by John Ball
Reprinted with permission of Window Executive, Spring 1997.
"Virtual reality" is coming to window manufacturing. Software isnt just for pricing and cutting lists anymore. Virtual modeling and artificial intelligence are just around the corner.
Software for the window and door industry has undergone several evolutions over the last two decades. From the humble number-crunching of programmable calculators of the late 1960s, the purpose of software in this industry always has been to replace the tedious and mechanical tasks of pricing and calculating cutting lists.
Software developments have been driven by "enabling technologies." The personal computer enabled the collection of data so numerous windows and doors could be manufactured. The VGA screen enabled the production of scale graphics. But the computer still was being used only for pricing and cutting. What was needed was a new enabling technology that would challenge the narrowness of this usage. Now this new technology has arrived.
A large number of software products currently available will hold a bill of materials for a given preloaded configuration and produce a cost-and-cutting list within a range of dimensions. Most also will give a drawingthe better ones to scale. Many will handle some degree of user selection such as glass type and hardware options. But suggest the following wish list and the software contenders narrow.
The answers to these questions cut down your options and show you two things:  that added functionality brings added complexity, and  that producing all of the above information requires a comprehensive database, which means additional maintenance.
Virtual ModelingThe Future
The next "enabling technology" emerges in virtual modeling. To understand the significance of this development, we must refer to the software currently available. It uses a database for each possible configurationusually a list of formulaswith a drawing linked to it. Note the drawing and the database are separate entities, linked only by common variables. Draw a new picture and you must build a new database for it. A correct picture is no guarantee that the data will be accurate.
Virtual modeling overcomes this problem-filled territory. Build any design on the screen and you have the bill of materials. The software simply measures sizes from the model. No database is needed!
Link to Engineering
Within the model the input for the profiles will be the DXF drawings from your CAD engineering software, making a direct link to your design team. When the team changes a design, the model automatically does the costing-and-cutting. Custom units are as easy as standard units, and as the complexity of the model develops, all hardware and milling information will be included.
Materials Purchasing and Scheduling
The modeling approach not only links the traditional costing-and-cutting with engineering, but also bridges the gap to materials purchase and production. Because the model has all the details of a unit, the very data needed to run a just-in-time purchasing system or a factory-scheduling program successfully can be captured. For example, by adding a delivery date and a production lead time, you can know exactly what materials are needed on "Workstation 6" next Tuesday, or exactly what the loading will be on "Milling Operation 7" tomorrow.
The required report generators and tracking front end are all that must be added to have the "cost-and-cut" software expand to control the entire manufacturing and dispatch process. An order from a customer links to either standard or custom models, collates all the data from materials ordering and production scheduling, and deposits this into a high-powered database.
Then the rest of the process can be as simple or as sophisticated as it needs to be, from using a report generator to downloading data into a spreadsheet or importing into a full materials requirements planning (MRP) package.
Link to Sales
Benefits do not stop at production. With modeling, a salesperson can input the orders (models) from a remote location, saving costs, reducing errors and shortening lead times.
It is a small step to have homeowners create and order from computer kiosks in do-it-yourself (DIY) stores or from home computers via the internet. The software verifies the engineering and suggests designs. Models could be in the correct colors and photo realistic. Windows could be rotated for viewing from inside, and vents could be opened and closed! On completion the program could prompt for upsell on hardware, performance or security options.
Closing the Loop
Once the data has been captured electronically, collated and sorted for the manufacturing process, it would be shortsighted to simply print it out and hand it to a factory worker. At the least it could be displayed on a monitor, and in cases such as a profile cutting, the equipment could be linked directly to set saw stops.
Besides saving time and reducing errors, modeling offers a downstream benefit that "closes the information loop." There is a tendency to confuse control with reporting. For example, if a manager gets a call from a customer asking when his windows will be ready, the manager might like to view a display on his terminal showing exactly what stage each window is in. To supply him with the data, every workstation in the factory would have to punch in and out every part or unit processed. All this reporting would do nothing for production control. In fact, it would only reduce efficiency.
Thus, with current software the manager must settle for fixed lead times and assume the production will be on schedule. The need to know the progress of items being manufactured still exists as does the need to have control of the manufacturing progress.
But if the production data is connected electronically with manufacturing equipment, or if data is displayed on monitors, suddenly the status of any unit is known with no overhead cost. For example, if you give a worker a days cutting schedule, you probably wont know his progress until the end of the day. But if you list one item at a time on his computer screen and have him hit a "NEXT" button you will know exactly where he is.
Computing power is all that would be required for the homeowner in the DIY store to find out at the time of order when his window would be ready. By instantly scheduling the window into production the software program could feed back a delivery schedule such as "Thursday before 10 a.m., truck 6, driver Kevin." And the homeowner then could inquire about progress from that computer terminal at any time.
Optimization of Facilities
Another logical development would be to have the software constantly optimizing production, not just by accumulating similar units, but by truly optimizing each workstation, taking into account setup times, deadlines, materials on hand and the need to minimize "forward of required date" production.
New technology has always shifted the power base within industries. The advent of modeling coupled with the arrival of data communication as easy as telephones will be no exception. If you are contemplating a change in your information systems, the key questions to ask your data processing people are:
 What are the marketing advantages? and
 How will the new system give us a sustainable competitive edge?
Ask the following questions, too, as part of your assessment:
The Next Evolution
The year 2000 should see the introduction of artificial intelligencesoftware that can make value judgments when an information gap exists. The implication of this evolution for window estimation software will be the advent of systems that accumulate and analyze vast amounts of data. This data will be available because of the increasing connectivity of computers and thus of information systems.
Interconnectivity will be essential to competitive survival. The need to access and analyze other information systems will increase, and at the same time pressure will increase to open your information system to customers and suppliers. The internet will be the mechanism by which you place orders and manage your financial system, but eventually a customer will want to use artificially intelligent software to make a value judgment on your ability to deliver quality product consistently on time.
Traditionally, window software simply has done tedious pricing and cutting lists, but beware. Software now is capable of invading your entire business. It may well change the way you do business, and the choices you make may have a significant impact on your future market share.
John Ball is a founding director of Soft Tech International.
© Copyright 1998 Key Communications, Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.