Trendhunter | Automation

Laurie Cowin
August 6, 2019
FEATURE ARTICLE : Trendhunter, ONLINE EXCLUSIVE | Products

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Automation Across the Pond

Europe generally is more advanced than the Americas in the building products field and technology, and the same holds true with machinery. Tony Mehringer, vice president of sales and marketing, Sturtz Machinery, recalls being “blown away” as far back as the early 1990s by how much more open Europe was for automation compared to North America. “They’ve always been ahead of us in that respect,” he says, adding that a lot of equipment for the vinyl window industry came from Europe. Much of Sturtz Machinery’s equipment originates in Germany and is modified in North America to make it suitable for the market.

European window design lends itself better to automation than North American windows, which necessitate machinery to be much more flexible to accommodate the myriad designs extruders work with. “Their window systems are much more mature and they can make a broad range of formats and styles, but how they actually get assembled and fabricated is very similar across all of their models,” explains Mitchell Heckbert, vice president of sales and service with Urban Machinery. Those profile differences, along with nail fins, flanges and other new construction window components, are what makes it so difficult to bring the same automation to North America.

His company’s machines, he says, are software ready by using a database system where data can be tracked via barcodes for production handling. Although he says they commonly sell fully integrated lines in Europe, differences in North American profiles make it difficult to fully integrate every step of the process. 

“The machines aren’t made to handle that from the beginning and it’s not so easy to just bring it across, modify it a little bit and think it’ll work in North America,” Heckbert continues. “In many cases, it’s what can your market bear?” Urban Machinery has some customers who are pushing the company to bring some of that automation to North America. Heckbert says that although it isn’t a “viable solution” yet he thinks it’s just a matter of time before companies in North America see the value and will be able to justify the dollars for such technology.

Return on investment

Companies invest substantial capital into automated machinery and, as such, return on investment is an important calculation for them. ROI, however, varies by company and its individual circumstances.

Mitchell Heckbert, vice president of sales and service with Urban Machinery, says most of his company’s customers expect to see it within 24 months. Although Urban Machinery doesn’t calculate ROI for a customer, it answers questions they have regarding throughput, takt time, head count, how many people they need on the line and more so that the client can do the calculations themselves to justify the investment.

Morgan Donohue, vice president of sales and marketing at Erdman Automation, agrees the onus is on the customer to determine ROI. “Our job is to present a solution to the customer and help them understand what that solution is going to cost in terms of capital, manpower, and electric and pneumatic power,” he says. The customer must determine how many workers will be reallocated and how they value ergonomic and safety benefits. “We can only give them the information we have and they have to plug it in for themselves in terms of their matrix.”

GED’s Tim McGlinchy, vice president of engineering/research and development, says the general rule of thumb used to be two years or less for a system, but he sees customers extending that time further down the horizon as they realize the value in machinery and automation and the ability to put people in areas that need more flexibility or where automation doesn’t make financial sense yet. 

Demand and product mix further complicate the ROI calculation. “If they have to make Product A and Product B, how do they quickly switch between the two or have the flexibility in the line to run one right after another?” says John Moore, vice president of marketing at GED Integrated Solutions. “Our customers might not always have the same mix of product and sale day to day and need flexibility to accommodate what’s sold – not what they want to make.”

Laurie Cowin is senior editor of Window + Door. Contact her at lcowin@glass.org.