De La Fontaine of Sherbrooke, QB, streamlines delivery of custom doors with ERP system, machine investments.
It’s hard for the average person to think of doors as anything more than a commodity item. You open them, you close them. You hope they keep the noise out, and that they are secure.
Of course, architects think very differently about them – a door can make a statement through its design and its durability. Manufacturers, if they want to stand out from the crowd, have to show their skills in both production and design.
That’s what De La Fontaine pushes for on its production floor in Sherbrooke, Que. – efficient production of quality interior and exterior doors with enough flexibility to adapt production for custom jobs. The company focuses on quality, but that doesn’t stop it being able to deliver on a two-week turnaround. It’s a combination of inputs that makes this kind of output possible – quality staff, a well-considered shop layout, state-of-the-art fabrication machines, and an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that can keep track of a broad selection of parts and assemblies. The company currently has a mix of 75 per cent standard production and 25 per cent custom work, so each piece of this production puzzle has to be working efficiently.
De La Fontaine, founded by Gérald de La Fontaine in 1968, has always been built on innovation. It was the first company in the Eastern Townships to offer interior doors with preassembled frames to facilitate installation. Over the years the company has moved with – and often ahead of – the times, adopting steel for all door and frame production in 1993, introducing the Toyota management model to the shop in 1998, introducing the company’s first CNC punch press and laser in 2005, and adding a paint line in 2007.
In 2009 the company introduced its own line of prefinished products with flexible design options to offer customers what might be termed a mass-produced custom look for their doors. It was another example of how the company works to stand out in a challenging market.
The company has expanded into the U.S. as well; it now has facilities in Woburn, Mass., and Hyattsville, Md., the latter acquired in 2017. Although the U.S. facilities do manage some minor fabricating work, the majority is handled at the Sherbrooke plant. All design work is done at the Sherbrooke head office, which guarantees 48-hour delivery to its satellite facilities. Customer satisfaction includes satisfying internal as well as external customers.
The second and third generation of the family currently work together to manage the growth of the business. Robert de La Fontaine took over as president in 1982, and Gabriel de La Fontaine took on the role of general manager in 2012. The Sherbrooke factory now occupies 75,000 square feet, and change continues as the company adapts to serving more markets internationally, including in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Managing a large number of part numbers is always a headache, and De La Fontaine wasn’t immune to this.
“Eventually with our old ERP system it was very hard to cover the variety of products we make,” said Pierre-Luc Bouchard, project manager at De La Fontaine. In 2014 the shop replaced the old system with Microsoft Dynamics AX integrated management software. It was further updated in 2017.
“The new system gives us a lot of accuracy in terms of tracking each part for each assembly. At each station in the factory the employee scans a bar code on the part and they can see a picture of the assembly, the bill of materials necessary for the job, and a clear description of what is required at that station. That created more efficient flow on the shop floor, and we could see where else we could improve our throughput.”
Bouchard said the key to the company’s success is not allowing parts to sit too long at any one station.
“A customer can call and request a product today and we want to be able to turn it around immediately for them,” he said. “Our focus right now is to ensure that every part’s trail is followed.
Before implementing its new ERP system five years ago, De La Fontaine had already introduced a number of labour-saving cutting and bending machines, including CNC press brakes and CO2 laser cutting tables with load/unload capabilities, that could improve material flow.
Since then those investments have continued. These include a Bystronic fibre laser with a ByTrans load/unload system that allows for storage return and transfer, as well as the removal of large parts. This is effective for long part runs.
The shop also added a Bystronic 3-kW fibre laser, which sits next to a Salvagnini P2lean panel bender. This allows for easy movement of large doors from the laser to the panel bender.
The laser is used to cut parts up to ¼ in. thick but is most commonly used for 18-gauge material, the company’s bread-and-butter steel. The fibre laser is also very effective for etching patterns and creating cutout details in custom doors, an important part of the company’s value proposition to customers.
The panel bender was introduced to simplify bending on larger parts.
“We had a 120-in. piece of material that was difficult for operators to work on our press brakes,” said Bouchard. “Parts that large can be difficult to manoeuvre – they take time and require lots of handling. It was an ideal process for the introduction of automation. When you have to do three or more bends on such a large part, automation is going to offer quicker processing times. Now we get about triple the output of that product. It’s also much safer to make the bends that way.”
Currently one main product is being processed on the panel bender, but as the team gets used to operating it, Bouchard sees opportunities to produce other parts, such as frames, on the bender.
Shop Flow Ingenuity
De La Fontaine has created a very effective flow in its shop. Much of it involves in-house-built roller tables that allow doors and door parts to be passed along through production from the fabrication department, to assembly, and from there to finishing and the paint booth. This seemingly simple solution means there are fewer opportunities for lift-related injuries and creates a clear path for production at the same time.
While this is helpful, Bouchard said that there are other forms of efficiency that the company continues to look at – mainly, more automation.
“We are looking at adding more automation, step by step, as we are able and as it makes sense for our production processes,” Bouchard said. Importantly, however, it has to be possible to shift production to meet the needs of rush jobs. But the company is working toward it. Already it has experimented with welding automation, but Bouchard sees opportunities to add more systems in the shop’s fabrication area to increase production further.
“However, we are pleased with what we have accomplished so far also,” he said. “In five years we have doubled production, and we maintain three shifts throughout the week. We are also able to bring in students to work in the shop on weekends, giving them work experience and helping us introduce young people to our industry. It helps us build our team for the future.”
This last point Bouchard mentioned is an important one for De La Fontaine as well: While innovation will continue to change the nature of its production line, as a third-generation family business, the owners understand the value of people. It will be interesting to see where each of these investments will take the company in coming years.
Canadian Fabricating & Welding - September 2019
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