What Machines Must Do to Fill in Manufacturing Gaps

By Drew Vass

Between labor shortages, tightening performance requirements and a trend toward larger (and larger) products—to suggest that the climate has changed for door and window manufacturers is an understatement. Meanwhile, with advancements in automation, machinery companies have looked to help out with those and other issues (or to capitalize on them, depending on how you choose to look at it), but those measures have come up short, manufacturers tell [DWM]’s editors. In many ways, automation is a one-step-forward-two-steps-back process, they say, as new equipment is phased in. As a result, “We’re looking for the quantum leap type of equipment,” says Steve Chen, president of Crystal Windows. “Not incremental improvements,” he adds.

When [DWM]’s editors reached out to manufacturers for their “wish lists” for new machinery, it came as no surprise that they began with efficiency. “But efficiency isn’t always the driving factor,” says Dave Doerger, vice president of manufacturing for Vinylmax Windows. What came next was a little surprising, as manufacturers explained how today’s automated machinery helps to alleviate labor shortages, but leaves them hanging in areas like design flexibility, quality control and material handling.

Design Limitations

With machines taking over fabrication and assembly, it’s become increasingly necessary for manufacturers to design around what their automated equipment can accommodate.

“Gone are the days when you set out to create a new window, dropped four screws in and added glass,” says Bill Sifflard, marketing and business development manager for Quaker Windows and Doors. “That’s where strategic partnering comes into play with equipment manufacturers.”

But some manufacturers report that they haven’t found enough flexibility in today’s automated equipment to accommodate the number of SKUs they need to offer, in order to satisfy the need for customization.

“In our business, there are literally thousands of permutations to building doors,” says Sam Steves, president of Steves and Sons. “There’s no standard anything.” Steves’ company produces upwards of 35,000 doors per day, he says—all of which need to be customized at least to some degree. Meanwhile, automated assembly lines have a way to go before they catch up to the customization process, he and other representatives suggest. “I’m aware of some,” Steves says, “but none, to my knowledge, have been totally successful.”

Scott Doeden, operations manager for St. Cloud Window, says his company would like to see more customization among clamping systems. “Our profiles vary and no matter how ‘customizable’ the clamping system is, they rarely work for all our profiles without some sort of modification.”

Until automation catches up to customization, chances are manufacturers will need to add additional equipment to accommodate a range of products. And therein lies a problem: some are running out of floor space.

“In the past, window assembly lines that were manual were pretty compact. These new automated lines use fewer people, but stretch hundreds of feet,” Sifflard says. “That requires much bigger buildings.”

Manufacturers include smaller and more vertically oriented equipment and storage systems on their wish lists as a result.

“More compact equipment can be such a benefit, as it allows new products and other equipment you might not [otherwise] have been able to have,” says Doerger.

Something Borrowed

While machines such as vertical welders already exist, there’s a need for other options, says Chen. By going upwards instead of outwards for storage, the industry could also lean on automated picker systems, he suggests—the likes of what are used by companies like Amazon and Federal Express. With artificially intelligent enterprise resource platforms already available, automated systems for storage could rearrange products and materials in order to make them readily available, he says.

“There’s no reason why fenestration can’t use those same systems,” Chen says. “That way, you could store all of your materials in a footprint that’s half or even a third of what’s currently required,” thereby freeing up space for additional machinery.

In order to complete the cycle, those systems should extend all the way from incoming materials through final delivery, some believe. For this reason, manufacturers say they’re looking for equipment that’s capable of moving finished materials from the factory onto trucks.

Augmenting Labor

Manufacturers have more items on their wish list as well. They want equipment to protect employees from heavy lifting and say they continue to seek out features that make training new employees easier. And while plenty of such features have surfaced in recent years—including such things as step-by-step video tutorials—now they’re looking for additional technologies and machinery designs that help to break what some describe as “tunnel vision” among employees.

“We need things that help to keep employees engaged, interested and involved in their work—things that make it less routine and take the monotony out of it,” Chen says.

Steves, for instance, is deploying laser-based systems that mark where certain actions should be performed or lined up—like fasteners. By applying those technologies to more than 480 door designs, Steves says it’s possible to have the same employee working on a wider variety of doors, without having to commit that information to memory. As a result, there’s also less repetition.

Manufacturers are also looking to augment processes they feel are best performed by humans. In quality inspections, for instance, representatives say until machinery can adequately inspect materials and finished products, they’ll continue leaning on employees, while looking for better tools to assist in those efforts.

