Efficiency in IG Fabrication

Manufacturing improvements address price, quality and labor concerns
Joe Erb
November 1, 2016
FABRICATION : TECHNOLOGY

High-speed automated insulating glass line.

The ways in which insulating glass fabricators can more efficiently produce their products is a well-worn topic by now. We know that plant managers can buckle down on simple operational efficiencies—I’ve written recently in these pages about how taking care of the basics, like maintaining a robust maintenance schedule, can help avoid downtime. We know that new technologies and automation can help drive up production and enhance overall product quality. And we know that doing nothing is no longer an option.

As we close the book on 2016, I’ve taken stock of a few trends that have come to light through my conversations with customers, influencers and other industry stakeholders. We’re still looking to become more efficient, but we’re beginning to take a broader, more holistic view of what that means. And coupled with challenging labor dynamics, we’re driven to think differently about how we recruit and manage our workforces. I believe we’re on the brink of some interesting changes as we look to the new year.

Rethinking the plant floor

The advent of high-speed automated equipment for IG manufacturing has had a major impact on our industry in recent years, but it seems that we’re just starting to realize the total, holistic benefits that this new technology can help us realize. Increased speed and consistency in the manufacturing of our products are the face-value benefits, along with significant labor savings. But what else can these technologies help our businesses accomplish?

Think of it this way: if automation is allowing manufacturers to more efficiently manufacture a profitable IG unit, it only makes sense to draw a greater focus on that business to drive greater profits.

I’ve spoken with customers who are beginning to think this way. I hear mentions of “ultra-efficiency,” of boosting total efficiency of product manufacture by as much as 50 percent. How? For one, automated production equipment can enable glass manufacturers to think differently about how their plants traditionally operate. In seeking total efficiencies, manufacturers can reimagine how shop floors are laid out for better flow and for more effective utilization of available space. That focus on the profitable parts of a manufacturing business is critical here, as less-profitable business units can be outsourced to trusted suppliers so manufacturers can focus on their most profitable tasks and what they do best. It can help maximize a manufacturer’s investment in its automated equipment and can help fight against potential capacity constraints.

Beyond the physical floor, advancements in software technology are helping IG manufacturers gain better insight throughout the entire manufacturing process. This was a major topic for discussion at the 2016 Glass Processing Automation Days Conference hosted by FeneTech. That discussion only stands to grow louder in 2017. Available software platforms allow business to better manage real-time data, from order entry throughout the entire process, and forward-thinking manufacturers are seizing the opportunities provided.

New perspectives

High-speed automation has the potential to tie together disparate parts of the IG manufacturing business in ways we may not have previously thought relevant.

Consider this: we’ve known for a handful of years now that the fenestration industry, like many others within the building and construction space, is facing something of a labor crisis. Finding the right people with the right skills is a challenge, not to mention keeping them once we’ve found them. In 2017, that doesn’t stand to fundamentally change, but how we approach the challenge can. In a drive toward holistic efficiency, and as we take advantage of newly available technology, the fenestration industry has an opportunity to widen its search for talent.

The reasons for this are twofold. First, new technologies require new skillsets, and we need to be proactive in recruiting those with the know-how to propel their businesses into the future. We need not just those with experience in the industry, but with experience in information technology as we seize greater control of our processes and delve deeper into creating efficiencies.

Second, considering new and outside perspectives—no matter your industry—can be extraordinarily valuable. Especially as IG manufacturers continue to look toward driving total efficiency, out-of-the box ideas can benefit how we begin to reimagine our manufacturing floors and processes. It doesn’t mean throwing away what works today entirely—but fresh perspectives always bring the potential to find unseen efficiencies.

Maintaining a balance

In driving toward greater efficiency, it’s important not to lose sight of a key component of our business: offering a quality, long-lasting product to the customer.

That might sound like a clichéd sentiment, but it’s no secret that the IG market is becoming more globally competitive. A greater number of imported products can have the effect of driving down price, but that can’t mean we begin to cut corners and develop products “cheaply.” Delivering real value is what sets a manufacturer apart from the competition—and we can only do that by continuing to engineer our products for quality with high performance components and delivering superior customer service. It’s why creating new, total efficiency is so important as we look to the future.

Read more from Joe Erb on automation and employee reterntion

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.