Volume 6 Issue 6 July 2005
Clear the Way
Vinyl Design Corp. Finds the Room to Carve its Niche
by Alan B. Goldberg
Producing vinyl replacement windows and doors has been a good business for Vinyl Design Corp. (VDC) based in Holland, Ohio. The company has been successful since it began fabricating units in 1987. Following a basic tenet in marketing—listen to your customer—VDC expanded into the new market of patio rooms which the company says is a logical extension of its core business.
“We got into this [patio room] business because we listened to our [distributor] customers,” says Joe Shoots, vice president. “Their customers [consumers] were adding sunrooms, the demand for enclosures was starting to grow and our distributors were looking for a reliable source. We saw an opportunity to make a significant impact in a market that was in its infancy.”
Learning Through Trial and Error
Recognizing the potential for making components to patio rooms, the company formed partnerships with manufacturers and began supplying its distributors.
“This was a new venture for us. We started working with a number of aluminum manufacturers,” he says. “As it turned out, some of our partnerships were successful and some were not.”
Shoots was encouraged by one of his key customers who did very well with the new product. As the patio room business grew, the company saw the need to work closely with its distributors and small retail outlets in order to make an impact in this new market.
“We helped them sell and market the product,” says Shoots. “We selected ‘in-home’ retailers as our base. And we made a decision not to get involved with the big box stores or lumber yards.”
To cater to the market, the company offered what Shoots referred to as bells and whistles, eventually incorporating these features into its basic patio room design.
But not everything worked well as VDC sought to establish itself. In its early years, there were problems with aluminum and the company continued to seek partnerships that would help resolve some inherent design issues.
“We thought about switching to vinyl, but it was in its infancy and vinyl manufacturers still had things to work out,” says Shoots.
By the mid-1990s, the company was marketing the first generation of a vinyl patio room.
Familiar with vinyl from its window and door operation, VDC recognized its many advantages over aluminum. While it may be maintenance-free, vinyl was not problem-free as a component in patio rooms. Using it for most of the room structure created problems.
“The failure of this product came from having vinyl do things it was not designed to do and the cost of field fabrication was very high,” says Shoots.
The second generation of vinyl patio rooms, which VDC made in the late 1990s, included wood composites as structural components. In this case, there were no windows or doors designed specifically to fit into the patio room wall.
“Using a hybrid required a lot of field fabrication. The composites failed due to moisture absorption,” says Shoots.
Making Major Changes
The year 1995 marked a turning point for the company. It began with a vision to make the company more efficient.
“We needed to change the way we were operating in order to become more productive. We needed to create an environment so we could work as a closely-knit unit. To put it another way, we needed to change the culture,” he says.
According to Shoots, even the employees recognized that the company had to change, which made it easier to implement new procedures and programs.
The company went through a 12-month transition as it reinvented itself into an efficient operation with a different mindset. Formal employee programs, which included safety, quality control and job training, were established and other critical issues were addressed.
“We had to create a structure. We needed work rules, safety policies, compensation packages, grievance procedures. And we had to involve employees in these decisions,” says Shoots.
Evaluating every phase of manufacturing was another part of the change. Although there was no formal lean manufacturing program and Theory of Constraint, Shoots says management practiced these techniques in order to transform the operation.
“We looked at every step of every operation to see where we could reduce tasks and shorten production time,” he says.
The lean manufacturing techniques used in our production environment has made our employees more productive and has increased their skill set. These factors have helped to maintain a tenured workforce which is a tremendous benefit to our customers,” says Dale Ray, production manager.
Improvements were made in equipment and machinery. New saws and dies were purchased. Parts were replaced. New equipment was justified on the basis of reducing time or eliminating steps. For example, a multi-purpose sash cleaner replaced three pieces of equipment and saved a number of steps.
“Our procedure for making improvements is a fairly simple one. With each request for capital investment, we ask two key questions: ‘What is the usefulness of the replacement? What is the payback?’” says Shoots.
While it made significant changes internally, the company also explored options to improve its patio room product. The decision to design its own patio room and become an industry leader marked another milestone in the company’s history. The plan, according to Shoots, was to work with long-standing supplier, Chelsea Building Products, a vinyl extruder for its windows and doors. The two companies collaborated on a design in late 1997.
“This was their [Chelsea Building Products] first experience with a patio room. They had the engineering expertise, and they were able to design it to meet our production requirements,” says Shoots.
