Inside Information

By Ellen Rogers

In its April 2017 Beige Book (a report that’s published eight times per year, containing anecdotal information on economic conditions), the Federal Reserve Bank points to serious labor and employment shortages across every U.S. region. Those shortages span fields like information technology (IT), manufacturing and construction—all of which support or impact the door and window markets.

“I have been in the economic and financial markets forecasting profession for over 30 years and have never before witnessed a Beige Book so replete with labor supply constraint commentary,” says David Rosenberg, chief economist and strategist for Gluskin Sheff and Associates, an independent wealth management firm that’s located in Toronto.

And for this reason, Todd Tolson, director of sales for Pro-Line Automation Systems, says some companies are eyeing new equipment, not just as means for greater capacity, new products and added efficiency, but also as a means for dealing with labor shortages.

“Ten years ago, customers’ purchases were often driven by a desire to save money on labor,” Tolson says. “Now, they can’t find reliable people to staff their factories, so it’s up to the machinery to do more. Customers are looking to improve material flow and product quality by letting the machines make the ‘decisions’ rather than the workers. This has created a change in what automation means to most manufacturers. For 20 years, automation in our industry was basically moving pieces from one operation to another, now automation has to be ‘intelligent.’”

For this reason, research shows that more companies are moving beyond basic machines and toward robotics. The research division of DWM’s parent company, Key Media & Research, recently conducted a study to get a sense of the degree to which robotics and automation are being used in the fenestration industry.

According to the results, most door and window companies have been putting at least some emphasis on robotics and automation during the last few years, and they definitely plan to continue focusing on these technologies going forward. A large majority of respondents said they’re doing this in fabrication and manufacturing, with material handling as well. When it came to the key benefits of automation and robotics, reduction in labor costs and production speed and efficiency were the two top-ranked benefits. And just behind those were an increase in safety, and minimizing human error, which some seek to augment via cobots. Cobots are robotics that assist a person in doing a particular function in the plant, rather than replacing that person completely.

Other benefits they shared were increased competitiveness in difficult labor markets, integration with soft-ware systems and suppliers, and sim-ply not having to find workers for the shop floor.

The research also turned up a list of obstacles. According to respondents, the biggest downside was the cost of investment.

The downside that ranked least important was effect on employment. And that may be, because, in many cases, labor is shifted to other areas within a company, industry or the economy as a whole. In other words, a person’s role may evolve into something different, such as operating and maintaining the machinery rather than doing a back-breaking task.

When Is It Time?

Labor shortages aside, deciding when it’s the right time to replace what’s been a sturdy and reliable piece of equipment can be a difficult task, and often a logistical nightmare. Maybe it works okay for now, but if all is not well underneath the hood, then an older machine can leave your business vulnerable. DWM blogger Jim Plavecsky of Windowtech Sales says there are some things to consider, including the availability of parts for the machine you currently have. If your machine goes down and you cannot find the parts to fix it, then plan on being without it for a long time, he says. Depending on the degree of custom features, lead times for new machinery can be as long as six months. If direct replacement parts or reasonable substitutes are no longer available, then, chances are, it’s time to buy a new machine.

Plavecsky also suggests that you have to consider how much electronics are involved in your current machine. Just like personal computers and other types of technology, machines cannot remain relevant forever. If it’s a computer numerical control (CNC) machine with programmable logic controllers (PLCs), stepper or other drives, it’s highly likely that technology improvements will have made your equipment obsolete well before the end of a ten-year period; some drives may no longer be available after five years. That means that if one of these drives goes out, you may not be able to find a replacement, Plavecsky says. The whole machine will have to be rebuilt, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars. More importantly, it may take weeks to accomplish this. However, if you are talking about workhorse machines, such as an old glass washer that has motors, brushes, water jets and air knives and minimal electronic controls, those, we’re told, can last decades. Many 15- and even 20-year old machines are still humming away if well maintained. Plus, parts are simple and still easy to come by.

If your current machine is driven by a computer interface, then, just like any computer-attached peripheral, there will come a time when it will likely become obsolete—especially if the associated operating system is behind that of other systems. In other words, if your old insulating line is running on Windows XP, then it’s probably time to buy a new one (as that operating is no longer even supported by Microsoft).

Technological lags and parts shortages aside, there is one reason to replace any machine—without question, we’re told—and that is when it becomes unsafe to operate. At that point, everyone agrees: the risks aren’t worth it; take it out of service. No machine is worth jeopardizing life or limb of your employees. Maybe it was safe 20 years ago, but times have changed, and many new machines now exist with more modern safety features that were not available back then.

Checking the Fit

Before rolling my new machine in, Tolson also says it’s vital to get your high-tech workers involved as soon as possible.

“An area that’s often overlooked is the IT department,” he says. “As more and more companies adopt CRM systems to automate information flow, getting the IT folks involved is becoming more and more important. From maintaining the PCs on most of today’s machinery to adding network connections and setting up file-sharing protocols, it’s critical to have them involved.”

In the meantime, there are no new machines designed to fill in for those IT professionals (where there are also serious shortages). Not, at least, until artificial intelligence finds its way in. And it will.

Products

Glass Handling

Hands-Off Handling

Billco recently debuted its Remnant Storage Solution, a fully-automated, module-based line of equipment that automatically recovers, electronically tags and stores leftover glass. The system’s software catalogues each remnant according to its type and dimensions, before transitioning and adding glass to attached storage racks. Racks include 75 slots and double as shuttles as needed, but company officials say that additional modules can be attached for more storage. The system also tracks the aging of coated glass, in order to reduce the labor required for dealing with issues of oxidation.

After cataloguing and storage, glass can then be selected and automatically returned to the fabrication process, based on specific needs. Company officials also suggest that the system increases safety by reducing the amount of glass handling by employees.

The full system includes a total of six modules, but companies can pick and choose according to available space and needs.
www.billco-mfg.com

Improved Bead Position

CSE Automation’s Precision Sealant Application Table includes an automated system for applying hot or cold sealants, that applies to both sides of glass for improved bead quality. Application capacity is 72 by 118 inches, but can be increased to 96 by 118 inches via an expanded bed model.

In addition to double-sided operation, the system also includes an automatic height adjustment for its head sensor and applicator that covers four axes, and automatic corner detection and contactless edge tracking to compensate for bowed and skewed units.

Optional powered in- and out-feed systems are available to increase automation.
www.cseautomationllc.com

Faster Setup

Fux Austria recently introduced the 83-PLM-317 Professional Line—an auto-mated profile wrapping system that can be used to apply laminate films and other roll products to door and window components made of plastic, PVC, wood, metal or aluminum. Company officials say its latest machine was developed and designed especially for process safety and faster setup times. Six, proprietary, electronically-controlled primer pumps are capable of dosing at levels as accurate as one gram, while quick adjustment systems reduce the amount of setup time required.

Meanwhile, company officials say that, because approximately 80 percent of its machines are manufactured and assembled in-house, products can be custom tailored to door and window company’s exact needs.

Standard models include the 83-PLM-317, which features one drive shaft and gears on both sides of the machine, and an 83-PLM-327, which has just one drive shaft and gear, but remains open on one side for easy operator access.
www.fux.at

Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine (a sister publication to DWM). DWM editor Drew Vass and contributor Trey Barrineau, contributed to this post.

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

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