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Robotics and automation in wood products and furniture manufacturing: How to get started

A guide to the top three use cases for robots in the industry

10-minute read

The wood products and furniture manufacturing industries are two sizable sectors of the Canadian economy, generating annual revenues of $37.6 billion and $12.6 billion, respectively. In total, more than 13,900 companies operate in these two industries across the country, and more than 90% of them are small businesses of 0 to 99 employees.

To keep on thriving, however, companies in these two sectors need to proactively embrace emerging technologies and innovation. In particular, they need to strategically integrate robots and automation into their operations.

According to the OECD, wood products and furniture manufacturing are two sectors with low technological intensity. The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities to integrate robotics on the factory floor. And the advantages of doing so are numerous.

Safety, for instance, is an important concern in both industries, because employees need to:

  • move and manipulate large, heavy beams and panels
  • work with saws, drills and other sharp tools
  • apply industrial paints and coatings that use strong, flammable solvents

Robots can make these tasks much safer, helping prevent accidents and increase employee satisfaction.

Investing in automation can also help increase productivity, reduce labour needs and costs, and enhance production consistency as well as quality.

In this article, we present the top three robots that can help companies in the wood products and furniture manufacturing industries automate their processes.

We selected these applications because they are very common in both industries, but also because they can be implemented in the high-mix, low-volume context that is typical of the Canadian industry. The applications are:

  • sanding
  • painting and coating
  • board handling and transfer


Sanding robots are used to automate the sanding process of a number of surfaces. They can usually handle a number of basic sanding tasks, like:

  • belt sanding
  • orbital sanding
  • random orbital sanding

Some robots are also able to handle polishing and buffing.

Using pressure-sensing technologies, these robots are able to sand parts quickly and consistently, resulting in smooth edges and surfaces.

Sanding robots can greatly increase worker safety. Sanding is a tedious, dirty task. Using a machine will prevent your workers from suffering injuries from vibration, repetitive motion or inhaling dust and other harmful chemicals.

Compared to a human, sanding machines will also help you reduce waste when it comes to the abrasives you use. A collaborative robot, for instance, will know precisely how many linear feet of board it has sanded, and can be programmed to require a change in sandpaper at exactly the right time. This will not only reduce waste, but also increase quality, since your abrasives will always be used within their performance specifications.

Another related advantage is cost savings. Of course, robots will reduce your labour costs, but perhaps as importantly, they will minimize material waste caused by human error. By enhancing efficiency, you therefore become more productive and profitable.

Each product is unique, and some of them may be less suitable for robotic sanding. If you need to sand intricate workpieces with a number of concavities, for instance, programming may become too complex to be worth using robots.

Many products and parts, however, from doors to shelves and tabletops, will be perfectly compatible with automated sanding—even if you produce modest volumes.

Cost of sanding robots

Most sanding and surface finishing collaborative robots (cobots) will cost between $90,000 and $180,000. Programming the cobots may incur additional costs. Industrial robots will cost between $95,000 and $115,000 for payloads between 20 and 80 kg. However, remember that robots represent only a fraction of the total cost you will incur when installing a new machine on your factory floor.

Painting and coating

Painting and coating robots are machines used to apply paint and coatings to parts and products.

Like sanding robots, painting robots can really help increase safety in your business. The paint itself is not necessarily always dangerous, but solvents and additives can create highly inflammable fumes. Robots are designed accordingly, enclosing all electronics within their shell to prevent gases from being ignited by a spark in the machine, for example—ensuring a safe operational environment. And if the worst came to pass, most robots are actually explosion-proof.

With a long reach, a hollow wrist for hose management, and flexible geometries, painting robots can handle intricate surfaces, large or small workpieces and complex configurations requiring precision and efficiency. Being relatively easy to program, painting robots can also work if your business needs to produce many small batches. Some robots can even automate colour changes, if required, allowing for quick transitions between paint specifications without compromising production speed or quality.

Beyond improving safety, robots will help you reduce waste and apply a consistent thickness of paint. When spraying workpieces manually, for example, the consumption of paint is estimated to be between 15% and 30% higher compared to using painting robots. It is clear there are gains to be made in applying coating at a constant speed and keeping the spray pistols at the same distance from the surface throughout the process.

Coating application

Painting and coating robots can handle a wide variety of finishes:

  • water-based coatings
  • 1C/2C coatings
  • solvent-based coatings and powder coatings
  • corrosion-resistant and fire-retardant paints
  • gelcoat, glues, adhesives, epoxy, urethane and other sealants

Of course, all robots are not necessarily compatible with every type of coating, and it is best to inquire with manufacturers to ensure that a specific robot model meets the requirements and specifications for your intended coating application.

Cost of painting robots

Basic painting robots can cost between $130,000 and $200,000.

To ensure a contaminant-free environment, a painting booth or cleanroom may be necessary. It will add between $20,000 to $40,000 to the total cost.

The integration of a painting robot may include process control equipment, training and programming, so expect to pay between $400,000 and $800,000 for a complete turnkey system.

Board handling and transfer

Board handling and transfer robots are machines used to move parts or products as well as load and unload pieces of equipment on your factory floor. They can be used to handle a variety of tasks:

  • pick and place
  • palletizing, stacking and unstacking
  • line feeding, assembly and packaging
  • tilt hoist
  • part transfer and machine tending

Handling wooden beams, boards and panels can be difficult. Parts are not only heavy but unwieldy as well, and handling them all day can be exhausting and dangerous for your workers. For this reason, handling and transfer robots can be a great addition to your factory floor. These machines are a critical piece of equipment to make operations safer. Additionally, handling and transfer robots will reduce damage and increase speed, improving overall productivity.

Depending on the parts you need to handle, different grippers may be more suitable. Here is a list of the most popular ones on the market today:

  • vacuum grippers and suction cups
  • mechanical grippers
  • foam grippers

Each gripper comes with its own set of pros and cons. Foam grippers, for instance, are well adapted to work with finished wood products, since they will not leave any residue or marks on your workpiece. Being insensitive to porosities and deformation, they can sometimes be a better choice than conventional suction cups, which can also get clogged with dust.

Cost of board handling and transfer robots

When it comes to costs, those may vary widely depending on your needs in terms of payload, work envelope and task complexity. Machine tending industrial robots can cost between $35,000 and $50,000 for payloads up to 7kg and a reach up to 0.9 meter, and from $95,000 to $115,000 for payloads up to 80kg and a reach up to 2.23 meters.

Don’t forget about the cost of integration

A good rule of thumb is that a turnkey collaborative robot project will cost around two or three times the price of the collaborative robot itself, while an industrial robot project will cost around five or six times the price of the robot.

You don’t have to explore automation on your own

Find out how we can help you find and finance the right automation solution for your business.

Ask for one of our experts to call you back to discuss your robotics and automation projects.

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