As the major user of both generations of vinyl patio rooms, VDC was able to take advantage of their limitations and strengths.
Shoots explained the three company objectives in designing, marketing and manufacturing the new product.
The patio room was to be the easiest to install on the market. That meant developing an installation-friendly product with clearly written and easy-to-follow assembly instructions. This was so a room could be installed in two to three days—a fraction of the time required for competitive patio rooms.
“We were going to create a system that did not require a skilled carpenter or a rocket scientist to complete the installation,” says Shoots.
The second objective was that the patio room had to be designed for mass production in the current facility, lending itself to automation. All components would have specific equipment to process a particular part, requiring no more than two employees to cut, fabricate, label and package six to eight patio rooms per day—an ambitious undertaking based on typical operations.
The third objective was to offer features unique to other patio rooms, such as hidden fasteners and a maintenance-free room.
“We took a big gamble on tooling up with new dies, not knowing if this venture was going to work. In essence, we raised the bar for the plant,” says Shoots.
In November 1999, after 18 months of research and development, the Vinyl Patio Room was introduced to the market.
“Our introduction of the Vinyl Patio Room was successful. The 18-month period of trial and error proved to be quite beneficial,” says Shoots.
A Plant-Wide System
The change that had the greatest impact on the operation and represented the most significant improvement, according to Shoots, was the installation of a FeneVision System by FeneTech Inc. of Aurora, Ohio.
“At the time we started with FeneTech, we were using some custom programs for our window and door operation, but they were limited in scope and very cumbersome. And, they could not create a room structure,” says Shoots.
The FeneVision system encompasses many aspects of the business including production control for window, doors and patio rooms; order entry; and tracking for various purposes.
“At any point in the production process, an operator can scan a bar code for a particular product and get a very graphic and detailed configuration which can be used as a check against specifications,” says Craig Morris, director of engineering for FeneTech. He says the system can also be used to identify orders, schedule deliveries or check products that are being loaded onto trucks.
“Within a plant system, it is possible to interface with equipment on the plant floor, configure products in a number of ways, enter orders, generate estimates, track products, provide checks against specifications and schedule deliveries,” says Ron Crowl, president of FeneTech.
He explained that one of the key features of the system is its simplicity. For instance, an entire sunroom can be viewed on the screen before production begins, with the click of a mouse.
“We now can process patio room jobs in minutes rather than hours, which keeps use extremely competitive,” says Buffy Fauver, office manager.
Additionally, the tracking component provides real time statistics so that if the status of a product needs to be checked, the information is available instantly.
“Fenevision has significantly increased our on-time delivery and accuracy percentage to our customers. Fenevision’s tracking and trucking software has given us the tools to exceed our customers’ expectations,” says Rick Smith, warehouse manager.
Prior to the installation of the system, scheduling and other functions were done on spreadsheets and could take hours, according to Shoots. That process has been eliminated and errors have been reduced dramatically. Other time consuming procedures, such as passing all orders through various departments, have also been eliminated.
A Package Deal With Wide Appeal
VDC offers the Vinyl Patio Room in three ways: as a complete package, shipped ready for assembly (excluding foundation and shingles); as a total room, but without the glass, offering a manufacturer the opportunity to supply its own; or as a total room, but with various options for supplying the window units.
Rooms are shipped to distributors then cut, notched and fabricated so they are ready to install. Holes have been pre-drilled and angles have been calculated. Every part is labeled to indicate wall location, color, size, description and date of manufacture. And most of the installing can be done with a screw gun.
The Perfect Addition
Vinyl Patio Rooms are designed to meet every consumer’s requirements. The company prides itself on its lead times—from providing a layout, design and floor plan within 24 hours of receiving information to fabricating, packaging and shipping a room within one week of an approval.
Today, there are 40 employees in a 42,000 square-foot manufacturing facility, including a new 10,000 square-foot warehouse addition, working a single, six-day shift to meet those objectives that were established ten years ago.
“We do things in response to our customer and the end user. What we do, we believe will help our customer be more efficient and more successful,” says Shoots.
Vinyl Patio Rooms can be found in many states, along the Eastern Seaboard from Massachusetts to Florida and in the Midwest.
Looking ahead, Shoots feels the biggest challenge is to keep ahead of the competition.
“We’re up 20 percent this year and we’re very encouraged about the future.”
Regardless of the size or shape of the enclosure, Vinyl Design Corp has found the room to carve its niche.
Alan Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM. He has more than 30 years of experience in the insulating glass industry.
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