Skylight Maker Sees Opening in Market

With new product line incorporating a unique manufacturing technique, Insula-Dome looks to expand nationally
John G. Swanson
September 1, 2007
FEATURE ARTICLE | Close-Ups

Insula-Dome Skylights sees an opening for another big name brand in its product arena. Setting its sights on becoming that name, the 35-year-old regional manufacturer is launching a new product line incorporating a unique approach to vinyl welding.

Based in Yaphank, N.Y., Insula-Dome was founded by Harry Jensen in 1973, originally manufacturing Plexiglas domes for vans. With its thermoforming capabilities, it soon moved into producing plastic dome skylights, and then expanded its line to include glass skylights, eventually growing to become a leading supplier in the Long Island, New Jersey and metropolitan New York markets. “They were good people with a great brand,” says Peter Kroes, director of sales and marketing. “They were also a thorn in my side. I couldn’t get into their market,” he adds, recalling his years at Roto Frank of America.
Insula-Dome’s new product features unique “one-piece IG sash manufacturing” with the IG unit inserted into the vinyl sash components prior to welding.

Kroes came over from Europe to start that business in 1979. Germany’s Roto AG, originally set the operation up in Connecticut to produce skylights and supply hardware to North American window and door manufacturers. While the two companies competed for many years on the skylight front, they also had a lot of respect for each other, as well as a long-standing relationship as Roto supplied hardware to Insula-Dome, explains Bill Stauffer, Insula-Dome CEO. That relationship evolved into an acquisition, when the companies realized “our plans dovetailed,” he continues. “We wanted to expand and they wanted to focus on the hardware business.”

The purchase of Roto’s North American skylight manufacturing business in 2005 was a critical step in Insula-Dome’s efforts to become a national supplier. With the acquisition, Insula-Dome acquired a second facility. Now, in addition to its 55,000-square-foot facility on Long Island, it operates a 38,000-square-foot operation in Chester, Conn. It acquired increased volume demand. Roto not only produced skylights under its own name for sale in the Northeast market, but did private label manufacturing, which has been brought into Insula-Dome’s operations.

For nearly two years, the company has been maintaining that existing production, while integrating the two operations. Jensen, who is still the company president, notes, “it’s been pretty complicated at times.” The former Roto roof window plant now houses its flashing production operations, while the Long Island location houses skylight manufacturing and final assembly. Both facilities are used for warehousing finished skylights and replacement parts.

The leadership team at Insula-Dome includes, from left to right, Harry Jensen, founder; his daughter Cindy Demasi, vice president; Bill Stauffer, CEO and Peter Kroes, director of sales and marketing.
In addition to integrating the two operations, the past two years have been spent bringing together the best features of both the Insula-Dome and Roto product lines into its new lines, Stauffer says.

ONE-PIECE IG SASH MANUFACTURING
The “one-piece IG sash manufacturing technology” incorporated into Insula-Dome’s new Insulator series skylights is one element that came from the Roto side. Unlike a typical vinyl sash, which is welded and then glazed, Insula-Dome’s new sash is produced by welding the vinyl around the IG unit, explains Stauffer. Four reinforced vinyl pieces—featuring co-extruded seals—are loaded into the welder. The IG unit is then loaded in, at which time the vinyl parts are clamped around it and welded. The already-glazed unit moves from the welder to the corner cleaner.

The primary benefit to this method of production, according to Stauffer, is the solid construction it delivers and consistent quality it brings in producing a leak-proof seal around the glass. “Skylights are a lot more complicated than windows,” adds Kroes. “They have to be absolutely weather-tight. Even a pinhole is unacceptable.”

Stauffer points out that in addition to a consistently tight seal, the one-piece manufacturing technology provides for efficient manufacturing by eliminating both the space and labor typically required for glazing operations. Manufacturing efficiency and quality are key to Insula-Dome’s efforts to pursue new markets, he notes, pointing to recent company-wide efforts to implement a lean manufacturing philosophy and six sigma training.

The manufacturer’s skylights feature a pine veneer frame that can be painted or stained. The welder being used at Insula Dome came from Germany, where it was designed and built by Stürtz Maschinenbau Gmbh for Roto. According to Mike Biffl, national sales manager for Stürtz Machinery in the U.S., it’s the only machine of its type in the nation. The approach of welding the sash around the IG unit, he adds, is something not widely used in Europe.

At Insula-Dome, the vinyl sash is used to provide energy efficiency and reduce condensation on its skylights, while an aluminum outer extrusion tops off the unit to create a rain- and weather-resistant product. “Leaks are the bane of the skylight manufacturer,” Kroes notes, and he points to other unique aspects in the new line.

Insula-Dome established its reputation with high quality, welded copper perimeter flashing, he continues, noting that many established Insula-Dome customers still won’t consider anything other than copper today. Roto meanwhile had developed unique roll-forming and crimping technologies for the aluminum flashing on its skylights. Those techniques are now being used to produce both copper and aluminum flashing for the company’s new Insulator series skylights.

READY TO GROW
With the two operations integrated and a new line in production, the company is beginning to expand its sales to new regions with an ambitious goal of becoming the next big name in skylights. There’s no disrespect for North American skylight leader Velux-America at Insula-Dome, but, “it would be healthy for the market as a whole to have more competition,” Kroes states. “Customers are out there looking for an alternative. No one should dominate a market like that.” There are other regional skylight manufacturers, he continues, but many have struggled since starting up in the ‘70s and ‘80s—when acrylic domes first captured the attention of the market. “We are the only one that can possibly compete on a national basis,” he adds.

“Having the resources of two great veterans in the skylight field gives us that potential,” Stauffer says, but he also points to Insula-Dome’s record of sales and support for customers, in particular, as likely to serve it well going forward. The company targets lumberyards, roofing and building product distributors and specialty window and door dealers. Kroes explains, “We’re pretty hands-on. Our guys talk to the countermen. We know their concerns and we take the extra steps to help them out.” When new customers get the same personal approach, he adds, “they really see a difference.”

The company is starting its expansion efforts by working its way down the East Coast, establishing new dealers. Seeing a high level of service as key to continued success, Insula-Dome plans “to take it one step at a time,” Kroes states, however.

Meanwhile, despite the struggles in the skylight market—where demand decreased even while window and door sales were moving up—he sees new potential. First, Kroes reports, the company is more weighted to the remodeling market, where business is fairly healthy. “We’re seeing conversions of warehouses and offices. We’re seeing people staying in their homes and fixing them up,” he states. “There’s a lot of potential replacing the dome skylights that have been out there for 20 years.”

Secondly, he suggests, green building opens up new possibilities. “We haven’t quite tapped into that, but skylights are a natural fit,” Kroes says. “The move to green is going to have a significant impact for us all.”