Plant Transformation

Maximize Labor and Gain a Competitive Edge with Automation
Larry Johnson
March 21, 2017
FEATURE ARTICLE | Operations

A high-speed IG automation line offers a path to increase volume and reduce labor. (All images courtesy of Erdman Automation)

The residential window and door market is poised for real growth throughout 2017. As the housing market continues to regain health, and the Federal Reserve hiked its benchmark interest rate for the second time in 10 years, mortgage rates are on the rise. Market watchers also anticipate that the new presidential administration will be conducive to additional growth. For residential window manufacturers, volumes are on the rise. All good news—and it means that many in our industry are considering new investments that, just a year or two ago, appeared out of reach.

Automated manufacturing technology, particularly high-speed automation, has been a topic of conversation for insulated glass manufacturers in particular for the past few years and it continues to proliferate across both the residential and commercial sectors of the glass space. Of many implications, high-speed automation enables manufacturers to tackle new challenges at a critical time.

Volume and Labor

At a stage when our industry is staring down several labor challenges that do not appear to be waning, high-speed automation offers a path to increase volume and reduce labor. It is estimated that automation may enable an IG fabricator to get 1,200 units off the line with just three workers per shift—compared to up to 12 people accomplishing the same without automation.

As skilled workers across the broader building and construction industry age out of the workforce, it has been difficult for manufacturers to find and retain quality workers to replace those headed for retirement. High-speed automation indeed helps address some of those challenges but, to be clear, automation doesn’t eliminate jobs. Rather, it enables manufacturers to focus on their best people. Plant managers can shift workers to high-value tasks to boost quality, service and profit.

Why Now?

What’s happening in 2017 that makes this shift in thinking about how we manufacture more attractive and, perhaps, more necessary? High-speed automation has proven itself. It’s no longer a new, futuristic technology; we’re actually seeing the benefits.

Manufacturers utilizing automation today are producing high-quality, high-performance units that will prove themselves in the field and are likely to result in a reduction of warranty claims. Also, as federal and state energy codes continue to change and demand higher performance, automation can help manufacturers meet increasingly lofty benchmarks.

Simultaneously, the residential window market is perhaps more competitive than ever before. Price has become more of an issue for some manufacturers. As sale prices dragged down during the housing crisis, some manufacturers seized the opportunity to utilize additional manufacturing capacity to be more competitive and to offer more features and benefits that command a higher margin.

  
   Automated processes require maintenance, care and attention to detail to make the most of the investment.

Staying Ahead

High-speed automation is, in many ways, a great equalizer. But the next challenge for manufacturers is to discover other ways to transform operations and sharpen their competitive edge. In my experience, this takes dedication to optimizing operations based on an investment in automation-enabled capabilities. And it means prioritizing the high-value parts of a business.

Easier said than done. But, for the average residential window manufacturer, here’s one example of how that could work. Consider other parts of the finished window besides the IG unit, such as the screen. The overall thermal performance of the window greatly depends on the IG—a true high-value and high-margin component. Screens add essential functionality for the end user but deliver lower margins for manufacturers.

Window manufacturers may stand to benefit by focusing on the IG units with automated lines and outsourcing other lower-margin components to a trusted third party. Maximizing labor comes into effect again—dedicating skilled workers to high-value products and processes only makes sense given the increasingly competitive nature of the market.

It doesn’t end with prioritizing IG over lower-margin components, either. Automation remains a new and budding technology relative to the history of the window and door industry and to the age of many manufacturing plants. Consider whether your plant floor layout is optimized for efficient workflow, given the high volumes automation can produce. Can you source the right amount of raw materials to keep up with production? Are shipping operations equipped to handle greater volumes?

Bottom line—automation is not an end in itself. It is, however, the foundation on which innovative and forward-thinking window and door manufacturers can continue to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. We’re just beginning to realize the benefits and seize the possibilities.

Larry Johnson is the vice president of IG sales for Quanex Building Products.