Tools that only require a tap

apps_leadThe woodworking world is abuzz with talk about a new industry app that was created for Homag, the parent company of Stiles Machinery. Built by the German developer Software AG, it was officially released at the industry trade show Ligna, which was held at the end of May in Hannover, Germany. The name of the new app is “Tapio” (online at tapio.one) and that acronym comes from the physical way in which a woodworker uses a phone or other device to access the software: “tap, input, output."

Historically, Tapio was a Finnish spirit of the forest — sort of a deity-king figure — and it’s appropriate that he had a wood background. The name might also be familiar as the title of a completely unrelated computer device that is used with various Apple products to play games, so there could be some trademark discussions down the road. According to Homag CEO Pekka Paasivaara, his company has created a new business entity to manage the app. It is based in Munich and is called Tapio Gmbh.

It’s an intriguing and beguiling concept — the idea of having your Homag machines “talk” to you on your phone so that they can let you know when there’s a problem or a way to do something more efficiently. The remote control aspect is particularly appealing: a woodshop manager could be at a business lunch miles away and discover that a spindle is overheating or a batch of parts has been completed. And it doesn’t just work with new machines: older equipment can be included, too. The app will eventually cover every aspect of the wood industry from forest to showroom. It is, in effect, an entire family of apps that address engineering, software, productivity, efficiency and quality issues. Among them, Machineboard optimizes the way that machines operate; Messboard displays information on production progress and the status of all workstations for the current day; Serviceboard ensures that errors can be identified quickly and easily with the aid of video diagnoses, while Energymonitoring and Datasave function as named.

App lexicon

As with most apps, Tapio was built by software engineers who speak an entirely different language than the rest of us. So here’s a quick translation of some current industry tech terms that might crop up in the official descriptions of many of the “sophisticated digital products” (OK, apps) that are discussed below.

Cyber-physical systems is a collective term that describes what the new generation of apps can do. They integrate (combine) computers such as tablets, smartphones, control boxes, etc. through networking, which means talking to machines and people in other locations through the cloud or even just within the woodshop on a local area network, or LAN. They also integrate physical processes — what the machines actually do, such as perhaps making raised panels or drawer fronts. Because they are constantly talking to each other, the elements of a cyber-physical system can either alert an operator to fix or change something or else just make the change automatically if they are allowed to do that.

The phrase “value chain” describes how a company buys materials, makes something and then sells it, hopefully for more than the materials cost. In other words, it describes the entire industry cycle.

Forbes magazine explains the phrase “an Internet of Things” as basically connecting devices to the Internet and/or to each other. That can mean, for example, connecting a CNC router or edgebander to Microsoft’s cloud so that an app can access data (get information that allows it to find out what the machine is doing).

apps_phonesAnother popular phrase among the recent graduates of business schools is Industry 4.0. This describes how more and more machines are being automated, plus how they send information to the shop owner or a project manager (which is called data exchange in manufacturing technologies). Industry 4.0 includes all those things listed above — cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and cloud computing. Using it will turn your woodshop into something called a “smart factory,” where computers create a virtual copy of the real world and then make local (that is, individual machine-based) decisions. The key here is that the machines don’t just talk to each other, they also talk to us and do so in real time. So you don’t have to wait until an entire batch of parts has been cut before discovering that they are all a half-inch too short.

The Internet of Services is something like the Internet of Things and, in fact, is predicted to largely replace the latter eventually. The concept is that companies will no longer buy a machine, but just subscribe to the product and the associated services. While this is already happening with many software packages (where a shop rents rather than buys), the vision is that it will eventually encompass almost everything we do in the woodshop and in most other businesses, too. We’ll perhaps get the machine for free and thereafter pay a monthly fee that includes a host of cloud-based services to run it, track it, repair it and constantly update it.

