Building a Future for Distributors and Dealers of Building Products

Volume 44,  Issue 6                                        July/August  2005

The Next Big Thing
Stair Manufacturing Could Open New market for Millwork Distributors
by Samantha Carpenter

Before many millwork distributors began pre-hanging doors, doors were hung in the field. The contractor went to the job site with pairs of jambs and a header and a bunch of door slabs. The process may have been an hour on the job or even longer—hours. Now with distributors pre-hanging doors, it’s a much more efficient process for contractors.

Distributors have automated machinery that can very quickly hang the doors in minutes.

“The same thing can happen for stairs,” says Dave Cooper, sales representative for StairVision, which distributes StairCon™ software in the United States.

“If you look at the millwork industry, they have done similar things with cabinets and doors, but stairs for some reason have seemed complicated to people. And that’s where a software product like StairCon comes in. It takes away a lot of the complication, and now it makes it possible for a lot more millwork people to get into stair manufacturing.”

A Short History
The StairCon™ software was originally developed as a program to stress-test staircases. Sweden-based Consultec System AB got the order to develop such a product from an organization of stair manufacturers in Sweden, Norway and Finland, and the project was also partly funded by the wood industry fund (Nordic Wood).

“In 1999 when the project was finished, ten manufacturers from each country received rights to one license each,” says Mattias Markstrom, the software developer of StairCon.

“The manufacturers thought the product showed a lot of potential and wanted us to continue to work on production and pricing modules, [which were ready in 2001].”

Since 2001, Consultec has been developing StairCon itself and has launched it successfully in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg and The Netherlands, and it is still selling the software in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. 

According to Markstrom, every new market has presented challenges. 

“For the United States, the big thing has been the ‘return nosing’ on the side of the treads. Those are very uncommon in Europe,” Markstrom says. 

Another hurdle has been stair parts. In Europe, most of the stair parts are produced in the factory, whereas in the United States, most standard parts are brought in from suppliers, according to Markstrom.

Visualizing the Result
While there have been a couple of challenges, StairCon has the potential to change significantly how stairs are built.

The software allows you to visualize the complete design. Currently, many millwork distributors have a display of balusters, a display of rails or a newel-post display, or they may not have any displays of those items and are just looking at catalogs. They may say to a customer, “Here’s a picture of a stair that is something like yours, but it doesn’t have the baluster you want. Here is the baluster you want.” The customer has to try to put all these stair parts together and visualize the end product. 

“This software eliminates that,” Cooper says. “You get a 3-D design of exactly what it’s going to look like in the space that you have.”

The software not only helps sell staircases to customers, but it also helps those in the field as well. 

Most stairs in the United States are built in the field by finished carpenters. Often, they don’t get the opportunity to purchase the parts themselves—somebody else is specifying the parts. The parts arrive at the job site, and then the carpenter has to figure out how to put the stairs together with the parts that are delivered to the job.

The StairCon software adds a tremendous amount of value in this situation, according to Cooper, because the stair is drafted correctly in the beginning from the input of dimensions and customer selection, and the right parts are calculated before they even arrive at the job.

StairCon is not without some disadvantages though. 

To meet the needs of a complex industry with many variables from one product and company to the next, StairCon has a database with fields for all the parameters required.

“If you think about trying to list all the dimensional standards, species, product codes, 3D descriptions for rails, posts and balusters, costs, related labor etc. to make even a simple stair, you can imagine the time it takes to fill the database with all the information necessary to calculate any type of stair,” Cooper explains. “Similar to MRP systems, the setup time is an investment that pays for itself quickly.”

In smaller shops (where there are few standards sometimes varying from one job to the next and each craftsman makes it his or her own way each time), there is also the challenge and benefit of determining a best practice and standardizing it to make using a computer easier, but Cooper says the return on investment is the reward in this case too.

A Manufacturer’s Experience
At this time, no millwork distributors are using the StairCon software, but there are a few stair manufacturers using the software. One of these manufacturers is North Atlantic Corp. (NAC) in Somerset, Mass.

NAC has 75 employees who work in the Architectural Products Division, which manufactures 120 to 160 staircases monthly.

