Designing the Future

Thermwood

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Thermwood has made its home in Dale, Indiana since it began operations at the end of the 1960s. Jason Susnjara has served as vice president of marketing for ten years at the pioneering company and spoke to me from his office.
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“Thermwood was established in 1969, not as a computer numerically controlled (CNC) router company but as a plastic molder with our own process involving thermoforming woodgrain parts for the furniture industry.” Thermoforming is the process of heating a thermoplastic material and shaping it in a mold.

“Some people may remember, back in the day, we made stereo consoles that looked like they were made out of wood but were actually made out of plastic. We were able to get the look of grain from wood and thermoform that grain into the plastic parts, put it all together, and you would have product with the appearance of wood.”

The oil embargo made the manufacture of plastics exceptionally expensive. The high-speed CNC router ensured that waste was minimized.

“We’ve been manufacturing CNC routers for over forty years for numerous industries: aerospace, automotive, woodworking, plastics – all over the globe. Our routers can work with plastics, woods or composites – basically anything non-ferrous, so when you get into steel, we can’t handle that, that’s what mills are for. We can handle some stainless steel varieties as long as they are thin. We manufacture a variety of machines, both three and five axis for these different industries.”

The three-axis machines are primarily used to cut flat sheet products. These machines can cut out parts for cabinets or closets. Five-axis machines can cut at any angle, allowing them to manufacture three-dimensional or rounded components. “If it can be done from a vertical position then a three axis machine will work for sure, but if you’ve got to get around to the side or maybe even underneath the part, then a five-axis machine would be needed.”

As if pioneering in plastic, wood or composite routers some forty-five years ago wasn’t enough Thermwood has now begun exploring the science fiction world of 3D printing.

“Right now, we’re printing an eighty percent ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) – a type of plastic – and twenty percent carbon fiber mix formed into tiny pellets. Those pellets get drawn into an extruder, which then heats the material up so it is pliable and then it comes out a nozzle at the end. Just imagine a toothpaste dispenser, and you are trying to lay a bead down on the table.”

Although the products are made of steel and electrical components, three-dimensional printing can be environmentally friendly since waste or un-needed parts can be ground and reused.

“Our routers usually last for twenty years; sometimes we buy old machines back and refurbish them and then resell them. We have two main competitive advantages. There are quite a few CNC routers on the market. They are generally steel structures with motors and drives mounted to a machine in such a way that they move all the axes and then a spindle to cut your material – not too complicated. However what differentiates us is our controller. We are the only CNC router manufacturer in the world that manufactures not just our own machine but also our own controller, and we have been doing so since the beginning of the CNC router.”

The company takes customer feedback quite seriously and applies suggestions to its controller. Several times a year, new features or updates are added. “As opposed to relying on a commercial-type control where, if you want a new feature, good luck! It’s not going to happen unless everyone in that industry wants that done.”

The twin themes of technology and relationships pervade the Thermwood story, with the challenge of finding the right staff a vexing one. “In this day and age, everybody will probably tell you the same thing – that finding good quality help is difficult. It doesn’t take a degree to manufacture some of these machines, however when you get into other areas like electrical, generally we prefer candidates with a degree.”

“We have a couple of local colleges that we work with where we send our employees to get trained for either electrical or mechanical purposes. However, everyone who comes through here goes through our own CNC training class. Since we are manufacturers of CNC routers ourselves, there’s no reason to send them out for training.”

“Without our vendors, we wouldn’t have a product of course. As any product cycle goes, we’re going to have our ups and downs. When the recession hit, we had our down, and now we have our up. So we know that our vendors will have their ups and downs as well, and we work closely with them on all our projects, especially the new ones.”

The company collaborates with vendors to optimize quantity and pricing as well as obtaining product as quickly as possible. Strong relationships mean vendors come through when needed. “Our manufacturers help us out all the time, when we are down in a pinch, and we’ve got to get some product like for our new 3D printer, and we need it yesterday, they come through for us. Since we have a good relationship with them, we can ask them to jump through some hoops, and they usually help us out as best they can. We help them too by giving them all our new orders instead of shopping around for lower bids.”

“The economy and our market are up and down. You have a couple great months, and then you have a couple not so great months. We might have one month where woodworking might be great and aerospace and automotive down. Then it might flip-flop. Because we sell globally, the economy in other nations affects us as well.” At the moment, a strong economy and currency make sales more challenging since the company’s products are more expensive than some of its competitors. There is an upside, however.

“In marketing, we always want more sales, and to do that, you’ve got to have a thriving economy. You need businesses willing to spend money on capital equipment. During the recession, the only thing that was keeping us afloat was our export market, in a high-capital industry like ours, we need a robust economy.”

The philosophy and mission at Thermwood is simple: constant and never-ending improvement. “We’re always striving to make a better machine at a good quality price. You also want good quality customers to use your machines. We’re always looking for higher sales, and that means we’re constantly coming out with new products while we upgrade our existing portfolio. New updates, new designs to drive sales and then supporting your customer afterward; we’re always striving to be the best that we can.”

The company uses its continually upgraded website to produce the bulk of its business. Customers can thoroughly investigate a product prior to purchase. “We’re in an industry where no one is going to come online, find the machine that they want and then send us a money order for it. There’s always going to be a conversation, so I make sure that we have enough information on our website that they feel comfortable with Thermwood.”

Social media keeps customers apprised of the latest news at Thermwood. There are announcements of controller updates, machine shipping dates and blog posts that give an in-depth look at matching units with applications for best performance.

“When I took over in 2006, we hardly had any Internet presence.” He started the push toward online notifications to reach more industries in the market more efficiently and economically. “I use print for branding and the Internet for everything else.”

Summarizing Thermwood’s record of forty years of high-quality technology and innovation in a couple lines is not easy, but Jason succeeded. “We have an excellent system of service and support to follow those machines after we sell them. You’re never left out in the dark after the sale. We strive to have our customers be successful, so we help them out any way possible. That’s the motto we live by, let’s be honest. Build a high-quality machine that can be easily adapted to many uses and keep our customers happy.”

April 25, 2017, 10:38 AM EDT