Thermwood celebrates 50 years of innovation

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Donna Flamion of Santa Claus feels the surface of a helicopter blade tool made by Thermwood manufacturing equipment as Marci Myers of Lincoln City looks on during Thermwood's 50th anniversary open house in Dale on Thursday. The company provided tours of the manufacturing equipment and live demonstrations.

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

DALE — In the last 50 years, what began as a part-time gig for Thermwood CEO Ken Susnjara while he attended Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology has grown into an international leader in manufacturing technology.

Back in 1969, Susnjara founded Thermwood, a Dale-based company that innovates and manufactures CNC machinery for a variety of industries and companies — MasterBrand, Kimball International, Best Chairs and Boeing, to name a few — around the world. Throughout its history, Thermwood has responded to the needs of the manufacturing world, creating the equipment that powers the manufacturing process. On Thursday, the company celebrated its 50 year anniversary with an open house at its Dale location. At the event, visitors could see the company’s newest machine, the Large Scale Additive Manufacturing machine, in action.

The LSAM is essentially a giant 3-D printer that manufacturers use to make molds for various parts. Thermwood’s LSAM is unique because it not only prints the mold, but it can also trim the finished product. What used to take months, the LSAM completes in hours.

“What you see here doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” Susnjara said of the LSAM.

The LSAM is the latest development in a history of innovation that stretches back 50 years to the company’s founding. Back then, Susnjara responded to a need in the furniture industry by developing a thermoforming molding process that created wood-looking furniture parts from a plastic grain. Susnjara’s process reduced production time for the popular furniture parts from about 2 minutes to just a handful of seconds. The process was wildly popular, and Susnjara adopted the name of his company — Thermwood — from the thermoforming process.

Large scale additive manufacturing equipment is seen on display during Thermwood's 50th anniversary open house in Dale on Thursday.

For the first few years, business was booming, but then an oil embargo hit in the early 1970s. To survive, Thermwood had to switch gears. That effort led the company to develop the first commercially available CNC control system. From there, the company developed cutting-edge CNC routers and controllers, and those machines still form the backbone of the company today.

“We build all our own controllers,” Susnjara said. “We wrote all our own software and built all our own machines.”

Keeping everything in house has helped Thermwood stay on the cutting edge. When creating a new piece of machinery, if something capable of manufacturing a necessary part doesn’t already exist, Thermwood will build something to get the job done. That approach has led to a culture of teamwork and creativity throughout the company.

“If someone comes up with an idea, we work together to grow it,” said Jennifer O’Brien, a graphic designer who has worked at Thermwood for 22 years.

Although CNC routers and controllers are still the backbone of Thermwood’s business, O’Brien said the LSAM and other large scale automatic manufacturing technologies are taking off.

For Susnjara, seeing his company stay on the cutting edge is a rewarding thrill. He founded Thermwood out of a love for innovation, and that love is what keeps his passion for the company alive 50 years later.

“I’m good at inventing,” Susnjara said. “I like the technology, and I like playing with it.”

Thermwood Executive Vice President Mike Hardesty of Dale points out an old photograph during Thermwood's 50th anniversary open house in Dale on Thursday.



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