“Over the years, we’ve looked into equipment that could check the quality of our finishes,” says Keith Yutzy, vice president of operations for Provia. “A lot of times, when going down that road and looking at new equipment, we felt we weren’t getting everything we wanted, and that this is one area that’s perhaps best left in the hands of our employees. We feel that every employee out here is our quality assurance system.”

But cornered by the automation that some have already deployed, other manufacturers say they need more machine-based solutions. With windows, for instance, Chen says that his company has found systems for inspecting the quality of glass, but in order to further automate, there’s a need to also assess frame assemblies and finished products. Similarly, with automated assembly lines for doors, Steves says his company is in need of equipment that can verify that glue has been applied properly. “There’s a fair amount of faith that goes along with gluing products together. It isn’t like bolting,” he says.

There are new options that utilize sonic technologies to evaluate the location and amount of glue within assembled doors, Steves explains, but there’s a need for applying those and other types of technology to more areas—like visual inspections for blemishes.

It’s in those and other applications where some manufacturers say they’re experiencing clashes between automation and quality assurance.

“For us that’s where it starts—with the question, what do we want to do with equipment and what do we want to keep in the hands of our craftsmen,” says Yutzy.

But there’s a fine line between relying on humans and automating, Steves says, with the best quality often hanging somewhere in the middle.

“Somebody at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, when it’s 90 degrees in the plant—they’re human beings and they’re doing their best, but they may not catch things,” he says. “With technology, you can double down on quality by adding additional evaluations and inspections.”

Manufacturers have proven that, when the right equipment is out there, they’re willing to stroke a check for improvements. Case in point: In recent years, Crystal has invested in vinyl assembly equipment, welders, corner cleaners, saws and equipment for producing insulating glass units, Chen says.

Ultimately, however, machinery providers have a tough wish-list to fill in order to sell more equipment—including quicker fulfillment, as the biggest challenge for equipment deployment is often lead times, Sifflard says. “For insulating glass equipment, for instance, you’re looking at 9-12 months before you can obtain and use the equipment,” he says.

Prior to the recession, machine manufacturers stocked a few pieces, or could get them to you in weeks, he and other representatives say. But not anymore. Which means that, in order to deploy new technologies—and new products—they’re having to order equipment now for mid- to late-2020.

Options in Abundance

Comprehensive Options

For manufacturers seeking an insulating glass (IG) line with flexibility and the option for handling large glass, Forel’s High Tech Series insulating glass lines include a total of five products and complimentary machinery for spacer bending. The system offers the ability to process units as large as 236-inches by 130 inches in size and 882 lbs. in weight, and is equipped with a range of exclusive devices and technologies for working with offset, shaped, double and triple insulated glass units.

Included machinery ranges from low-E coating removal, washing and inspection and frame application conveyance, to a coupling press with gas fill and robotized sealing. Optional equipment includes rotating conveyor, scanner, cork spacer applicator and tilting unit.


Billco Manufacturing has formed a partnership with Seegrid, a provider of vision guided technology, and will offer fully automated glass handling solution. Utilizing technology developed over the course of decades by Dr. Hans Moravec at the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon, the two companies will provide fabricators with a fully automated means for moving and handling glass without operator intervention, keeping employees safe while reducing labor costs.

Spot a Perfect Fit

As manufacturers struggle to find floor space for new equipment and weigh the advantages of automation, Pro-Line Automation Systems has introduced “an app for that.” The company’s new software for Apple’s iPhone and iPad (soon to be available for Android, officials say) allows manufacturers to explore various machinery options through images, videos and virtual reality 360-degree, panoramic imagery. Meanwhile, by utilizing a device’s built-in camera and augmented reality functions, users can see in real time and real specifications exactly how and where equipment would fit.

The app can be downloaded for free using iTunes or the iOS App Store.

Compact Storage

Officials for Fehr say the company’s Honeycomb storage system is designed to enable efficient warehousing for window manufacturers, by providing additional capacity through a small footprint. The system also handles profiles and materials that vary both in length and shape, by employing the changing-cassette principle.

With machines set up in the immediate vicinity of material-delivery stations, Honeycomb can be integrated into an entire production line, officials say, ranging from goods receipt through coating and processing, for full automation, eliminating the need for manual interventions.

Drew Vass is the editor of [DWM] magazine. Read his blog at dwmmag.com and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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

DWM Magazine

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