Amid COVID-19, Machinery Makers Market the Advantages of Automation and Social Distancing

By Drew Vass

From market research to development, the machinery market isn’t known for being nimble. Unlike products like software or handheld technologies, advancements to equipment tend to be slow moving. For this reason, companies haven’t veered from their original plans amid COVID-19, so much as they’ve found ways to market to today’s issues. With terms such as “social distancing” and “one-person operation,” their latest promotions cue in on a unique era for door and window makers—one with even fewer people (than amid recent labor shortages) and a need for faster output.

“It’s about solving the issue of an already constrained labor force that now has to be even more spaced out,” says Morgan Donohue, vice president of sales and marketing for Erdman Automation Corp.

With its new U-shaped line for insulating glass unit (IGU) production, Erdman advances concepts such as “Maximum Social Distancing” and “Maximum IG Output with Only One Operator.”

But the fact is—with or without a pandemic—representatives for machinery companies say the theme centers on speed, accuracy and automation. Case in point: Next on the list of callouts for Erdman’s U-shaped line? An approximately 45-second cycle time per 2-foot by 3-foot IGU. The machine can also be tuned to as little as 30 to 35 seconds.

Going Multi-Function

Of course, for employees to remain distanced, it helps if they can also remain stationary. In order to appeal to those needs, makers now promote equipment that tackles more than one function via the same station—some through adaptability. Erdman’s latest U-shaped line allows a single operator access to the starting and ending points of its machinery. Companies are also adding swappable features that are suited to wider ranges of materials, with the ultimate goal of cutting down on the number of exchanges.

Where in the past employees had to handle the same materials numerous times through processes such as cutting and assembly, “Equipment now has coordinated motion with several functions working simultaneously and independent of one another,” says Robert Mitvalsky, CEO of Builders Automation Machinery Co. He says that these days interest in those improvements is largely driven by two factors: the ability to find dependable workers and second to find skilled workers. In recent years, his company’s equipment has evolved from operator-dependent, rudimentary pneumatic systems with mechanical actuation, to more high-tech and automated features, he says, such as proximity sensing, electro-mechanical functions. For example, a new 27-axis machine can be equipped with single-point pre-drill or gang pre-drill options for cutting ¼-inch or 5/8-inch radius hinges—all without changing tools. The same machine applies hinges automatically and can switch screw colors with the flip of a switch—eliminating the need for an employee to intervene or perform those functions.

In a similar, module-based concept, McKeegan Equipment and Supply offers a Quick Change Computerized Feed Through System that allows you to change cartridges in order to perform various functions. Those change ups can be performed “in seconds,” company literature says, and without tools. As a result, the same operator can adapt a machine to handle notch muntin, pin spacer or muntin, punch contour muntin and to cut screen frames.

In addition to speed and adaptability, companies continue to hark on features that also make their machines more accurate. On the glazing side, Haeco debuted a new Pro-Glaze 8400, including a new Sense of Touch feature, which adds corner touching without the need for lasers, says Jerry Henline, the company’s president. “We were just granted a U.S. Patent,” he says, suggesting that the feature is more accurate than its predecessors. Marketing for the same machine also leans on the term “automatic,” including things such as head compensation for bowed frames and auto Z axis for automatic glazing height detection.

Such automated and flexible features were in the pipeline ahead of COVID-19, but amid the pandemic, they promise the ability to eliminate human error, while new adaptabilities keep a single station focused on a wider range of functions. Those features have sold rapidly amid the pandemic, some companies report. Earlier in 2020, Fux introduced a new version of its 83-PLM-327 wrapping line, including automatically adjusting features. After making some of the machine’s adjustments automatic, such as machine bed and transport rollers, “In 2020, already four of the 83-PLM-327 lines have been successfully installed in the U.S.,” says Marco Patermann, a representative for the company. The machine also includes the company’s Opti Prime System, with six electronically-controlled primer
pumps that are controlled by a closed-circuit television camera and an Office Control System that records data. Another timely feature amid COVID-19 includes a remote maintenance system for technical support.

Wider Options

When it comes to the most advanced systems, such as fully-robotic cleaners, companies have worked to expand their functionality, too. GED, for instance, introduced a sash version of its RoboFlow PT—a fully robotic, four-head clean and welder system that it introduced in 2019. Since that time, the company also added a sash version to its Robo Clean system—a two-head robotic cleaner. Urban Machinery improved its SV840 corner cleaning machine to include profile
edge detection and a new lineup of self-centering tools. Together, those features allow manufacturers to process V- or trapeze-style transom weldings in a single step and on the same unit.

On the side of IGU production, companies have added features that center on speed and temperature. On Haeco’s Pro-Glaze 8400, for instance, a unique dispense valve is designed to maintain the perfect temperature for hot melt sealants. The valve includes a temperature control zone and a flow of low-volume, heated air to encapsulate the delivery nozzle leading to the nozzle tip.

GED tweaked its robotic IGU lines to include TruCool, which allows IGUs to be handled immediately after processing for gas fill, speeding up processes.

A similar mindset has found its way to cutting machines as well— the latest of which focus primarily on automation. TigerSaw, for instance, introduced a fully automatic push-feed upcut saw system for cutting miter angles on aluminum, copper, fiberglass, wood, plastics and other materials. While some operators cut all straight lengths to size, then miter angles, the company’s latest saw fully automates those functions. It also eliminates the need for employees to handle materials manually in order to measure and mark, and includes a self-adjusting front fence. Similarly, Oz Machine added new versions to its single-head cutter system with a gripper to hold and drive profiles automatically.

“Most people use digital stop with their saws on which they need to move the profile every time the saw cuts a piece. On this version, there is a gripper,” says Adil Sasmaz, Oz Machine’s managing director. As a result, the operator only has to pick finished pieces, while the machine drives profiles automatically.

Pro-Line introduced a similar concept with its AF-425X Auto Feed Saw and Fabrication Center, including 22-inch saw blades with programmable blade paths. Operators insert materials into a two-station preload, after which a servo-controlled gripper system advances them into an in-line fabrication system. The system features an automatic unloading feature that places finish components more or less directly into an operator’s hands.

Beyond the Pandemic

Amid COVID-19, marketing for these advancements may center on fewer touch points and employees, but long after the pandemic is over, the focus will remain on speed. Haffner, for instance, is promoting a new automated screen frame assembly machine that produces 1,000 screens per day with just one operator and a cycle time of 25 seconds.

“No other machine on the market can perform this automated function repetitively with such ease of use,” says Stephen Kucer, the company’s president.

Those options could be a little tougher to sell these days to companies that are inclined to hold on to cash amid the pandemic. But with budgets tightening around an uncertain economy, machinery manufacturers are touting less expensive improvements as well, and new “standard” features. Oz Machine now includes automation produced by Fanuc America on its four-axis machining center. “On the CNC machines, we started to work with Fanuc and now all our stock machines are [outfitted] with their automation,” says Sasmaz.

For companies that can’t stroke a check for all out automation and CNC machining, others promote less expensive options. Ameri-Can Machinery introduced a numerically controlled copy router. The machine debuted in 2019, but amid COVID-19 the company has had success in promoting its machine as a lower-cost option than CNC, says Yolanda Sangiuliano, vice president of sales and marketing.

With so many advancements centering on fewer employees and higher output, it seems that COVID-19 might do more than just change punch phrases for marketing. The latest machinery could help the industry to once and for all solve its labor crisis.

Drew Vass is the editor of [DWM] magazine

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DWM Magazine

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