The phrase “internal and cross-organizational” pops up in this new world of high-powered apps and it essentially means that some software only deals with issues within the woodshop’s walls, while other programs can work with suppliers, distributors and other outside entities. So if an app detects that the cabinet jobs that are scheduled will require a certain number of sheets of MDF and the current inventory is less than that, it will automatically place orders with delivery dates that fit into, say, a woodshop’s just-in-time lean purchasing system.

An “open platform” is one that makes data available both to the people who create the numbers (the woodshop) and to external systems such as suppliers, shippers, installers, machine manufacturers and so on. This is fairly critical to many industry relationships such as, for example, a smaller shop that is outsourcing RTA cabinets or doors from a larger supplier.

Microsoft Azure is a collection of cloud-based services, tools, applications and frameworks that software developers and IT professionals can use to build, deploy and manage apps. It works through a global network of datacenters, so machines anywhere on the planet can talk to people and each other. The term IT refers to information technology, which covers both software and hardware for computers.

Some woodshop apps

OK, here’s one final definition: an app. This is a short version of the word “application,” and it almost always describes a relatively small and dedicated software program that can be downloaded to a mobile device and used on the go. Dedicated means that it usually performs one or a small number of specific tasks in a limited field. So, for example, an app might help a logger recognize various tree species or tell a boatbuilder the specific gravity of a particular hardwood, but it won’t do much more than that.

Some people call SketchUp (sketchup.com) an app, but it’s more comprehensive than that: it has evolved into a complete 3-D modeling software package. By the way, if you’re considering using it, check out Rob Cameron’s site, sketchupforwoodworkers.com. There is also a SketchUp viewer app that allows a woodworker to take drawings to clients and show them on a device (either Apple or Android). What’s nice here is that it can access files you’ve saved, in which case you won’t need to meet somewhere there is Wi-Fi or use up your data.

Most apps from Apple devices can be found on and downloaded from itunes.apple.com, and for Android from play.google.com. For example, ShopBot Remote Pro, which was developed by one of the tool’s users rather than in-house at the company, allows control of a ShopBot CNC router from a mobile device. That one, like the SketchUp Viewer, is available for both Android and Apple.

The apps listed below are a small sampling of what’s available. Just type “woodworking apps for iPhone” (or for Android or Blackberry) into a search engine and while it collects the results you’ll need to brew some coffee because it’s going to be a long session.

For designers, one of the more useful apps is AutoCAD mobile, a DWG viewing application with drawing and drafting tools. The term DWG comes from the word “drawing,” and it’s just a file format that handles 2- or 3-D drawings. Many of the larger CAD programs use it as a native (go-to) format.

Most apps are a lot simpler. For example, there are several that an installer can use on the job site to convert a phone into a level or a plumb bob. Among these are the Stanley Level App; two apps from SkyPaw Co. Ltd called Spirit Level 3rd and Plumb Bob 5th; and Clinometer + bubble level from Plaincode Tools.

Most phones have an audio notetaking app that makes quick work of recording either room or cabinet dimensions when paper isn’t available. But if a woodworker needs to take a picture of something and then write notes or dimensions on it, there’s Measure & Sketch from SameBits or Photo Measures from Big Blue Pixel. As with many apps, there’s a basic free version of the latter that is funded by ads and an inexpensive (in this case $4.99) expanded version. Some apps charge a small fee and still make you sit through ads.

Some machinery manufacturers provide line-specific apps, such as Weinig’s App Suite (holzher.com) that provides functions such as an angle calculator, cutter mark calculator and residual length calculator for edgebanding — but also delivers the latest news from Weinig, easy access to the company’s web store, maintenance information that is transferred directly to a customer’s phone by push messages and various functions to contact sales or support.

Wagner Meters (wagnermeters.com) has a free app called WoodH2O that runs on both iPhone and Android. It was designed for professional and hobbyist woodworkers, plus wood flooring installers. With no on-screen tables or complicated interfaces, the app’s equilibrium moisture content (EMC) calculator provides a quick way to discover the necessary conditions to achieve equilibrium. And its searchable troubleshooter addresses common problems like buckling, gaps, adhesive failure and so on, with both cause and possible remedies simply explained. It also provides links to the company’s moisture meter manuals, specific gravity settings and other online resources for wood moisture management.

