Four Hands-Free Technologies to Transform a Business

Joe Erb
August 1, 2015
Erdman High-Speed Parallel Automated Line. Photo courtesy of Erdman Automation.

What does the glass factory of the future look like? Perhaps it’s completely hands-free, connected by a complex series of equipment, trolleys and conveyers that end in a perfectly constructed insulating glass unit. There might be an operator in a control room decorated with IT degrees and a small staff of highly paid software specialists.

This extreme automation might not be that far away for some. But with its high cost, it probably won’t be practical for most. That’s not to say that all companies can’t realize the benefits of the smarter automated technologies that are entering the marketplace. Whether a company is investing in automation for the first time or already has an automated line or two, there are some key points in the process in which to consider hands-free technologies.

The most critical points to add advanced automation technologies are the ones that have the greatest impact on safety and quality. Outlined in this article are the four technologies that can make the greatest impact on a factory floor now.

1. Distortion detection systems
Architects put much care into their designs and want nothing short of what some might describe as perfection. When it comes to the flatness of glass, ASTM standards often do not live up to architects’ expectations. To keep quality high and to appeal to your most discerning customers, it’s important to take a hard look at the tempering process.

By nature, the heating and cooling of glass that occurs during tempering can cause a number of distortion issues, such as roll waves, kinks, lifting, bowing and more. Even the slightest optical distortion can significantly impact the overall visual quality of the glass.

Until recent years, the only distortion detection tools available were zebra boards and the human eye. The subjectivity of this type of examination makes it difficult to keep to precise quality control standards when it comes to the flatness of glass.

Today, automated distortion detection systems are changing the way we look at glass quality in the tempering process. Using a mix of optics, software systems and cameras, manufacturers can now take better control over the quality of the end product and ensure satisfaction throughout the supply chain.

In short, zebra boards may not provide the reliability or repeatability required to keep roller-wave distortion within acceptable limits. With more reliable, data-driven solutions available, it may be time to say goodbye to a zebra board and put money into more reliable and automated detection systems.

Electronic quality scanner. Photo courtesy of Cristacurva.

2. Quality scanners
Today’s advanced soft-coat (or sputter) low-emissivity coatings offer many performance advantages, including higher visible transmission, lower U-values, lower UV transmission and better optical clarity. However, they do come with one big disadvantage: they are more susceptible to scratches and smudges during the manufacturing process.

The first step is to keep human hands off of these sensitive coatings as much as possible. The second step is to detect defects early. Where we once relied solely on human visual detection of issues, new scanning technologies enable companies to find quality issues in the glass before value-added steps in IG fabrication occur.

Often placed right after the washer, scanning equipment can be installed online to produce high-resolution images that are analyzed by specialty software for defects. Most of the major automated equipment manufacturers offer variations of this technology that can either be installed in a new line or added to existing automated lines. These devices can be tuned to the type of defects you want to catch.

By investing in smart scanning equipment, glass manufacturers can reduce quality control issues associated with coatings of all types and reduce scrap rates at the end of the line.

3. Online edge deletion equipment
The sensitivity of soft-coat low-E also comes into play during the edge deletion process. Once again, the fewer touch points, the better.

Edge deletion might be an early step in the IG manufacturing process, but it is a critical one that can have an enormous impact on the quality and long-term durability of the end product. If it’s not done properly it can lead to issues in the field. Proper edge deletion requires complete removal of the low-E around the edge of the glass to ensure good adhesion of the IG sealants to the glass and to prevent coating corrosion.

Edge deletion can be a tedious and labor-intensive process when done manually. It can create bottlenecks, quality issues and safety concerns for workers who are scoring, breaking and grinding the glass.

However, it’s a process that can now be automated. Now glass cutting and grinding can happen quickly, seamlessly and safely, as part of automated glass cutting lines to help ensure a clean edge and improved adherence of the spacer and seal. For specific edge deletion requirements, a company can contact its low-E supplier.

4. Automated PIB and spacer application
Glass handling and processing is not the only area seeing the trend toward automation. With the heightened demand for thermally efficient glazing in a very price-conscious market, fabricators have to turn to automation for all areas to stay competitive. An upgraded insulating glass line with automation can pay big dividends in improved quality, throughput and reduced rejects/cost when done correctly.

Automated Spacer Application. Photo courtesy of J.E. Berkowitz LP.

There are several critical steps in IG fabrication, including PIB application, desiccant filling and spacer placement to glass. As the glass sizes get larger, these steps become increasingly challenging to accomplish with traditional spacer bar fabrication processes, while maintaining good sightlines.

Advancements in robotics have changed the game, allowing the production of even large and complex shapes to be automated. Solutions are available to combine all of these critical steps into one robotic module. All the major vertical IG line manufacturers now have fully robotic spacer applicator options that can be installed on new or existing lines. These modules are capable of eliminating spacer frame handling and placement to glass by operators.

The silicone spacer with integral desiccant along with a PIB primary seal are applied real-time around the edge of the glass without the need for pre-fabricated spacer frames. By eliminating spacer frame handling, this hands-free solution promotes the highest efficiency and throughput for large commercial IG. The silicone base vs. metal-based spacer also maximizes thermal efficiencies of the IG.

Automation with flexible warm edge spacer application can remove the variables and streamline the process, helping a company achieve clean sight lines and drastically improve consistency and quality.

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