Next Generation Manufacturing

Technology, automation and precision combine at SageGlass' HVM plant
Katy Devlin
August 1, 2016
COMMERCIAL, RETAIL, FABRICATION : TECHNOLOGY

An employee handles a completed SageGlass insulating glass unit.

Five years ago, a 14-acre soy bean field stretched out directly to the north of the SageGlass R&D and manufacturing facility in Faribault, Minnesota. Today, there stands an impressive 329,000-square-foot high volume manufacturing plant for the company’s SageGlass electrochromic dynamic glass.

“The scale of the project was enormous; the ambiguity was enormous,” says Chuck Hayes, vice president, administration. “We started with a soy bean field and, 450 ocean-going containers later, we came together to create something—to create this plant.”

The construction of the HVM plant for SageGlass, a subsidiary of Saint-Gobain, reflects the design and building industry’s growing emphasis on dynamic glass and glazing product solutions that meet increasing performance demands and provide more comfortable interior spaces for occupants, according to SageGlass officials. In the face of rising demand for dynamic glass products, company officials recognized that the company had outgrown its original R&D and manufacturing plant.

Traditional, hard-sided duct systems require regular maintenance. The HVM plant features self-cleaning, fabric duct work that also shuts down in the event of fire to prevent spread.

“The original plant, which we call CP1, was never designed to be a manufacturing plant. It was an R&D facility that became a manufacturing plant,” describes CEO Alan McLenaghan, a longtime veteran of Saint-Gobain who joined SageGlass in 2012. “The team had established commercial production [at the original facility] for about six years. However, capacity was full. … The company needed higher volumes; it needed more uniformity; it needed larger sizes. The [high volume manufacturing facility] was designed with all that in mind.”

The new HVM plant started commercial production in 2013 and is capable of producing 100 times thevolume of the original facility. The plant has a nameplate capacity of about four million square feet annually, and allows the company to produce larger sizes of SageGlass electrochromic insulating glass, with the options of varying shapes and sizes, and with much greater uniformity than what was previously possible, officials say. “We took something that was cool tech and turned it into a robust and reproducible architectural process,” McLenaghan says.

A different kind of glass plant The SageGlass HVM plant doesn’t look or function like most traditional glass plants. The facility is remarkably clean, with bright white walls and ceilings, and still-shining concrete floors. It is perfectly temperature controlled, and few employees occupy the floor, even when the line is in full production. These differences are due to the specialty nature of the production process for dynamic electrochromic glass, describes Glenn Gengel, vice president of quality.

A SageGlass employee performs a laser scribe quality check.

The primary differentiator of the HVM from other glass plants is automation, according to Gengel. Because the plant relies heavily on automation, fewer workers are necessary to run the line. And, many of those employees work at computers, monitoring production and ensuring uniformity and quality.

“There is a high level of automation on the front end of production,” says Gengel. “The average front-end employee handles more than 100 yards of equipment. A visitor will come into the plant and ask, ‘Are you running?’ or ‘Where are the employees?’ We are running. But until you appreciate how much of the process is automated, it is hard [for visitors] to figure out why it is so empty.”

Each shift requires 10 shift operators to monitor processes and run the front half of the plant, 25 to 30 employees on the back half of the plant to handle the less automated, more customized fabrication processes, and a maintenance staff.

The HVM manufacturing floor was designed to allow ample natural daylight through windows on the perimeter walls.

“These are not employees who are working by the sweat of their brow,” adds Hayes. “These process technicians are extremely knowledgeable workers. They are controlling expensive equipment through a complex process. They are not handling glass.”

Relying on automation and limiting touches on the glass offers quality and efficiency benefits, and protects workers, Gengel says. “We separated out people from the product. We did it for yield, as under manual control, there’s risk of damage. But another less obvious benefit is safety,” he says. “Working around glass is intrinsically dangerous. … We have taken steps through automation to create a safe workspace.”

The high level of automation is matched by an equally high level of software integration. “This is a completely software controlled factory,” McLenaghan says. “We took software from various suppliers (who came from various industries) and got them to talk to each other.”

