MI Going Green and More Upscale

Manufacturer launching new cellular product line targeting wood window buyers.
John G. Swanson
September 1, 2008
FEATURE ARTICLE | Markets & Trends, Close-Ups
The Mlyota way
With the MIyota way, boards around the plant allow workers to track performance and look for improvement. Chris Rothermel, assistant manager at MI's Gratz plant, says employees now embrace the concept.

What does it take to be green? Like many other manufacturers, MI Windows & Doors has been working to answer that question. What it has discovered is that it had already taken some important steps toward green, even before it looked down that path. Enough steps, in fact, that it featured an "MI is going green" campaign at the 2008 International Builders' Show.

That "going green" theme, however, also reflects the fact that "we're not all the way there yet," says Mark Feucht, product development manager for the company, and one of its green experts. In fact, he adds, MI may never be "there"-as being green is much like being lean. "It's a process of continuous improvement. It's a journey, not a destination," he explains. "You're always looking for ways to do things better-whether it's product performance, whether it's using resources more carefully, or finding a way to have less impact on the environment."

Headquartered in Gratz, Pa., with manufacturing locations around the country, MI was becoming greener before green received much notice, because of its efforts to become lean-and eliminate waste, Feucht says. "For many years, MI has placed a heavy emphasis on efficient use of materials and production time, waste/scrap reduction and energy efficient performing products," adds Brian Shilling, director of marketing. "Quite honestly, the original intent was to reduce our operations and material costs, therefore remaining price competitive for our customers. As 'greenness' grew we discovered that our style of operation had given us a leg up in the realm of environmental consciousness."

Feucht points out that several years ago, the company introduced the MIyota Way, the company's version of the Toyota Production System. The primary thrust was to make MI more efficient and competitive in manufacturing, but the implementation also enabled it to achieve green goals. Specifically, he notes, the continuous improvement program led the company to reduce scrap in glass, metal and vinyl used in its products, as well as recycle most of the scrap it produces. Part of a vertically-integrated organization with its own aluminum and vinyl extrusion operations, MI Windows' sister companies-MI Metals and ProPlastix-reuse or recycle any scrap aluminum or vinyl. Approximately 99 percent of the window and door manufacturer's scrap glass, as well as cardboard shipping materials that come into the facility, also get sent out for recycling.

The company also implemented a reverse osmosis process for filtering and reusing water for its glass cleaning lines. This filtering process leaves the water very clean while reducing water consumption, another important green element.

More recently, the company took steps to enable employees to recycle their bottles and miscellaneous paper. The results have been phenomenal, notes Chris Rothermel, assistant manager at the MI's Gratz plant. Where the operation's employees once filled approximately nine dumpsters a week with trash, the new recycling program reduced that to one or two.

The success highlights the importance of the MIyota way, as employees see the benefits of constant improvement and now embrace the concept, Rothermel states. Pointing to one of numerous message boards located throughout the facility, he explains how the continuous improvement program enables each line to track its performance in such areas as safety, quality, scrap, cost per unit, and units per man-hour and set goals for improvement in each arena. "Workers are enthusiastic about integrating ideas related to minimizing environmental impact into the mix of continuous improvement goals," he says. Pointing again to the reduced amount of trash that's resulted from employees separating bottles and paper for recycling, he states simply, "It just didn't take that much effort. They're very aware of the impact they can have here, and they want to do the right thing."

That's not to say MI has put minimal effort into "going green." "We don't feel green is simply an extension of begin lean. It certainly helps but there is much more that needs to work in tandem," says Shilling. "Your lean practices need to be coupled with quality, clean raw materials, efficient resourceful design, packaging that is lean and environmentally friendly, life cycle assessments and much more."

Feucht, for one, is a student of Okala, an eco-design program created by the Industrial Designers Society of America. Okala-a Hopi word meaning life sustaining energy-emphasizes the entire product lifecycle, he explains, from innovation and design, to the use of low-impact materials, optimized manufacturing and distribution, low-impact use and long-term durability and end-of-life disposal. The study of the fundamentals in each of these areas has guided a number of efforts within the company-and has been integral in the design and launch of MI's BridgeWood product line, in particular, Feucht states.

MI has offered a cellular product line for several years, but is now introducing a re-designed version of the product-offering a traditional wood window look- targeted squarely at a more upscale market than the manufacturer has focused on in the past. In developing the higher-end line, one plan MI considered was the use of real wood veneers on the interior. From an Okala or life-cycle perspective, however, that proved to be problematic, Feucht explains. Most notably, the application of a wood veneer would make recycling of scrap difficult, if not impossible. As a result, MI looked hard to find a woodgrain film for the interior that would also meet the aesthetic demands of typical wood window customers.

MI is proud of its accomplishments in the arena of improved processes and in becoming a more responsible environmental citizen, Feucht states, but when it comes to life-cycle analysis for windows, product performance-notably energy efficiency and durability-often outweighs such factors as resource utilization and manufacturing and distribution processes. Superior energy efficiency is perhaps the most critical criteria to the green buyer-who is often looking at the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED for Homes rating system or the new National Green Building Standard-which both outline minimum performance requirements for windows and provide credits for products that exceed those minimums, he adds.

As a result, one of the earliest decisions made in developing the new BridgeWood line was to seek out a high-performance glass package that would meet the needs of the green buyer, Feucht states. The manufacturer opted to work with Cardinal IG to offer the "Green & Clean" glass package for the new line. The package-featuring a high-performance low-E coating, argon-meets the energy efficiency demands of the green buyer and delivers more, he states, thanks to the glass manufacturer's Neat low-maintenance glass and Preserve film. Reducing maintenance requirements-including the need for chemical cleaners-is also a green goal, Feucht points out.

One of the big advantages of vinyl and extruded  cellular composites, when it comes to green, he adds, is that they don't need to be finished on-site and painted or stained again later on in its life, and they're relatively easy to clean. The combination of the Preserve film, which protects the glass during the construction process, and the Neat coating extends similar benefits to the entire window, he notes.

"We feel BridgeWood will breathe new life" into the upscale category, Shilling adds, noting that the company sees the line as "a tremendous opportunity." Given the fact that the product is unique in material, design, energy efficiency, as well as its durability, Shilling states, "The only challenge we see for BridgeWood is the newness of the brand and technology. However, we are confident that our marketing efforts will reach the right audience and the BridgeWood value will soon prove itself."

Amber Martin, marketing coordinator, reports that it has already generated significant enthusiasm among the company's dealers.  Many of them also see a "new opportunity" in taking on the upscale builder market.

With the new line, MI has clearly focused on performance features, because right now, "green" buyers are most focused on product performance/energy efficiency when selecting products. Shilling sees that changing eventually, with green homeowners, builders and architects also paying more attention to the manufacturer and its practices in the future. "As everyone is learning and discovering more about green practices we are all finding that "green" starts at the beginning," he notes. "As more people feel they have been "green washed" they will look beyond one or two areas that make that product appear green and evaluate it from the beginning-looking directly at the manufacturer."

Energy efficiency remains a huge piece of this puzzle, Shilling continues. The company is able to meet and or exceed Energy Star requirements, but it continues to look ahead, anticipating what consumers and what the country will need as far as product ratings and efficiency. "There is definitely more required; just like the MIyota way," Shilling concludes, "it is a continuous improvement process."