Thin kerf technology stimulates coffin maker's unremitting growth
A ‘Nobel Prize’ in wood processing?
A Polish firm which diversified from run-of-the-mill timber processing to mass production of coffins and which made full use of opportunities from European Union entry has become a flagship commercial enterprise in Poland. New business methods, attention to quality and no fear of installing the latest equipment are amongst the keys to its success.
The enterprise in the city of Wagrowiec maintains a family tradition started in 1947 when the old sawmill was established by Zbigniew Raczkowski who later passed it on to his daughter and son-in-law Zbigniew and Alisja Lindner. Rather than following a path set by their university studies in philology the couple have since devoted themselves to the family mill.
In the early 1990s a meeting with a German entrepreneur who came to buy timber led to a departure from their conventional timber processing. Although neither the Lindners nor the German spoke each other’s language they found they could communicate in French and the visitor suggested they diversify into the production of coffins for cremations.
Normally built by craftsmen
In the 1990s coffins in Central Europe were usually manufactured in small workshops by craftsmen. Few companies, even worldwide, produced them on an industrial scale. However at that time demand for cremation coffins was growing 7% in Poland, not because of increased mortality but rather because burial land was becoming expensive and also the Roman Catholic church softened its attitude towards cremation.
Even so, technically a coffin is a far from simple product. Coffin quality needs to be similar to that of furniture. It must not exude undesirable substances during incineration. Glue, paint and glazing have to be water based. Similarly, only pine –– particularly species from Poland, Germany or Sweden –– is suitable.
Many wood processors might have been put off by these necessities but Zbigniew Lindner’s company motto is PER ASPERA AD ASTRA - Through thorns to stars. He went for it.
They began manufacturing coffins in the early ’90s. With second-hand equipment they soon turned out 300 coffins each month, assembled or in kit form. Mr Lindner adds:
"In Poland, if entrepreneurs want to succeed they have to consider how and where to sell not just how to manufacture."
In his case his entire output is now exported to Germany, whence orders continue to grow. Expansion of the Lindner company accelerated when Poland joined the EU and the opportunity to participate in community modernization programmes aimed at enhancing new members’ competitiveness became available. As one million Poles packed their bags and moved to Great Britain the Lindners actively upgraded their facility in the home country. Zbigniew Lindner explains:
"At that point we had successfully participated in five EU plant re-equipment schemes and we learned a lot.
"The need for a clear vision of our intended result became apparent. Next was the importance of completing the application properly so that we got 25-50% of our expenses back", he adds, while stating his own conditions for equipment suppliers:
1) the very latest technology,
2) a ‘deep’ level of wood processing – no wastes,
3) an optimum balance between productivity and quality,
4) high speed woodworking.
One hundred thousand coffins
The result was that Lindner transformed itself into a Polish firm producing coffins at an unprecedented industrial level, yet maintained the quality of self-employed craftsmen. It now brings to the market 100,000 coffins a year, split during manufacture between 180 complete coffins and 400 kits in each shift and Zbigniew Lindner states:
"Lindner is one of the few producers making coffins on an assembly line with about 500 different stages.
"100-150 units of our smallest series of coffins are made and even these aren’t of any single model. We make 48 standard versions.
"Modern techniques have presented us with significant opportunities of which we otherwise couldn’t dream", he adds.
The plant is filled with machinery bearing famous brand names. Machine tool manufacturers line up to be included, even supplying prototypes of future best sellers for the ‘honour’ of field tests.
Sawmilling is carried out on an industrial scale by an AWMV band sawmill made by Wood-Mizer. Kiln drying is done in Muhlback chambers. Weinig CNC machines with ‘intelligent’ saws provide basic wood processing. An Ayen automatic mill cuts holes in wooden panels. Wooden surfaces are ground on Heesemann & B?tfering kit.
Joining panels with other elements takes place on a robotic line that culminates with two CNC machines angle cu tting. These are fast, cutting every three seconds and 1,000 parameters are stored in the computer memory. The software can calculate cutting angles, which is important since a coffin includes no right-angle in its construction. Completed component parts then move to assembly where operators of two Austrian MBM automats combine the coffins’ tops and bottoms.
Finishing is undertaken on a Weeke CNC machine. Lacquering and painting are done in Schuko booths which have environmental friendly exhaust cleaning systems. Schuko also installed a system for all machines in the workshop to exhaust shavings and direct them to the briquet unit.
Wood chips go to a neighbouring company, Kronospan, which makes MDF panels although Zbigniew Lindner used some chips for his own briquette line, adding:
"The techniques we use are innovative and probably the most advanced in the world.
"Most machines are prototypes designed for us", he reveals. His plant employs 78 people and the final product consists of between 78-80% of each log used, keeping waste to a minimum.
There is a history of cooperation between Lindner and Wood-Mizer.
Ten years ago Zbigniew Lindner bought his first Wood-Mizer sawmill, a mid-range model LT40HD and he notes favourably this supplier’s back-up.
Now, he has two sawmilling workshops. One is based on the industrial LT300 mill complemented by a line including a log ramp and inclined conveyor for boards. The sawmill ‘navigation’ system has ‘cruise control’ which automatically adjusts to the optimum cutting speed for the type of pine being cut.
However, Zbigniew Lindner believes the most interesting solution lies in the second workshop.
In March 2008 Wood-Mizer launched a small log processing (SLP) set-up.
It was tested at Lindner which gained access to the technology before it was launched on to the market. Zbigniew Lindner effectively assumed responsibility for the line’s operations and enhanced his workers’ skills with it. Wood-Mizer engineers spent considerable time at his facility, carrying out tests, collecting data and adapting the mill design.
During the year Zbigniew Lindner and his sawmill operators suggested dozens of design improvements – all of which were studied carefully and many implemented.
The Lindner SLP line includes a twin vertical saw which produces two-sided beams. It has a log ramp and a bottom cross transfer conveyor for slab removal. A single vertical saw converts the two-sided beams to three sides. Finally, a six-head MultiHead takes over.
The SLP components are designed to use the same blades and spares, minimizing stock requirements.
This arrangement gives Lindner the opportunity to process from 35 to 45 m3 of logs per shift. Output increased 25% over the company's old equipment. Maximum energy requirement is about 100 kW. Boards of different thickness can be turned out without additional adjustment of the mills. Zbigniew Lindner is enthusiastic, saying:
"This is excellent industrial equipment, safe for workers because always they are far from any blades. In practice, no operator has any contact with timber during the process."
His production chief, Krzysztof Bromberek goes a little further with:
"We cut 10,000-12,000 m3 of logs in a year. I would give the Nobel Prize to the fellow who invented the SLP line, word of honour!"
Zbigniew Lindner believes that the value of any business divides into elements: direction, people, market, technology!
It is likely that he and his wife Alisja, who supervises the entire operation’s logistics, will eventually pass on a finely tuned, efficiently functioning business machine to their children, Bartholomew (a human resources manager-to-be) and Dominique (a future international trade specialist).
In 2007 the Lindner company won a Polish business competition called ‘European Firm’ (Firma Europejska) in the ‘Innovative product’ category which offers even more evidence that the Lindner children will inherit a fine concern.
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