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Manufacturing manager opens doors to cabinet making automation

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Bordeaux finish with sable glaze on cherry. Natural finish with caramel glaze on maple. These might sound like gourmet dishes, but for Volker Braun, director of manufacturing at Metropolitan Cabinets and Countertops, these keywords specify custom kitchen cabinet styles and finishes. While the average homeowner might buy pre-fabricated stock cabinets from a big box store, those wanting a totally unique kitchen built to their exact tastes can find themselves faced with a lengthy menu: Wine racks, roll-out trays or open shelving? Full extension slides, ball bearing slides, self-closing? Carvings, moldings or cutouts? Distressed, glazed or stained?

As Braun manages production at Metropolitan Cabinets, it’s all about square corners and right angles, as he takes the art of cabinet making and elevates it to a highly automated process that creates ornate details without the cost and time of expensive shop craftsmanship. After orders are placed by contractors, architects, or designers, the cabinets are created with a computerized system linked to wood-making machinery and software that produces floor plans, material reports, scheduling, and more. "It’s not like picking out parts from a catalog,” said Braun, who oversees the design and building of 25,000 cabinets a year at the Norwood manufacturing center. “When custom cabinets are engineered to order, every one is completely different, which makes it challenging,” said Braun.

Braun got his start at Mercedes Benz in Germany, making prototypes of new car designs out of wood, plastic, and other materials, allowing the company to thoroughly test new auto lines before launching into production. He says that his experience with the high-end auto manufacturer was productive training ground for his work at Metropolitan, where he focuses on increasing production without losing quality.

Q: What’s more difficult – building a Mercedes or a high-end custom
kitchen?
A: A lot of upfront work and prototyping goes into making a car but we don’t have the luxury of casting for cabinets; everything is individually made. So making a cabinet can be quite a complicated process.

Q: What are steps in the manufacturing process?
A: We will be soon implementing 3-D designs from which we can conceptualize the kitchen, then automatically program the routers, panel saws and other machinery to create parts. When the wood comes in, some of it needs to be cut to size or veneered while other product is already finished. An edge bander covers the raw side of materials. There are various other steps: Holes for dowels are drilled, hardware is sorted, boxes are assembled, parts are wrapped.

Q: What are the signs of a well-made cabinet?
A: The box construction should be made out of plywood; all the “reveals” or exposed frames on doors and panels need to be consistent; the sides, tops and bottoms should be flush; the finish superior, and of course, the dimensions need to be precise.

Q: What is an example of a recent kitchen design?
A: We recently completed a kitchen with stacked cabinets and finished interiors, beaded frames, and white paint glaze on maple. Some of the features included a custom hood for the stove, glass doors with grids, and island with a cooling drawer.

Q: How have you tweaked operations?
A: If a cabinet installer requests that the reveals need to be a tiny bit wider so it’s easier to adjust the doors, we might make them an eighth of an inch wider. As for the manufacturing process, we completely rearranged the work stations so tools, screws and hardware were all centralized and the assemblers don’t have to go searching for items. In addition, it’s crucial to be sure the upfront work of designing and engineering is correct. If it is, everything else goes smoothly.

Q: Are you a hobbyist in your spare time?

A: I am. About five years ago, I bought a fixer-up in Holden. A recent project was fixing my mudroom, where all the walls have beadboard and crown molding.

Q: What sort of kitchens do you prefer?
A: I like the typical New England painted kitchen with simple shaker panel doors. It’s important to have nice cabinets that are also functional, since families spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

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