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Volume 7   Issue 2               February 2006

Paying the Price For Automation
$ometimes Price Isn’t the Only High Cost
by Alan B. Goldberg

As window manufacturers struggle to reduce their costs, the attractiveness of highly-automated, labor-saving equipment can easily mask other issues. Simplicity and ease of operation don’t necessarily mesh with the complexity of the sophisticated units. How well a machine performs and the extent to which the supplier provides support is a variable that is played out on production lines daily, regardless of a company’s size, volume or geographical location. It is one of many challenges faced by plant managers as they try to increase volume, reduce cost, operate safely and produce a high-quality, competitively priced product to their customer’s specifications. 

Although the machinery issues described are typical, they are usually not discussed openly. Thus some participants spoke under the conditions of anonymity. 

Cliff Langdon, vice president of operations for Sunrise Windows of Temperance, Mich., poses a question that manufacturers ask when considering the purchase of new equipment. 

“How do I automate and still maintain the requirements that are needed for my operation?”

Langdon points out that, while equipment may be more technologically advanced than the previous generation, “it is not as robust in design and durability as we’re used to seeing.” He says in a sense, window manufacturers created this dilemma. 

“We want speed, automation and equipment that is custom-designed to fabricate specific designs.”

He explains that suppliers are responding to these demands, mostly from major manufacturers; but there is a price to pay for highly automated, complex machinery and it goes beyond the price tag. While the latest innovations may be the right fit for one operation, they can create problems for another.

Supporting Automated Equipment

Take, for example, one manufacturer planning to replace old equipment. According to its vice president of operations, an upgrade to automated units without considering every factor is nothing more than a “quick-fix” that can turn into a costly mistake. He points out that a critical part of the equation is the skill-set required to maintain that equipment. At the present time, his company is in a state of transition and its maintenance function is evolving from a reactive to a proactive mode. This change must be fully implemented before any decisions on equipment can be considered. The purchase of an automated programmable molder will replace hours of maintenance with a fifteen minute change-over. But that will not take place until the internal support can be provided.

Eagle Window and Door of Dubuque, Iowa, is facing a similar situation.

“As customer demands become more specific, we are purchasing equipment that is more complex and that places greater pressure on our maintenance crew,” says Charlie Daoud, executive vice president.

He explains that every person involved, from maintenance to operators, must be more educated and have a high degree of skills. For example, employees have to be able to track down software glitches and other problems.

“Gone are the days of working on a piece of equipment with a wrench and hammer. The nature of our products has generated new technology,” says Pat Thompson, vice president of operations for Graef Windows of Boardman, Ohio.

“We have gone from mechanical to welded windows and their fabrication requires a high level of sophistication and another level of maintenance to support it.”

He says when the company recruits maintenance people, they look for people with software experience. Even operators are no longer picking up a screw-gun. They must have an understanding of the programmable equipment they are using.

Daoud agrees. He says that machines today are more electrical than mechanical.

“What we look for in machinery is the flexibility to handle the varied requirements for making custom products. That adds to the complexity of the unit,” he says.

Langdon says some of the equipment considered for certain operations was too complex. A machine that is most practical for Sunrise’s needs may not have the higher cycle time that was anticipated and may require more manual steps. But what carries a higher priority is simplicity in design, easy maintenance and a unit that is solidly built to provide many years of service.

Thompson adds that one of the challenges with equipment that replaces operators is the reduced pool of back-up people who have been cross-trained.

“It’s an interesting Catch-22 situation that we face as we strive to streamline. We remind ourselves that automation is only as good as the people you have running and servicing the equipment,” he says.

Supplier Support

With any new piece of equipment, training and support from the supplier becomes an absolute necessity, according to Langdon. If either is lacking, especially if there are problems, “we could face a serious situation.” 

Another manufacturer says technical support can be trying.

“We may not understand all the technicalities of a new machine and we expect to be fully supported,” says one plant manager.

The reality, he says, is that it is difficult to get 100-percent support. One of the challenges in his company’s purchase of a recently introduced machine is that the supplier’s technical support people may not be familiar with all the quirks. In a sense, he says, the manufacturer feels like a guinea pig. His advice is that manufacturers should be aware of two things: a supplier’s record of support and the time a new machine has been in the field. He adds that any manufacturer that relies heavily on a supplier for extended support rather than an internal, highly trained maintenance group leaves itself very vulnerable. His company prefers purchasing from suppliers that are nationwide because of the advantage of being able to work with either coast, given the time differences, especially in the case of an emergency.

Thompson says three factors must be recognized when considering suppliers: longevity or track record, technical capability and support provided.

“There are no cookie-cutter types of equipment. Whether it’s welders, corner cleaners or any other type of unit, every equipment supplier makes a different product with its own specifications,” says Thompson.

One manufacturer points out that a good working relationship with the supplier is a must. He says that manufacturers must provide specifications that are clearly understood. But if a supplier cannot satisfy equipment needs or provide adequate support, a change must be made without any hesitations.

Langdon refers to one supplier who has been able to provide machines “that give us some degree of automation, but not to the point where the complexity of the unit could be overwhelming to our machine shop to support. After all, what good is automation if you can’t support it?”

According to Langdon, service and support from a supplier varies from outstanding to awful. 

He explains that some suppliers have long (and unacceptable) lead times. Some are so focused on designing custom equipment to meet specific operational requirements that safety features have not always been included. Although that is changing, there is still room for many improvements. 

“We will accept nothing less than reliability and exceptional service,” says Langdon.

As an example of exceptional service, Thompson refers to a compatibility issue. 

“Compatibility is another challenge and I’m not talking about people. We had a situation where a new welder was performing to our expectations but there were compatibility issues with the cleaner. They were not in sync and it was affecting the line. Fortunately, our supplier was able to help us make some modifications so the units worked together.” 

He says that is the level of support Graef wants from a supplier. His advice is that when assessing a replacement, it is necessary to review an entire process and fully understand the ramifications of the change.

Machine Shop Skills

Internal capability and the skills of maintenance/machine shops appear to be an overriding factor in supporting equipment.

“When we restarted this operation, we purchased some new machinery that we thought was exorbitant,” says Mike DeFelice, owner of Thermal-Gard Building Products, Inc. of Punxsutawney, Pa.

“We have since developed our own modifications to that unit and relied heavily on our highly skilled machine shop. More than 75 percent of our equipment needs are handled internally. If that sounds high, it is because our focus is on operating efficiently through internal support and we are very fortunate to have people with many years of experience.”

The company also benefits from the availability of many machine shops in the area.

Challenges aren’t confined to new equipment. For plant managers who must rely on aging equipment, it becomes increasingly difficult with changing technology to increase volume and control costs. One of the biggest frustrations is the availability of replacement parts. As one plant manager pointed out, machine shops are able to make some parts, but not all. Locating parts for equipment that is six to ten years old can be frustrating and time-consuming.

Quality control is another critical issue, especially for vinyl window manufacturers. “You can spend millions of dollars on machinery and any problems with the vinyl will affect the finished product,” adds Thompson. 

Regardless of the issues, manufacturers are attracted to new innovations.

“We go to trade shows. We look at the latest and the greatest,” says Langdon. “We see impressive demonstrations that make it very enticing to consider replacements. But in the interest of trying to cut costs and make units faster and better, there needs to be a happy medium between highly automated and complex and some degree of automation that provides simplicity of design and ease of maintenance.” 

He adds that the industry is making progress so that the price to pay for automation does not go beyond the price tag.

Alan Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM. He has 31 years of experience in the insulating glass industry. 

© Copyright 2006 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.