At press time, NAC has been using the StairCon software for box-stair construction for about a month, but has been intensely working with StairVision and Consultec for several months to provide functions unique to American stair manufacturing, according to Dave Silvia, manager of NAC’s Architectural Products Division.

“[Recently], we have implemented open and partial open stair production with StairCon. Our next step will be to incorporate the program into our sales system, which currently separates estimating, drafting and programming as different sequential steps. StairCon will allow us to combine these operations and accelerate our information flow,” Silvia says.
NAC uses the StairCon manufacturing module in its production process to automatically generate the tool paths and programs for its five-axis MAKA CNC router. 

The employee chosen to work with the CNC router must be a dedicated employee, according to Silvia. 

“[The employee] needs to know what the product looks like when completed. In the case of the CNC operators, many are available in the Northeast with substantial knowledge of CNC-related operations in metal industries, so it is actually a little easier,” he says.

If a company is having its first experience working with a CNC router, Silvia says there is a learning curve. 

“There are many new things about tooling, fixturing and positioning that are unique to CNC that will present many questions and opportunities. In addition, if the machine is a shared resource, scheduling the valuable machine time and deciding priorities for production and products to be produced, present another hurdle,” Silvia explains.

“However, by utilizing parametric software such as StairCon, anything it can design … drastically eliminates countless hours of drafting and tool-path programming with generic CAM and CADD packages.”

Silvia says that NAC might not be the best comparison when determining how much time the StairCon software has saved its stair manufacturing process.

NAC has been using stair software for nine years and a five-axis CNC for nearly seven years. According to Silvia, NAC has already realized some of the advantages of CNC manufacturing; however, the comprehensive package that StairCon offers will make significant changes possible immediately. For instance, Silvia says information flow will reduce the work of three by more than 50 percent. This alone will pay for the software in less than a year.

Half-Empty or Half-Full?
Silvia says that his division is always looking for employees who can work with stair parts.

Many join NAC from vocational school programs that the company fosters and from other industries. 

“We look for a fit with our culture of continuous improvement and open-book management. We want people who participate and understand they will be valued and not criticized when they contribute,” Silvia says. “In any case, it isn’t easy but our willingness to teach skills to qualified people and promote from within has made a big difference.” 

Silvia looks at challenges with employees as an “individual thing.”

“Is the glass half-empty or half-full, is it a problem or an opportunity, is change good or bad,” Silvia asks.

“There are no differences here except that visual results are eminent, which keeps you moving forward. Unlike many software promises to our industry of the past, StairCon is doing what they promise,” Silvia says.

Building New Relationships
A distributor getting involved in stair manufacturing does not necessarily mean that a stair manufacturer would be doing less business, since most stairs are currently built in the field and most markets have plenty of room. According to Cooper, there might be some situations where there could be additional competition or stair manufacturers in certain areas, if distributors become involved in stair manufacturing.

“I think what would happen is that the lumberyard or millwork distributor would look at his market and say, ‘Hey this is a stair builders’ market. We don’t want to get into stairway manufacturing. It’s going to be too competitive. We’ll be the new boys on the block,’” Cooper says. “But they are going to look at the software and say, ‘Now I’ve got a tool, and I can speak stair. I can form a relationship with an existing staircase manufacturer. I can design the stair and e-mail it to him. I can increase my margins by adding value for the customer and working with an existing StairCon manufacturer.’”

Distributors may be concerned with the cost of StairCon, and Cooper explains that it is sold in modules. There is a design module and several manufacturing modules.

Whether it’s a design or manufacturing module you are interested in, Silvia says this is why he would recommend this software to other companies.

“The 3-D visualization allows you to input any bitmap and create 3-D objects to realistically show the customer what they will get. Whether it is a choice of stair parts or change in floor or wall or wood specie or actually inserting the view from a photo in a window of the room, the graphic tool is incredible and further allows you to accelerate the flow of timely, accurate information from the customer directly to the manufacturing floor in the form of codes to run the machines. Unlike other software, we felt secure in our software investment as an investment in a company that has proven its worth and will continue to provide the very best tools to meet the needs of our industry.” 

Samantha Carpenter is editor of SHELTER magazine.

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