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Volume 6   Issue 10               November  2005


PLANT TOUR

Blended Family
Loewen Melds Tradition with Technology to Achieve Much Success

by Alan Goldberg

Loewen Windows started from humble beginnings yet today it is a technologically savvy company that is constantly outgrowing its space. Loewen began as part of a group of Mennonite families from the prairies of southern Manitoba who migrated from Russia. In 1905, the Loewen family started a business on Main Street in Steinbach, Manitoba, based on sawyering skills learned from an immigrant father. 

To meet the demands of this fast-growing community, the small millwork company made products as varied as church pews and bee-keeping equipment. As the business grew, it produced wood hydropole cross-members, which it made by the thousands, while moving toward its passion and ultimate specialty—doors and windows. 

During the home construction boom of the 1940s and 1950s, the new concept of pre-assembled doors and windows was appealing to Canadian homebuilders. For Loewen, this situation presented a golden opportunity. 

In 1959, the company broke ground on a 57,000 square foot plant, outside of Steinbach on what would become the province’s largest window manufacturing facility. Thirteen expansions would take place over the next four decades. At 157,000 square feet, it was the largest since the plant was built. 

In the 1980s, the company found itself at a crossroads as the door and window market shifted toward vinyl. According to company history, a decision was made to follow its roots of using high quality Douglas Fir and focus on providing doors and windows to the high-end residential market. In 1989, the company began selling its products to Japan where it reported, “there is a high traditional, cultural appreciation of elegant woodwork.” 

A year later, a branch office was opened in the Chicago area. Today, 70 percent of the company’s business is in the United States, mostly the Southwest, and another expansion is considered for 2006. Presently, the 600,000 square foot facility is producing an average of 1,000 units a day, on three shifts, five-days a week. 

Touring the Plant
In the initial stage, glass is cut based on specifications for each order. This is done using an automated, robotic table manufactured by Lisec America, a company with whom Loewen has done business for 15 years.

“All of our equipment in this [glass] area is made by Lisec,” says plant manager Todd LeRoy. We think of them as the Mercedes Benz of glass cutting equipment. Their machinery is well-engineered and their service is excellent.”

LeRoy explains that the system sends a message to the robot with proper length and width based on each order to the robot. Within the past 18 months, an auto edge deletion unit was added to the equipment. Removing the coating off the perimeter of low-E glass automatically has eliminated a lot of material handling and glass breakage.

While glass is being cut, roll-formed aluminum is being shaped into spacer bars. A multi-purpose Lisec bending machine cuts and bends the extruded stock and welds the joint. The aluminum is either processed as mill-finished clear or painted a champagne color. It is then ready to be filled with desiccant. The next step is the application of the primary sealant, polyisobutylene (PIB) that is extruded onto the perimeter of the spacer using an automated unit. 

At the same time, glass is washed and then moved to a mounting station where it is pressed to the spacer bar. An operator will inspect both prior to gas filling, which is the next step. The secondary sealant, polysulfide, is applied automatically around the perimeter of the insulating glass unit which is moved into a storage area for two to four hours of curing. 

LeRoy pointed out that 85 percent of its doors and windows are fabricated using automated equipment and 15 percent is done manually because of the larger or non-standard sizes.
In the metal cutting area, extruded aluminum profiles are cut to size, drilled and notched, based on the specifications of an order. 

With the company’s commitment to use the highest quality of wood, it stores three quarters of a million board feet of Douglas Fir and some mahogany, according to LeRoy. Each board is singled out, scored and optimized. Scanners and X-rays are used to determine wood characteristics so they can be sorted for the most appropriate application. The X-ray machine, made by Greycon Industries, replaces cameras and provides a better picture of the wood. A Reinman rip saw is used for cutting the boards to specified lengths for wood profiles.

In the mill shop area, wood is sorted by length for radio frequency gluers. Once cured, the glued pieces are molded to their final shapes, using Wieng automated molders. For long-term preservation of the surface, wood is submerged into dip tanks for two to three minutes. Where surfaces are to be primed, wood moves through an automated line into spray booths and then a drying oven. Once dried, the wood is ready for assembly.

In the door assembly area, pockets are cut out and holes are made for hardware and dowels using Buscalate CNC equipment. Dowels are then inserted and clamped and hardware is applied. 

The insulating glass units are installed next. According to LeRoy, 40 percent of the panels get simulated divided lites (SDL). Following the IG units, extruded aluminum is applied; the frame door post is notched for parts and then assembled. Everything comes together in what is referred to as the completion area. In the final step, doors are packaged and shipped. 

