The Industry’s Toughest Challenges, Simplified

As performance requirements and technology possibilities increase, avoiding unnecessary complexity is key
Joe Erb
May 23, 2019
COMMERCIAL, RETAIL, FABRICATION

In the world of architecture and design, simplicity is one of the most desired traits. Simple design means design that’s intentional but has an air of effortlessness. Design that has just enough elements to form something complete and beautiful; to add more might ruin it.

Applying the concept of simplicity can be highly effective not just in the designed places glass products are being used, but throughout the entire commercial fenestration value chain. Everyone has something to gain by incorporating simplicity into the way they do business.

This isn’t easy, particularly not with new and different factors now impacting the way fenestration professionals operate. Designs all over the world are becoming increasingly bold, while codes become increasingly stringent. The 2019 version of ASHRAE 90.1, for instance, will most likely include a more stringent U-factor and solar heat gain coefficient for fenestration products in all commercial buildings and multifamily structures higher than four stories. (See “Key Proposals to Watch at ASHRAE 90.1,” from the November 2018 issue of Glass Magazine.)

How do we address the challenges of bigger glass and glazing systems, under the current and increasing performance requirements, without making things overly complex, expensive and susceptible to problems? 

This isn’t an easy question to answer. But there are a few ways to apply a mindset of simplicity to help get started. 

Focusing on simplicity, not “back to basics.” 

First, there’s an important distinction to be made about what simplicity really means.

Anyone who’s been around in the glazing industry for a while will say that things used to be “simpler.” There was a time when all that mattered was aluminum framing and box spacer systems for insulating glass, with fewer demands for thermal performance. Windows, for all intents and purposes, were just windows. 

Things have certainly shifted. But seeking simplicity isn’t the same as going back to basics. Today’s materials are highly advanced and enable this industry to do more than ever before. Simplicity is about using those new tools in the most effective, efficient ways available. 

Balancing all performance criteria elegantly. 

Consider any commercial window application. Structural stability and performance criteria must be effectively balanced by thermal contributions.

Metal framing can meet most applications’ structural requirements, but hitting heat transfer targets can get tricky. Thermal breaks have been introduced to isolate the interior space from the outside environment. Today, those technologies are working well, but in just a few years, codes could be dictating greater heat transfer performance, to the point where incorporating thermal break technology becomes prohibitively costly and complicated. 

What is the simplified solution here? It could be new framing technology options, including vinyl, fiberglass and composites. For commercial window fabricators, there are also some manufacturing efficiencies to be found when working with non-metallic options, including automated corner welding.

Beyond thermal and structural considerations, there are other things to think about. Comprehensive building comfort is becoming a hotter topic, because it’s been shown that people live and work better when they have greater access to natural daylight in interior settings, according to reporting from the Harvard Business Review. In Europe, acoustic performance for building materials is becoming increasingly desirable. Fenestration professionals must deliver on all these criteria in economically viable, efficient ways without adding too much complexity to the finished product.

Reducing steps and touchpoints.

Speaking of manufacturing, there are plenty of ways commercial glass fabricators can simplify operations to meet new challenges and demands. 

For instance, Glass Magazine’s 2019 Top Glass Fabricators report details some of the more advanced trends and products hitting the industry (see the April issue). Oversized and large-format glass continue to be a major trend in the architectural space, along with increasing demand for specialty products like printed and fabricated glass, laminated glass and others—all with short lead times. 

These massive panels can be challenging when it comes to spacer application, and when it comes to moving them from point to point along the line. The proper application of automation and robotics can greatly help here, eliminating touchpoints to enhance overall quality, and to keep people out of potentially risky situations in handling bigger glass. 

“Adding robots doesn’t sound like simplifying,” one might say. And that can be the case. But the most successful automation case studies involve plant operators doing their homework and applying the technology in ways that integrate well with their needs and business goals. Installing robotic equipment will bring new complexity to an operation if not done strategically, or at the right scale. But a well-planned automation strategy will make fabricating quality products faster, safer and with greater simplicity. 

Applying simplicity to business relationships. 

No matter how automated physical manufacturing processes become, the fenestration industry still depends on real human connection. And simplicity can be applied to how long-lasting customer relationships form.

Doing this can take many shapes, but it mostly involves being a good listener. Truly take the time to understand customer needs and provide them with the best solution, instead of just looking to make a sale. Know customer expectations and be transparent and communicative about lead times. 

All these things matter and can make a big difference in which companies customers choose to do business with. In an industry faced with new challenges every day, working with vendors who help simplify the path to success can make all the difference.  

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.