Hardware Needs to Do More

Looks still matter, but suppliers say window and door manufacturers are focusing more on function
John G. Swanson
March 15, 2009
FEATURE ARTICLE | Materials & Components

Window and door manufacturers are asking their hardware to do more. In today’s tight market, there’s a greater need for differentiation. That means increased emphasis on both function and style.

Manufacturers are also looking at hardware that enables them to target new niches. Tilt/turn products are one example, and larger, wide-opening doors are attracting significant attention.

“Customers continue to look for something different—whether that be something that is functionally or aesthetically different,” says Matt Kottke, marketing support manager for Truth Hardware. “They are looking for ways to not only help them differentiate themselves from the competition, but also, possibly helping them establish and distinguish different product lines within their own company.”

Amesbury reports that expanded finish offerings continue to be an important way to differentiate product lines, a key goal for manufacturers in the current market.

“With the tough economic times, we have seen a trend to further differentiation of product offering,” agrees Tim Eggebraaten, director of sales and marketing with Amesbury Door Hardware. “Many customers are expanding their finish offerings or upgrading their lock offering to include multipoint."

Kottke sees manufacturers going for a new look or finish as one way to get that different look. “Others are looking for sleeker, softer lines in the hardware which will help accent, but not detract from the window or door’s overall beauty,” he explains.

Pat Junker of G-U Hardware observes that in working with window and door manufacturers, he has found that “many companies want to reacquaint themselves with certain segments of the market. They hadn’t been looking at updating the features and benefits of their products,” he explains. “They were just trying to keep up.”

Weaker demand has encouraged many to look at new products, many targeted at particular market segments. One example Junker cites is more interest in adding tilt/turn windows. “They’re really starting to gain a foothold in the North American market, more than I expected,” he states. Demand is growing in the Western third to half of the country in particular, he says, suggesting that tilt/turn growth can probably be attributed to increased demand for security. “Homeowners like the fact that windows can be open and provide ventilation, but they are still secure,” he states. (Another article, on page XX of this issue, authored by Dan Grey of Roto Frank of America, examines the increased interest in European hardware systems.)

Improved Functionality
Whether its tilt/turn windows, hung or sliding windows or doors, manufacturers are looking more closely at how hardware can make their products operate better, suppliers note. “Consumers today have the ability to be selective on the products they purchase, so how a door or window functions is a big factor,” Eggebraaten states. "I think function is king,” adds Amber Grayson, business development manager for Amesbury window and door hardware. “Consumers don't want to waste their money on products that don't work.”

Folding handles on Truth's casement operators help provide the sleeker look many window manufacturers want, while still providing ease of operation.

Truth is seeing a growing interest also in how products perform, Kottke agrees. He sees manufacturer customers looking for products that are easy to operate and which allow the homeowner to more easily perform functions such as being able to easily wash the windows. Junker also points to ease of operation as a key consideration today. For multipoint systems, North American manufacturers are less willing to adapt to purely European hardware, he notes. They want hardware that functions intuitively for the North American homeowners.

Changing window and door products, of course, add new functional requirements for hardware. “Window sizes and weights are growing and growing,” notes Eggebraaten. "As the window sizes grow, the capabilities of the balances must grow accordingly."

The desire for a product that operates noticeably easier or better than another company's is clearly a reason manufacturers are paying more attention to hardware functionality, but another reason for the heightened attention might be the aging population, Junker suggests. Manufacturers are aware of the increased needs of a growing number of buyers and are demanding ease of operation. Code officials are paying more attention to these issues too, he notes.

“As the population ages and becomes more affluent, so do the needs for easy access and added functionality,” Grayson states. The aging population is one reason Amesbury is expecting electronics to play a growing role in window and door hardware. “We believe that home automation is one of the major keys to growth in this industry,” she continues. “If function is king, then automation is queen. The trend is already well underway.”

