Automation gains momentum
Automation isn’t new. Manufacturers can recite the benefits of automated insulating glass production: higher efficiency, increased units per shift, reduced failure rates and so forth. Given that, why are only an estimated 25 percent of IG manufacturers fully automated?
“Automation is the way they have to go to compete,” says Eric Vidmar, president of Anlin Window Systems in Clovis, Calif. “Now, it’s a question of how you choose to automate.”
An automated system effectively doubles production of IG from one unit per minute to two or two-and-a-half per minute, providing a total daily production around 1,000 IG units per eight-hour shift using only two to three people per line.
Such productivity gains pay for the investment, wearing down many owners’ typical reason for not automating: a deep-rooted perception that they cannot afford it.
Additionally, IG manufacturers realize more cost savings through labor and further integration of automated processes. The emerging trends reveal how manufacturers now work with automation proactively to improve overall strategy.
“More manufacturers are looking for automated equipment specifically with gas-filling ability and the use of warm-edge spacers,” says Claus Rieger, executive vice president of North America for Bystronic Inc. in Hauppauge, N.Y., “Automation and cost-per-unit reduction will [spur] the new generation of equipment, with increasing labor costs and the threat of finished IGUs coming from Asia and being sold to the North American market, as I saw at this year’s China Glass Show in April in Beijing.”
More choices in automated systems
For several years, robotic applicators have been applying spacers to glass in the middle of IG production lines, and reducing labor costs. Today, equipment manufacturers refine the application of primary seals in line. “There is a growing demand for further automation, and we feel that the demand favors vertical automation,” reports Greg DeWeese, vice president and general manager of Lisec America in Eagan, Minn. Many newly installed automated lines are vertical lines from manufacturers such as Bystronic, Italy’s For.El. S.p.A., Lisec, Spadix Technologies of Middlesex, N.J., and Willian Design Ltd. of the United Kingdom.
With larger, heavier glass units, vertical lines ease production by eliminating the need for repositioning the glass at 90 degrees, as in the case of horizontal lines. Glass stands vertically in racks at the beginning of the IG production line and each unit stays vertical. Glass-handling devices help move the glass along.
Vertical lines cost less per square foot, Rieger says, and the lines require a smaller footprint.
The transition of glass from vertical storage to a vertical production line progresses easier and increases the quality of IG units. This is a key difference between vertical and many horizontal lines, where line personnel must manually or mechanically slide lites onto a conveyer belt and just the weight of the glass may cause damage.
Advantages of horizontal lines
Horizontal lines—produced primarily by Besten of Cleveland, Billco Manufacturing Inc. of Zelienople, Pa., and Glass Equipment Development Inc. or GED, of Twinsburg, Ohio, traditionally take up more space on the production floor, but offer efficiencies for manufacturers of smaller units. They offer higher capacity for parallel processing, allowing two streams of glass to run rapidly through the same equipment on simultaneous paths.
While automation is typically most beneficial for IG manufacturers producing more than 500 IG units per shift, Carlson Wegoma, with headquarters in Twinsburg, has developed some economical solutions for producers of fewer units. Some semi-automated horizontal components, such as butterfly tables, can help IG manufacturers automate. Butterfly tables are hinged tables used in the IG manufacturing process to bring glass lites into alignment during production. With hinged designs, operators don’t have to manually lift glass.
Reduce unit failure
In 2003, a major North American window company conducted a study showing that each time a person physically handles a component during IG fabrication, it adds 1⁄10 of 1 percent to the failure rate. If 10 people on the line fabricate an IG unit, it increases the possibility for failure an additional 1 percent. Reducing the number of human touch points in the IG manufacturing process through automation allows manufacturers to minimize risk.
When line personnel touch and move the glass on a manual line, they leave behind hair, fingerprints and other particulates on the unit that can interfere with the primary or secondary seal, or leave a moisture path within metal spacer inserts. Automation effectively limits that contact.
“The advent of soft-coated glass has made it even more imperative to reduce the liability that human contact increases,” DeWeese points out. “Roughly 97 percent of windows made today have some sort of coating on them, but soft-coating is very susceptible to damage. Just touching it can damage the coating.”
Maximizing the workforce
Vidmar says quality was one reason Anlin automated. Today, Anlin has the capacity to produce 3,000 IG units per day on three Lisec lines. For Anlin, automation helped lower the company’s workers’ compensation costs. Insurance companies do not consider fenestration a low-risk industry, and decreasing the number of touch points between the lites and workers through automation lowered liability. Further, “you can’t produce 1,500 IGUs per day with a manual line. People fatigue, employees burn out and production slows down. Even the most efficient of lines can be compromised,” Vidmar says.
Automation has allowed Anlin to repurpose highly skilled workers into other areas and fill those spots on the line with workers whose talents are maximized to work with the automated equipment. “When we look at the decreasing availability of a skilled workforce and 20-to-40 percent turnover within manufacturing plants, there are soft costs associated with automation that many never calculate into the final decision [to automate],” Rieger says. “Automation brings about a cost per unit reduction even with increasing labor costs.”
Automated lines do require skilled workers for maintenance and preventive maintenance that reduces down time. Many equipment companies provide intensive training on line maintenance to help develop their employees’ skills. The ability to diagnose and troubleshoot on the line and provide quick fixes and preventive repair may become a highly valued commodity as lines become increasingly more complex. To support maintenance, equipment manufacturers such as Bystronic now offer after-market support to keep manufacturers running at capacity.
Automating more tasks
To help IG manufacturers transition from partial to full automation, suppliers offer many lines as modular units so that stations start as manual workstations and evolve. Equipment manufacturers move toward improving the automation of stations once considered best kept off line, such as primary seal application, including application of standard butyl rubber. The application of butyl extrusion to spacers is now available just-in-time and online as manufacturers fabricate each IG unit individually on a vertical automated washing and assembly line. One such automated Lisec line, using Edgetech’s Thermoset Spacer Technology, or TSS Super Spacer, debuted at Glasstec in Germany during 2004.
Warm-edge products will show growth during the next 10 years within commercial and residential markets, partially fueled by energy efficiency requirements and the increasing desire for higher-quality IG units, Rieger says.
“Looking at gas filling alone, as related to Energy Star requirements, there could be a requirement that the gas-filling needs to be at 90 percent at the time of production,” Rieger says. “An automated press can achieve that easily and provide consistent results, unlike manual intervention that we know is not as consistent as an automated process.”
“Automation is best used in a system that has some consistency,” he adds.
That consistency, for IG manufacturers such as Anlin, is potentially difficult to come by. The company runs a variety of products with short lead times and must have the ability to adjust its equipment.
“When considering adopting automation, manufacturers really have to think it through and do their homework,” Vidmar says. “Equipment manufacturers should be encouraged to spend at least one week on the production floor studying the current lines.”
There are responsibilities that each IG manufacturer needs to fulfill to help equipment suppliers design sound systems.
“The biggest challenge: computing your true manufacturing costs,” DeWeese says. Include handling losses within the factory and failure rates in the field, among other items, to accurately compare production costs. Knowing this figure makes the justification of automation easier.
“Over the last five years, automated technology has greatly improved,” Vidmar says. “As more competitors enter the market, prices will begin to come down and manufacturers will begin to respond. You’ll see IG manufacturers move to automation because they don’t have a choice.”