Volume 7, Issue 9 - October 2006

A Step Ahead
Investments in New Technology Keep Northeast Building Products Ahead of the Curve
by Alan Goldberg

The bustle of activity between customers and salespeople is hardly typical of a manufacturer’s showroom, but Northeast Building Products is not a typical door and window manufacturer. The company is also a distributor and, and it offers a convenient location to local contractors in Northeast Philadelphia, just off the ramp from Interstate-95. It’s not only the location that brings customers back to this distributor. It’s the relationship that has been established. Building relationships is not new to Northeast Building Products. It began doing so more than 30 years ago when the company was founded. 

The Early Stages
In February, 1975, Irv and Elaine Levin started a business making pre-fabricated glass block basement windows and jalousie windows. Approximately one mile from the current site, the 18,000 square foot building they rented was more than they needed for the modest operation.

“With all the extra space, my father wanted to sub-lease half the building, but my mother said it was better to utilize the space, so they started distributing doors and windows for a number of manufacturers,” says Alan Levin, president and chief executive officer. “It was truly a partnership.”

The small business was not without its frustrations. Custom-made products took at least six-weeks, a timetable that was unacceptable. Convinced that he could provide better service, Levin starting making his own storm doors in 1978, offering a lead time of only three days. A year later, he was making storm windows within the same time frame. Forced to move in 1981 because the landlord was going out of business, the company re-located to a 30,000 square foot facility, the current location and the first of the facilities it would purchase or build. Two years later, the company purchased a 20,000 square foot building, two miles away, where it started an aluminum prime window line. Eventually storm window production was moved to the same building. In 1987, a year after he joined the company on a full-time basis, Levin approached his father about making vinyl replacement windows.

“He gave me 8,000 square feet within the facility to set up my own line, starting with a mechanical window.”

What followed was a sequence of events that placed the company on a track for growth and success.

A welded window was added to the line in 1991. In 1992, the company built a 40,000 square foot facility on the same street, to be used for all welded products and as a warehouse for distribution. Three years later, a 15,000 square foot facility was built, across the street, and was to be used to make the original products, glass block and jalousie windows. In 2001, 60,000 square feet was added to the main building where vinyl products are made now.

A New Chapter
Irv Levin retired in 2002, 27 years after he founded the business.

“There were no secrets to my father’s success,” says Levin. “He did it the old fashioned way with honesty, integrity and a determination to provide the best product and the best service and to treat everyone with compassion, kindness and understanding.”

Like his parents, Levin also became business partners with his wife. Joining the company full-time the day after her college graduation, Fran Levin was determined to learn everything about the company.

“I insisted on working inside the factory for three months because, if I was going to sell something, I needed to know everything about the product,” says Fran Levin, who today serves as vice president.

Currently, there are more than 200 employees working in four buildings, totaling 165,000 square feet, all in close proximity to each other. The company is a distributor and manufacturer of vinyl replacement windows, patio doors and storm doors and windows. It serves 9,000 customers that include dealers, distributors and contractors. And it has grown into a $25 million business, producing a quarter of a million units a year on a 5 1/2 day shift. 

Efficiency Through Technology 
While the company uses various techniques, such as lean manufacturing, to increase efficiency, automation and the technology behind it has been a major contributor. “We’ve been using the (GED) Intercept® line since 1997 and we’ve been very happy with it,” adds Levin. “Recently we did some upgrading with a Smart extruder,” but he points out that the entire system was modernized within the past few years. Levin describes Intercept as a great process that makes a good insulating unit.

Two automated glass cutters with free-fall or glass unloading systems, eight four-point Greller welders and a Sampson multi-purpose corner cleaning unit are among the workhorses of the operation. Andersen CNC routers are being used in the production of bay and bow windows. 

“These (routers) are fairly new and we are very happy with their performance and reliability,” says Levin.

All glass is supplied by PPG and vinyl extrusions are from Chelsea Building Products. Currently, there are three vinyl window lines, with a fourth one planned. Levin points out that one-piece-flow is utilized wherever possible to eliminate steps and increase efficiency.

Although the operation has been integrated, the company plans to use a fully integrated Friedman system in the near future.

“This will help us immensely,” says Jeff Witkin, executive vice president. “It means that our customers will be able to order on-line. We will make it easier for them while adding a level of efficiency to our customer service function.”

The Next Revolutionary Step
Three years ago, the Sashlite technology was introduced to the market (see box at left). Impressed with the results from trials and actual production, Levin made a strong commitment to use the new technology.

“I have been watching Sashlite since its inception, and I believe it is the next revolutionary step,” he says.

In April 2005, the company began producing its Crusader double hung and slider windows and picture windows with Sashlite. Since that time, it has produced approximately 50,000 windows that way. It promotes the product line as having the industry’s highest warm-edge ratings and National Fenestration Rating Council rating. One of the first manufacturers in the country to use Sashlite in full production, the company plans to expand its use of the technology in the very near future. 