Kottke also sees the aging population contributing to growing interest in electronic hardware products, but he points to another trend in the electronic arena. “We’re seeing a shift towards simplicity when it comes to inquiries about electronics as its related to window and skylight hardware,” he observes. “The market seems to be looking for products that are easier to install and may not necessarily have all the ‘whistles and bells’ that were once desired. While some of those options are still desired, we’re hearing from some areas of the market that there is a need for simply the basics—a reliable means to open, close and secure the window or skylight.”

G-U has numerous electronic products that are well-established in the residential market in Europe, and sees the North American market poised for growth in this arena. Kwikset is focusing on providing new designs in their electronic offerings to better complement the style of today's home.

Junker reports that electronic door hardware systems are well established already in the residential market in Europe, and that those systems are just starting to gain acceptance here in North America. Simplicity has been important to date, he agrees. Battery-powered door locks, for example, that eliminate the need for keys but require no hard wiring, have proven to be most successful early on.

Electronic hardware is gainig acceptance, but it also has to meet style demands, according to Brent Flaharty, vice president of marketing for Kwikset. Residential builders have responded positively to the convenience offered by its first generation electronic entry door locks, but they have also "expressed a desire for a more feature-rich product with a design that would better complement the style of their homes,” he notes. “We are continually driven by our customers to push ahead in our products’ innovation, style and functionality.”

Large Doors
One arena where a number of hardware suppliers have been busy recently is in helping manufacturers meet a growing desire among homeowners to have “that entire wall move,” Junker states. One reason this product has achieved such prominence now is that it is clearly targeted at the upper end of the housing market. That segment has felt the impact of the housing and economic downturn, but the rich and wealthy have not stopped building homes, he suggests. That’s translated into a number of manufacturers stepping up efforts in this market.

There is general agreement that this particular segment is still growing. “As the demand for these wide opening patio door systems increases in coastal areas or in areas with breathtaking views, more companies are launching lift and slide and bi-fold systems in an effort to compete for these high end opportunities," says Dave Johnson, Truth's patio door hardware manager. "We have seen this trend occur most rapidly amongst the wood and aluminum manufacturers.”

How widespread this trend may become is still unknown. “There is a growing market for these products,” agrees Eggebraaten, but, he notes, they have been around for decades. “They provide many benefits over a standard system and look great,” he continues. “Price point for the products will be a key for their penetration into the ordinary home marketplace."

Demand is still growing but the large door trend will definitely have limits, suggests Truth’s Johnson. “Naturally we will see some filtering down, however we would not expect these highly value added products to make it into the ordinary home."

“Ultimately, we’ll have some trickle-down of the products to the upper-middle range home,” Junker predicts. Like Johnson, he reports that high-end wood and aluminum product manufacturers have led the way with these products, but he sees an opportunity for vinyl widow and door manufacturers getting into this arena as well. “Particularly if you have reinforcements in there, there’s no reason vinyl can’t be used in these kinds of systems. I don’t see why vinyl manufacturers would not move into this type of product as demand grows.”

The growth in large glass wall systems at the back of the house is also having an influence on the front of the house, Junker points out. “Homeowners want that same large, grand appearance. “ That’s going to continue to push demand for multipoint hardware systems that can accommodate larger panels in entry doors.

Given the weak market conditions, the window and door industry has seen fewer new product introductions and significant upgrades over the past year or so. That doesn’t mean product development activity has stopped, however. Truth is working with a growing number of companies that are developing windows and doors “which will help position themselves for the eventual upturn in the market,” Kottke reports. “We are fortunate to have such forward-thinking customers and we welcome the opportunity to work alongside them in the development process.”

“It seems that most manufacturer's are holding onto their new ideas until the economy shows signs of improving," Grayson says, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t working to get products ready. "Even though the available market is shrinking, our engineering department is being taxed to a greater extent than in the past," Eggebraaten states. "Our customers are looking harder and harder for ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. New product innovation is even more important today than in recent years.”