How Modern Technologies, Techniques Shapes Fenestration Manufacturing

By Trey Barrineau

If you wanted to build the most modern door and window factory possible using the technology and knowledge available today, what would it look like?

For one thing, it could have a much smaller foot-print—though it might be a lot taller.

It probably wouldn’t feature humanoid robots zipping around performing tasks like the mechanical helpers on the popular 1960s cartoon “The Jetsons.” But robots would do many jobs—some obvious, but many hidden. A network of computers, software, robots and machinery, directly connected to each other or linked by the Internet of Things (IoT), would run most processes.

And it would almost certainly embrace techniques and strategies associated with lean manufacturing. Also called continuous improvement, lean involves in-depth analysis of work flows to find areas of inefficiency and waste.

In 2005, for example, Wausau, Wisc.-based Kolbe launched its continuous improvement program. Since that time, the company says it’s resulted in at least 325,000 square feet of floor space being re-purposed for new product lines, eliminating more than 1,000,000 feet of “unnecessary” walking distance while improving safety.

“This program has been essential for Kolbe’s ongoing success and ability to innovate throughout this past decade,” says president Jeff De Lonay. “To remain leaders in our field, we must always be searching for more efficient ways to run our business and build our products, and that is exactly what this program helps us do.”

So how close is the door and window industry to fully embracing highly efficient, technologically advanced workplaces? DWM tours a hypothetical window factory (with the help of experts at Quanex Building Products and Fehr Warehouse Solutions) to see what could happen when automation, robotics and lean manufacturing principles come together under one roof.

Advice for Streamlining Your Operations

While every company might not be jumping on automation just yet, Ray Garries, the vice president of engineering and innovation at MI Windows and Doors, says those looking to streamline their operations today should follow these guide-lines based on lean manufacturing principles:
• Plan your product assembly process using visualization tools. Eliminate as many steps as possible.
• Plan your production line layouts in great detail to eliminate waste, and invest at least one hour of analysis for every unit of daily production (300 units = 300 hours, or 20 hours each by 15 people).
• Eliminate possible assembly errors, and make the assembly as simple as possible.
• Eliminate fasteners at all costs. Welded vinyl assembly methods have done more for productivity and quality than most other window innovations.
• Make it impossible to install components in the wrong place or in the wrong orientation by using tabs, fit snaps and clearances.

Key Principles of Industry 4.0

Most industries in the advanced world are starting to feel the effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0.

The First Industrial Revolution brought the world mechanization and the harnessing of power in the form of steam or water. The Second Industrial Revolution was about mass production and assembly lines. The Third Industrial Revolution focused on adding computers and automation to mass-production processes.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will radically change the way products are manufactured, eventually leading to the development of cyber-physical systems (CPS). According to the University of California at Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, these are “integrations of computation, networking, and physical processes. Embedded computers and networks monitor and control the physical processes, with feedback loops where physical processes affect computations and vice versa.”

Pre-Production Storage

According to Ryba, the ideal plant flow, from initial receiving of materials to shipping your finished products, goes in as straight a line as possible. That’s how new, state-of-the-art plants are being designed.

“Using vinyl as an example again, you want your materials directly behind your cutting/fabricating stations,” he says. “Under lean principles, those materials would be appropriately marked with a profile number. The saw operator should then be able to load the saw, moving the materials as short a distance as possible. Automated saws can make this even more efficient, with the operator able to load a saw with several pieces of material. The machine can do its work while the operator then loads another saw.”

When it comes to the actual production process for insulating glass, vertical high-speed lines are the gold standard, says Vince Warne, the eastern regional sales manager for Quanex. In addition to saving space, they’re easier to monitor for problems.

“From a supervisor standpoint, you can see all the way down the line, with the ability to spot efficiency and quality defects very easily,” he says. “Then you know where you can make improvements. And with an automated line, you have an IG unit coming off the line every 20 to 30 seconds that’s ready to go into glazing. The time, the flow and efficiency that can be realized here are significant.”

Quanex’s vice president of IG sales, Larry Johnson, says it’s also important to consider getting rid of any non-value-added components in the production system.

“For instance, no window manufacturer is making their money on screens, and screens processing can be a headache,” he says. “Outsourcing screens can be one way to put a greater emphasis on producing high-quality IGUs.”

Post-Production Storage and Shipping

After manufacturing, it’s time to ship. Because it’s critically import-ant to know exactly where the finished products are going, post-production storage and shipping need to be highly coordinated. Storage racks should be organized by delivery method, destination and schedule for each product.