“We package our doors and windows extremely well. We use cardboard, wood and cardboard corners. In fact, our customers have commented on our packaging,” says LeRoy. 
Although there are separate assembly lines for double-hung and casement/awning windows, the steps are similar for both. One line is for frames and one for sash and both come together at the completion area.

“Loewen has always seen a strong demand for casement and awning windows and this long-standing trend continues today,” says LeRoy.

On one line, sash is fastened with a carbon nailer; drilling is done for hardware; metal cladding is applied; sash is glazed; and if required, SDL’s are applied and then hardware is added.

Similar steps take place on the frame line. At the completion center, the two components come together, and then the finished product is packaged and shipped.

LeRoy pointed out that special shapes are considered one-of-a-kind products and require much more manual time. Generally several wood pieces are shaved, glued and placed into various types of shapers. Final assembly is often done by craftspeople because of the intricacies or special requirements of the unit.

Quality Control/Lab Testing
Within the past 18 months, the company has enhanced an already rigorous total quality control check and verification system. Along every production line, there are stations at which an operator will make a random check and at the following station, the check will be verified. 

“We started this as a pilot program and it was so successful, we expanded it in various parts of the plant,” says LeRoy. 

Regular testing, including operational checks, is done in an in-house laboratory. These involve air and water infiltration checks in accordance with the standards of the American Architectural Manufacturers Association and the Window and Door Manufacturers Association. Tests are also done for impact in accordance with the Miami Dade County standards. 

Lean Manufacturing 
Several programs have been implemented to lower production costs and increase efficiency. Last year, the company introduced Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), which is a partnership between maintenance people and operators. LeRoy explains that its purpose is to give people a sense of ownership through responsibility. In this case, two groups are working together through a series of daily and periodic checks and preventive maintenance.
“Our goal is to increase overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and reduce down time,” says LeRoy who adds that the program is working very well.

“Based on the success we’ve had in the wood cutting area, the plan is to expand the program to other areas, eventually involving the entire facility.”

Vice president of operations Scott Keddie says Loewen’s total product maintenance program is like none he has ever seen. 

“Upgrading in our wood process line over the past six months has involved very significant improvements,” he says.

As examples, he mentioned the new CNC router and the wood scanning capability, both of which he says have had a significant impact.

“Not only are we operating more efficiently, but through equipment upgrades, we are increasing our capability,” he says.

A 5-S (Sort, Simplify, Sweep, Standardize, Sustain) program has been in place for three years. LeRoy says it has helped departments better organize themselves and be more productive. The company is also experimenting with another program, and is in the early stages of setting up a value stream. 

“We are just starting to implement a kanban inventory system. With our sizeable inventories, we were looking for something simple to improve our current inventory control. When a bin is empty, it is filled. What could be simpler?” says LeRoy.

Next year, the company plans to set up a pilot for a value stream—a self-contained, complete assembly line, from start to finish, with no unnecessary steps or movement.

“This cellular manufacturing approach or value stream alignment will change the way we operate,” adds Keddie. He says that once it is implemented, the program will become a plant-wide change.

Unique Qualities/Challenges 
Loewen considers itself unique by the nature of its products and the niche it has carved out of the market, on the economical scale and geographically. The United States is currently the strongest market for Loewen products.

“We offer a unique value proposition,” says Stephen Segal, vice president and chief information officer. “We are exclusively focused on the upper end of the window and door market. Loewen’s wood framed product line, distribution and service infrastructure are fully aligned to this target market segment.”

Keddie sees the options available as a quality exclusive to Loewen.

“What makes us unique is our number of options and attention to detail,” he says. We really focus on what the customer wants and in this high-end market, the options can be endless, especially when you consider the combinations of color, design and materials.”

To LeRoy, it is the reputation Loewen has built for its high-end products and the way it does business, combined with a strong work ethic.

But Loewen does face its share of challenges, both internal and external.

“Like other manufacturers, we must look at ways of competitively lowering our manufacturing costs in light of escalating raw material and other input costs. To that end, we have a number of actions underway which specifically target manufacturing efficiencies,” says Segal.

“Adapting a leaner operation is on-going and we are making a lot of progress,” adds Keddie.

To LeRoy, capacity is another challenge; an expansion is planned for 2006, though the details are not yet finalized.

“What we face in Canada, as a manufacturer, is similar to challenges faced by U.S. manufacturers: stiff competition, maintaining exceptional customer service and globalization,” says Segal.

And as many of its U.S. counterparts, Loewen continues to thrive in this competitive market. 


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