Surplex (surplex.com) is an online auctioneer that specializes in the sale of used metal and woodworking machinery across Europe. The company’s new mobile app (launched in May for iOS and Android devices) is making it a lot easier for woodshops to buy and sell large equipment and it also allows bids to be made on the move. U.S. buyers are welcome of course, and one expects to see a surge in the availability of this type of app in North America very soon.

Woodweb (woodweb.com) has an entire section dedicated to woodworking software, and all of the mobile apps are clearly marked with a little image of a cellphone.

Some Android apps

The following are just a few of the apps that caught our attention of late:

Handyman Calculator from Kalyani will track time, to-do lists, cutlists, figure bids and estimates, do almost any calculation in the shop or on the jobsite including crown molding, and convert all kinds of units including wattage, wood and weights.

The American Hardwood Information Center (hardwoodinfo.com) has a dandy app that walks woodworkers through hardwood species. This free reference guide includes information about many popular American hardwood species, and it profiles their appearance, physical and working properties, availability and typical applications. A stain simulator displays the species in clear, light, medium and dark finishes to help visualize stain combinations of flooring, cabinetry, molding and furniture that might need to co-exist in a single design space. There is also information on workability and, as an added bonus, each species profile includes images featuring the wood in finished applications.

Smart Measure, from Smart Tools Co., has a rangefinder that measures the distance and height of a target using trigonometry. All it requires is that one aims the phone’s camera at the ground in front of an object (or person) and it will measure the distance and from that it can tell you the height.

My Measure Pro from The App Studio eliminates the need to make sketches on the back of a utility bill or restaurant napkin. All one needs to do is take a photo of an object and add dimensions, arrows, angles, photos of details and even text comments.

ConvertPad from Sunny Moon converts almost any imaginable unit of measurement (such as lengths, volumes, speed and so on) to another. For example, it will convert feet to meters, gallons to liters, work with currencies and exchange rates — and even handles 25 languages, among other marvels.

Woodworking Utilities by Mike B. Hill includes a board foot calculator, pilot-hole guide, trammel length calculator, spacing calculator, decimal to fraction calculator and a dovetail jig calculator.

Some Apple-based apps

The Woodworkers’ Guild of America (wwgoa.com) recommended three must-have Apple apps for woodworkers in a 2013 article by Paul Mayer and they’re still timely. The first is WoodMaster by John Lullie, which has a number of tools such as board foot and fraction calculators. Next is The Woodshop Widget that does a number of things such as converting decimals to fractions or helping choose species based on various characteristics such as hardness, density and stability. And the third is Basic Angle Finder, which not only measures an angle, but also allows one to reset the phone to one plane and then measure the angle to another. For example, if the handrail on a stairs was going along at one angle and then it suddenly had to change to accommodate some transition such as a landing, the app could measure the difference between the two angles and help figure out the miter.

Woodcraft by Fasterre Software (fasterre.com), more for decks than casework, creates a bill of materials as you work in either two or three dimensions. Another nice feature is that one can overlay a drawing (called a model) on photos that have been taken with the phone’s camera. It works in metric and imperial dimensions down to 1/64th of an inch, and allows the user to upload a portfolio of drawings that can be shared with potential clients.

Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement has compiled an impressive list of about 50 woodshop apps at canadianwoodworking.com/apps. While a few are specific to retail stores such as Rockler or Home Depot, most are handy little programs that just make the day’s chores a little easier to manage.

And finally, the new, premium version of Woodworking with The Wood Whisperer, designed by Marc and Nicole Spagnuolo, is ideal for a lazy day on the lake this summer. It features hundreds of how-to woodworking videos, articles, shop tours and viewer projects. It also provides convenient access to all of the best content from The Wood Whisperer website, including a video archive presented by category, viewer projects with a searchable interface, and the ability to listen to the Wood Talk audio podcast right inside the app.

Bring your headphones.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue.

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