Many manufacturers use barcoding to accomplish this.

From the time a window is first processed, it should get a scanable barcode that follows it all the way out the door, says Johnson.

“With barcodes, manufacturers can keep track of where their products are in the plant and where they need to be going,” he says. “This way, windows only need to be handled once, because everyone knows what needs to happen.”

Warne says it might be the most important part of the whole production process.

“From the technical standpoint, it all comes down to barcoding,” he says. “It’s how customers we’ve worked with have been able to take their operations to another level.”

That process also requires communication with the end customer. Many Industry 4.0 systems allow manufacturers to work with their customers to track exactly what they need, when they need it.

“Once a window is wrapped and goes into a storage rack, the manufacturer should know everything about that window—which truck it needs to be loaded onto, which route it’s being shipped on, and which stop on that route it’s being delivered,” says Ryba.

Software can even plan the delivery route for the finished products, which can help employees in the shipping department place them in the truck in the proper order.

“It’s all about eliminating potential areas for damage,” Ryba says. “You don’t want the truck driver moving your windows around because what he needs to deliver on his first stop was loaded into the truck before his next stop’s delivery.”

Why Automation Matters

“Imagine a window factory in 2050. The robotics are building frames, and lasers are cutting glazing. The products are built with such precision that inspection is not needed. Products are produced the day they are needed. The factory is modular, sited near customers, and can produce 4,000 different units per day with only 50 humans.”

—DWM blogger Ray Garries, the vice president of engineering and innovation at MI Windows and Doors, in a July 2015 post at

One of the great societal fears of automation and robotics is the loss of jobs. However, the problem facing the door and window industry today is a lack of workers willing to take jobs in manufacturing. A 2015 study by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte found that by 2025, nearly 2 million manufacturing jobs could be unfilled.

That’s probably the biggest driver of automation in the door and window industry. However, there are other reasons to turn production over to robots and computers.

“Automation of production processes can provide savings of labor and consistency of quality; however, integration of all automated work cells is where the significant savings is found in terms of bottom-line profit,” says Ron Crowl, president of FeneTech. “Integration of these islands of automation is accomplished with the implementation of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The ERP system can improve production flow, which allows you to get more out of what you already have, improve material yields and provide real-time information that allows proactive decisions to be made.”

ERP systems act as a central nervous system for a modern door and window factory, seamlessly linking up with all aspects of production, from sales to shipping. They’re the leading edge of Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which describes high-tech manufacturing that uses sensors, fast computing speeds, artificial intelligence and networking to boost efficiency and lower costs. The effects of this transfromation are just beginning to be felt across many sectors of the economy.

However, a recent industry-wide survey by Soft Tech shows that just 25 percent of companies in the fenestration industry currently use ERP software, and adoption is surprisingly low for other systems, too, especially considering the focus that’s been put on the technology at industry conferences and trade shows during the past few years.

“In our analysis, these findings highlight that many businesses are yet to benefit from the incorporation of software within the businesses,” Soft Tech’s report reads. “While accounting software and sales soft-ware are more common, outside of the sales and finance departments, job-specific software uptake remains relatively low within the fenestration industry. Our findings suggest many businesses are only utilizing software to support limited functions of their business.” (See charts on right.)

Real live humans would still have important roles to play in the modern factory, but they’d be doing much less hands-on work. That would make for less dangerous, more desirable jobs.

“For your core workers, automation is making their jobs safer and easier,” says Vince Warne, the eastern regional sales manager for Quanex Building Products. “It helps eliminate rigorous and repetitive tasks. If your workers aren’t having to manually manipulate large pieces of glass, you’re eliminating a few different risks. Fatigue will decrease. Your workers are less likely to cut themselves on a sharp edge. And with those improvements, morale rises. That’s another benefit to automation that is difficult to put a hard dollar sign on, but it’s no less important.”

However, one expert in the woodworking machinery industry says that in addition to an overall shortage of workers in manufacturing, there aren’t many available now who can do more advanced jobs associated with automation.

“The scarcity of specialized technicians—to work on the production floor, provide maintenance service and develop software applications —who are familiar with the new Industry 4.0 digital developments, is a very serious problem, also in the United States,” says Giuseppe Riva, SCM North America country manager. His company recently hosted Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., at SCM’s North American headquarters in Duluth, Ga., where they urged greater government support for the manufacturing sector and federal funds to boost technical and professional training.

To view the laid-in version of this article in our digital edition, CLICK HERE.

DWM Magazine

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