“We’ve gone from using horizontally automated to vertically automated machinery which has tripled output,” says Witkin. 

Levin refers to actual results since Sashlite was used in full-scale production. He cites both U-values and design pressure (DP) ratings as examples of higher energy efficiency.

“Our U values have been reduced by 25 percent and that’s pretty significant. As far as a structural rating, the DP value went from 35 to 55 with a Sashlite system.”

Levin says the system will be incorporated on more window lines. 

“I really believe in it,” says Levin, which is why I have invested one million dollars in equipment for this technology. Sashlite is giving us a competitive edge on quality.”

The new technology makes it possible to extend the current warranty program which is presently 30 years through the original owner. On windows made with Sashlite, that warranty becomes a lifetime one to the original owner.

Products and Services
In addition to double hung, slider and casement windows, the company also produces picture windows, hopper windows, awning windows and patio doors. Options in grills and grids include standard, contour 3M Accentrim and elite grids.

Also available is a full stock of parts and accessories for contractors who may need to do repairs in the field. For major repairs, the company offers a convenient service. 

“We repair all windows, whether we made them or not. Contractors can drop them off at our sales counter in the morning and pick them up at the shipping dock in the afternoon,” says Levin.

Training and Keeping Employees
The company also runs a safety training operations program (STOP) and 5 S program. Outside consultants are used to develop and implement lean manufacturing techniques. Testing is done outside through independent laboratories and in conjunction with suppliers that offer testing services, such as Chelsea and H.B. Fuller.

“We test along the way at various points, more as a quality control check,” adds Witkin.

Referring to the wall of plaques commemorating years of service, Levin says people come here to stay.

“There are people who were hired by my parents during the early years of the business,” he says. 

One of them is Charlie Slowik, the general manager and the second employee to join the company. 

“I’ve seen this company grow from a very modest business where there were just a few of us to where it is today and still maintain its basic values after 30 years in business,” says Slowik.

Rob Rose, vice president of sales and marketing, recalls his initial impression when he toured the plant. He says it reminded him of his own family business. 

“I knew nothing about windows and doors when I started working at Northeast. My dad and I ran a convenience store in this city (Philadelphia). We were successful in a very competitive market because of the way we treated our customers. This was no different. I realized that it doesn’t matter if you sell food, staples or fenestration products, a customer is a customer.”

One employee, who recently joined Northeast, spent many years in the window business. He noticed other things during his initial visit.

“I couldn’t get over the cleanliness of the plant,” says Eric Gerstenbacher, operations manager. “The technology, new equipment, a one-shift operation and the way the plant is run told me a lot about the company.”

Commenting on the management style, Gerstenbacher said the absence of bureaucracy and a strict organizational structure were very appealing. 

“You can attract people with money but it takes leadership to keep them,” he says. 

Although people are this company’s strength, they also pose a challenge. 

“We have wonderful people. We have very skilled people in our plant. But as we grow, finding talented people who share our vision and bring (manufacturing) skills is our biggest challenge,” adds Levin. “It’s a difficult situation and I know we are not alone in dealing with it.”

Future Growth 
Hardly confined to the Philadelphia area, Northeast continues to expand. 

“We are growing more geographically. We deliver to five states within a 400 mile radius,” says Levin.

Using its own fleet and common carriers, the company serves customers in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. 

While much has changed since 1975, some things have not, most noteworthy the company culture. This explains why at Northeast Building Products, it’s all in the family, at the sales counter, in the plant and on the dock.

The Sashlite Technology
Introduced two and a half years ago, the Sashlite technology was developed by Bob Hornung, president of Sashlite LLC of Westport, Conn., and John France, vice president.

According to the inventors, by integrating the spacer directly into the sash profile, the technology not only changes but simplifies the way insulating glass has been manufactured. 

In the manufacturing process, extruded insulated sash is cut to required lengths and welded into a solid frame. Desiccant is applied. The muntin grid is assembled and attached to the frame. Sealant is applied. Lites are adhered to each side of the sash and glazing beads are attached. 

“We’re streamlining the whole manufacturing process,” says France. “We’re taking spacer and insulating glass production and bringing everything right to the sash.”

There are many advantages. One of the most significant is performance and efficiency, says Hornung.

“Because it is a simpler product to make, there is less to do. Windows can be produced in less space and fewer things can go wrong which translates into lower assembly and product costs, lower inventory and overhead costs, while gaining great aesthetics and performance characteristics” says Hornung.

Test results from companies using the Sashlite technology and independent laboratories have verified its performance. 
According to Hornung, business has grown 300 percent thus far in 2006 and the amount of automation lines has nearly doubled this year. 

For more information on the Sashlite technology, visit www.sashlite.com

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

DWM
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