After Automation: Next Steps for IG Fabricators

By Joe Erb
February 13, 2017
FABRICATION : TECHNOLOGY

High-efficiency automated IG production can present challenges in getting orders to the jobsite on time, in the right places and in the right sequence. Additionally, jobsite delays can lead to space issues back at the factory.

In some ways, automation has become a great equalizer of the large-scale commercial insulating glass fabrication market. Having made the investment in automation, capacity and volume are no longer in question, and companies must find new ways to differentiate with services and building total efficiency into other areas of the business. However, while automated IG production lines can help commercial glass fabricators generate more units than ever before, knowing how to strategically manage orders, outputs and jobsite requirements can make the difference between total efficiency and production logjam.

While an IG fabricator realizes productivity gains with the incorporation of automation, they also face additional questions. For instance:

  • Is a fabricator able to get necessary raw materials efficiently and on time to handle more orders and allow for higher capacity?
  • Does the fabricator have the furnace capacity for the increased volume of glass that needs to be tempered?
  • Because many customer jobsites can only handle a certain amount of glass at once, is the fabricator’s production rate optimized for how much the company can store and ship at a given time?

As production capacities increase, so must the attention given to how a company is producing product and servicing their customers. Logistics and communication become exponentially more important. A fabricator must consider crucial factors, such as how they are sourcing raw materials how efficiently they are operating, and whether they have the volume needed to fulfill an increase in orders. And, as volumes increase, it is critical to partner with trusted and capable suppliers.

Here are a handful of considerations that must be made as IG fabricators drive their businesses forward with automated technology:

Avoiding bottlenecks

The proper handling of product mix is essential to avoiding bottle necks. Many architectural IG units require tempered, heat strengthened or laminated glass, and if a fabricator’s IG lines are producing beyond the capacity of their tempering furnaces or laminating lines, bottlenecking is inevitable. Differences in coatings, glass thickness, and several other variables mean differences in tempering cycling time and recipes. If that furnace capacity or laminating glass capacity is maxed out, the company is staring down a problem, and may be looking at the need for additional investment.

Keeping the optimal flow in the product mix also requires a good grip on lead times and close tracking of customer orders at the beginning of and throughout the process. All the little details that make up the big picture make all the difference. As mentioned in my previous article (in the November 2016 edition of Glass Magazine), available software platforms allow business to better manage real-time data, from the order entry throughout the entire process, and forward-thinking manufacturers are seizing the opportunities provided with a good platform.

Keeping a handle on the jobsite

Getting orders out on time, in the right places and in the right sequence are challenges that can become more complex as volumes increase. Consider a high-rise architectural glass project in a dense urban environment, where storage for building materials is tight. In these small footprint jobsites, glass releases are often smaller and more frequent, which puts additional focus on accurate communication and execution of orders to avoid costly jobsite delays/penalties. Some glass can be staged on site, but not all of it, and storing large quantities of glass at the fabrication plant may create a headache.

Fabricators should make sure their production flow is optimized, and should implement a system that gives the fabricator and the customer real-time visibility of the order status. This can be invaluable in avoiding costly delays.

Also, consider that jobsite construction delays are inevitable. What happens to a fabricator if there’s a two-week delay on a project and several of the company’s glass racks are stuck at the site? These sorts of contingencies have always existed in our industry, but they can be magnified with greater production capacity and bigger projects. Fabricators should make sure they are in tune with customers, set the right expectations and maintain open lines of communication. 

Juggling different projects

Sequencing the deliveries for a large-scale architectural project must also be balanced with storefront or other smaller commercial jobs. Considering that many architectural projects require custom sizes and other unique attributes, it’s not a matter of simply churning out uniform IG units all day. Different shapes, sizes and configurations must be accounted for in a company’s production schedules alongside more uniform jobs.

Automation will help a fabricator increase throughput on their IG line with standard and custom product mix, but a company must have the raw materials and systems in place to move this product mix through the plant and out the door effectively with real-time visibility.

At the end of the day, it’s important for IG fabricators to recognize that automated production isn’t a silver bullet. Increased production capacity brings greater complexity to an operation, and unless a company is taking care of the details from beginning to end, problems will arise. Finding a balance, identifying the right mix of products, and realizing the right rate of production are the only way forward. 

Joe Erb is commercial sales specialist for Quanex Building Products. For more tips, read Quanex’s blog, In Focus, or contact Erb at joe.erb@quanex.com.