This proved a major challenge for the team, as the plant requires that traditional glass-making equipment, such as washers and cutters, meets the more exacting requirements of the equipment from the LCD and thin film solar industries.

An employee in the quality control area of the plant. Every unit goes through quality control prior to leaving the plant.

The team chose to use glass industry software to run the whole plant. But, the software was greatly customized, or “organically grown,” to handle SageGlass’ requirements, says Gengel. “The part of the software that works best is the part that was written for us specifically,” he says.

Another stand-out feature of the facility is interior environment. The production floor is kept to a steady 70 degrees Fahrenheit. “This is a very comfortable manufacturing environment,” McLenaghan says. “We control the temperature and humidity to such accurate levels to create the product, but it is a wonderful side effect for our employees, to work in a perfectly air conditioned environment.”

Additionally, the SageGlass plant features micro environments. While the entire plant is climate controlled, it also features a series of small cleanrooms that house individual stages of production that require additional climate controls.

To limit touches, the HVM plant features several robots that transfer glass from one stage of production to another.

“Instead of building giant cleanrooms, we built things that are barely big enough to house the glass, and we control the process remotely,” Gengel says. “For a glass company, this is pretty different. This was borrowed heavily from the thin film solar and LCD coating industries.”

Design, construction and delivery

Building a plant from scratch offered the SageGlass team an incredible amount of freedom in terms of building footprint, production flow and equipment and software needs. However, that freedom also proved to be a great challenge, as the team worked to build the most efficient and effective plant.

Consider the process to determine the building footprint and flow of the product line. “We had three competitive teams bidding for equipment and footprint. We were solving problems in three different groups, each learning about flow and finding solutions to problems,” Gengel describes.

The logistical layout teams all worked to develop plant designs that maximized production and building efficiency. “You want to optimize what you can get into a space, and reduce building cost and operating cost,” McLenaghan says.

The autoclave, nicknamed The Yellow Submarine.

The chosen plant design features a production line that snakes back and forth over the manufacturing floor, with load-in of raw glass and load-out of SageGlass occurring at the same location. The more compact line layout allowed the company to save on building costs. “If we ran production in a straight line, rather than snaking back and forth, the plant would be three and a half times longer,” McLenaghan says.

Once a layout was chosen, SageGlass hired a firm to model the factory. The project team could then perform statistical flow modeling to determine more details, such as buffers between machines. “We were asking questions like, ‘What will give us the shortest cycle time?’ And, ‘What are the downline problems if a certain piece of equipment goes offline?’ Lots of time and sweat went into answering these questions for every piece of equipment,” Gengel said.

At this stage, the team also addressed building infrastructure and mechanical concerns. The building can draw up to eight megawatts of electricity, is capable of handling 600 horsepower of compressed air and features 15 separate atmospheres in the various micro cleanrooms across the manufacturing floor. Even seemingly straightforward components such as the floor required special consideration.

“The floor is designed to accommodate higher loads in particular areas,” Gengel says. “We use special reinforced concrete. Under the grinder, it is 20 inches to handle the additional vibration. Underneath the coaters, it is 13.5 inches thick to support the 2 million pound machine. If the weight of that coater is not supported and the concrete cracks, the machines will tip.”

SageGlass executives in the new high volume manufacturing facility’s main conference room, which features a wall of SageGlass dynamic glass. Pictured from bottom left, moving clockwise, are Chuck Hayes, vice president, administration; Alan D.W. McLenaghan, CEO; Glenn Gengel, vice president of quality; and David C. Pender, director of operations.

The most unexpected hurdles for the project team came during equipment delivery, as they faced major problems during the shipment of three containers out of the 450 that were shipped from all over the world.

“This was my ninth factory start-up. I had never before lost a single piece of equipment, though I had heard horror stories. This start-up was a lesson in humility,” Gengel says.

