Prioritizing Safety with the Help of New Technology

Joe Erb
October 9, 2017
COMMERCIAL, FABRICATION

Read Joe Erb’s prior articles on IG line maintenance.

For most, the busy season for glass fabricators arrives around the same time as the year’s hottest temperatures. Higher volumes need to be moving out the doors, and workers on the plant floor are hustling to move more units down the line quickly. Among the bustle, fatigue may increase, and so might the temptation to cut corners to keep up the pace. Even the most routine parts of glass fabrication can carry a heightened element of risk if workers are sweaty, tired, and have extended hours to finish the work. 

Throughout those months, it’s important to make every effort to keep the shop floor clean and working conditions manageable, and there are plenty of simple ways to do it: 

  • Ensure employees get proper breaks. 
  • Consider pumping chilled air into the floor space if possible, or try to create localized zones where temperatures are more manageable. 
  • Make sure employees stay hydrated. Make sure cold drinking water, or even popsicles, are available and plentiful. 
  • Keep up with good housekeeping practices. Cluttered work areas are safety incidents waiting to happen.

Additionally, fabricators should look beyond simple fixes to ensure employee safety. New automated equipment technologies, for example, can have a major impact on enhancing safety on the plant floor. This article presents some best practices to consider when it comes to safety, and how safety can be enhanced with new equipment and technology. 

  1. Reducing risks in IG assembly
    Insulating glass units require precision and careful handling when it comes to spacer application. And traditionally, when working with larger commercial/architectural units, this process involved multiple people handling large spacer frames and aligning them with the glass itself. Depending on the size of the unit, this can involve workers climbing on steps, platforms or ladders to perform the work, posing a potential fall risk. When workers are trying to work quickly, that risk can intensify. Consider other areas as well, such as cutting and bending for IG spacers, PIB and sealant applicators and more. These are areas where risks can be reduced further and operations can be streamlined.
    Automated systems for spacer application have eliminated many of these risk factors. There are no ladders to climb, no manual manipulation of the units themselves, and no handling of large spacer frames and less components to clutter the work area. Fatigue is likewise reduced when the need to physically maneuver these units is minimized. 
  2. Unit handling and transport
    Moving large glass panels and IG units through the factory is an essential function, and it can be physically taxing under traditional circumstances. Semi-automated and automated technology can help do some of this heavy lifting.

    First, automation is less sensitive to temperature peaks, and it doesn’t get fatigued when volumes are higher. The implementation of automated equipment to help transport glass down the line can reduce the need for additional physical manpower or strain during busier times—especially where larger units are concerned—thus reducing the risk of handling injury. This also enables floor staff to focus on tasks that robotics can’t, like managing and tracking unit flow throughout the plant floor, orders and shipping, and more.

    And automated handling can bring many benefits to the plant floor at numerous critical touchpoints beyond simple transport. For instance, glass cutting, glass breakout and edge deletion when performed manually all involve workers coming into direct contact with sharp glass edges that pose a safety and quality risk. When these procedures are automated, the number of physical touchpoints are reduced, preventing workers from contacting the glass itself. Much has been made about how automation in these areas can help manufacturers boost quality, throughput and consistency, but the safety benefits should be just as attractive.

    Outside the IG line itself, automated or machine-assisted equipment for loading and offloading glass and IG units onto and off a line helps reduce fatigue and potential back injuries. Let these tools take the place of brute force that often leads to injury or accidents. 
  3. Uptime, maintenance and safety
    It’s well understood that downtime means lost dollars. The key to avoiding operational downtime is ensuring that the right maintenance procedures are followed in all areas of the plant. But maximized uptime and safety go hand in hand for a few reasons.

    Malfunctioning equipment, especially in the busy and hot season, brings elevated frustration and stress, and can pose increased risk for injury on the shop floor, no matter what function that equipment serves. Following regular predictive and preventive maintenance programs is critical not just for plant floor uptime and quality, but for safety as well. (For prior articles on IG line maintenance, see pages 30-31 of the November 2015 issue and pages 27-28 of the August 2016 issue). And don’t forget that many automated systems are adaptable with predictive maintenance and troubleshooting software, so there’s no excuse to lapse on what’s needed to keep equipment operational and safe.

    The correct operation of automated equipment also requires an investment in staff training. Plant floor employees must be equipped with the right knowledge to operate all systems effectively, efficiently and safely.

    At the end of the day, automation can deliver numerous benefits for the plant floor. And it’s important that we include enhanced safety as one of those key deliverables.

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.