual table saw, drill press, and hand tools. Then the design would be reverse engineered for production purposes. Today, the parts for complex furniture designs are modeled, imported into Mastercam, and programmed for 5-axis machining at the same time the prototype is being made by hand to finalize the design intent. The lead-time for prototypes has been shortened, and, once the design is approved, little additional time is required to move the project into production. McIntyre said, “We are taking advantage of the skills in our shop a little differently now. It has shortened our lead times and it certainly makes our manufacturing timetable more flexible. When we look at our calendar now, we see our residential and contract business integrated into the same schedule.” He concluded, “Automation is not in our core list of attributes at Thos. Moser, but using it to do the things we need to do to bring value to our customers is a brand promise. Any good industrial engineer who comes in and takes a look at what we are doing with the machine will first scratch his head and ask, ‘why did you invest so much money in technology only to grind out that one part in 15 minutes?’ Well, you know, that is exactly why we did it, so we can build the furniture we want to build when we want to build it.”
Moser started his woodworking business in a Grange hall in New Gloucester, Maine, in 1972. Moser sought to produce high-quality products — furniture, in Moser’s case — that were rooted in a tradition of craftsmanship and made to last. Thos. Moser’s original chairs and other furniture took their inspiration from 19th-century designs, most notably the Shaker and Pennsylvania Dutch traditions, whose emphasis on simplicity embodied the aesthetic Moser wished to display in his furniture. Such furniture, he said, fit in well with the Pennsylvania aesthetic: the stone farmhouses of the Brandywine Valley, the unpretentious brick row homes of Philadelphia.
That style has also expanded over the years. The Shaker-inspired furniture remains a prominent part of the Moser collection, but it’s been joined by pieces reflecting a more contemporary sensibility, including Scandinavian and Japanese influences. The showroom opening also served as the occasion to show off the latest addition to the Moser furniture line: the Foreside bed, an updated interpretation of the spindle style that features a new twist on Moser’s emphasis on traditional wood joinery. (Tom’s son Aaron Moser, who runs the company’s contract division and was also present at the opening, said that the design would appeal more to the contemporary sensibilities of urbanites.)