One piece of equipment was lost due to careless handling. Another was delayed because of widespread crew illness on a container vessel coming 2016from Europe, causing a six-week schedule loss for the HVM team. The most major incident, however, involved a machine coming from Taiwan. It made it all the way to Minneapolis, but just 35 miles from the plant, the truck driver missed a turn and drove under an overpass with insufficient clearance, Gengel describes. “The machine was stripped right off the truck and dropped into the middle of the highway in front of a minivan,” he says. Thankfully, no one was injured, but the machine was destroyed.

Despite the transportation problems, the project team was able to re-sequence the machine start-up schedule to make up for lost time. However, Gengel emphasizes that “this was not a trivial feat.”

In the end, the team faced only one vendor delay that pushed the schedule slightly. SageGlass set out with a two-year timeline and successfully started commercial production after two years and one quarter.

Watch the plant come together in this time-lapse video.

The Project Team

The construction of a new plant requires a team of dedicated employees, handling a wide range of responsibilities. The SageGlass HVM team was led by the following individuals:

Chuck Hayes vice president, administration. Hayes handled the general management and overall administration of the construction of the new plant.

Glenn Gengel vice president of quality. Gengel, who was hired by Hayes, served as project manager for design and start-up of the factory.

David Pender director of operations. Pender joined the team three years into the project. He was responsible for the manufacturing side of operation and setup.

Cliff Taylor senior engineering project manager, lead mechanical designer. Taylor, a longtime SageGlass employee, provided technical expertise, specifically in executing the glass coating technology at the plant.

Greg Brown building and facilities engineer/project manager. Brown brought experience in facility design and manufacturing plant construction. He was responsible for the building itself and all related building mechanical processes, such as HVAC and electricity.

Eric Bjornard director of strategic technology, coater designer. Bjornard was already a member of the SageGlass team when the HVM project began. He handled the critical task of designing the complex coating line.

Steve Palm vision systems engineer. Palm was brought on to handle vision systems in the first purpose-built position for the HVM plant execution.

Sylvain Frion business systems manager, factory integration software and sales front-end systems. Frion was brought over from SageGlass’ parent, Saint- Gobain. Frion handled the task of making the HVM plant the first truly software integrated factory in the Saint-Gobain network.

Jerome Korus project engineer for IG line, and EC prep lines. Korus also joined the team from Saint-Gobain and handled a range of assignments during the HVM project, including development of the insulating glass line and the electrochromic coating prep line.

Harvey Kalweit laser engineer. Kalweit, a former employee of Minnesota-based 3M, served as the laser systems engineer for the HVM project. He chose to postpone his retirement to see the project to fruition.

In addition to the main project team members, SageGlass brought Saint- Gobain team members for advisement and guidance throughout the course of the project. “We had the ability to bring in experts globally [from throughout the Saint-Gobain organization]. If we had questions on thermal stress, or needed to do experiments in edge strength, we were able to tap the experts at Saint-Gobain. It was an enormous resource for us,” Hayes says.

Training for Precision

In electrochromic glass manufacturing, where even the smallest changes along the production line can harm product uniformity, training is essential.

SageGlass officials laid out a detailed training program for all roles on the manufacturing floor. “An employee can start to do some tasks, such as loading a washing machine, after one week of training,” describes David Pender, director of operations. “There are other roles that are quite manual and take a year of training. And, you have jobs like running the coater independently, which requires at least 18 months of training.”

While much of the HVM line process is automated, the various line operators are charged with careful monitoring to ensure the necessary level of uniformity throughout every individual lite of glass, and from one unit to another. “We are applying coatings that are 100 atoms thick everywhere across the piece of glass. That is the level of consistency we require,” Pender says.

“Training people to run the coater at this level is like asking people to drive a car and keep it at 69.4 miles per hour, precisely,” adds Alan McLenaghan, CEO. “Most people could probably keep it between 69 and 71 mph, but we need far more precision. We need [workers] who can keep the coater controlled and make minor adjustments without overreacting. That’s where the experience and lengthy training comes in.” 

Katy Devlin is editor for Glass Magazine. E-mail Katy at kdevlin@glass.org.