Volume 36, Issue 8, August 2001
From top to bottom: The Forel automatic vertical insulating glass line: CSP's Schofield, Wis., headquarters and plant; IG units coming off the Forel system are racked for shipping; the sealer applies the exact amount of sealant needed.
Custom Glass Products (CGP), located near Wausau, Wis., faced some typical problems experienced by many small insulating glass (IG) manufacturers. With a booming construction industry and a shift in the business to more commercial orders, CGP had been experiencing 15-20 percent growth per year for the past several years, but the ability to meet that demand was becoming increasingly difficult. CGP was manufacturing insulating glass by mostly traditional means, which required vital dependency on a large manual workforce, something that was shrinking in rural Wisconsin.
However, Wausau isn’t the only area experiencing this problem. The whole country has been suffering from extremely low unemployment levels and a high demand for workers who are willing to do difficult manual labor. CGP’s continued growth was in serious jeopardy as the company headed into 2001, but this wasn’t the only concern for Eric Reeder, CGP’s president. Reeder knew that an inability to accept larger and tighter timeline orders could also lead to the loss of important, long-term customers. A solution needed to be identified quickly.
Demand Outpaces Capacity
CGP has two IG manufacturing plants, the main plant in Schofield, Wis., and a newer plant in Salisbury, N.C. Each plant employs approximately 65 people. Reeder, president of the Wisconsin plant, and his brothers, Steve and Mike, the president and vice president respectively of the plant in North Carolina, now run the family business that was started by their parents in 1971. The Wisconsin plant produces an average of 80,000 square feet of IG units per week, with 80 percent of this production used in the upper Midwest commercial market.
Custom Glass Product’s success in the commercial IG market was leading to larger orders and ones with shorter delivery dates, but CGP’s workforce was already operating above its realistic capacity. “We have a great group of dedicated employees that were working 60 hours per week, and we simply couldn’t find any more people in the area,” Eric Reeder said. “We were maxed out!” For a couple of years he had considered adding automated equipment, but its high expense kept the idea tabled.
The sensing device on the sealing unit checks and adjusts automatically the sealer for glass, spacer and overall thickness.
A New Option Appears
Eric had been considering the automated equipment currently on the U.S. market, so he and his brother Steve were quite surprised when they found our company demonstrating Forel’s entire automatic vertical IG line at a trade show in Miami.
“We were not familiar with Forel’s equipment before the show, but we knew what we were looking for,” Eric said. “We studied this equipment extensively right there on the show floor, and we were thoroughly impressed. The quality was outstanding, and everything about the system was less complicated and more user-friendly than others we had looked at. Best of all, the price was a lot less!”
Eric and Steve contacted their business manager Joe Oboikovitz to discuss purchasing this equipment. “Our goal was to minimize overtime and reduce our need for more workers, while dramatically increasing our production,” Oboikovitz said. “With the lower cost of this equipment, if we could eliminate only 50 percent of our overtime, it would pay for itself in just two years.” This analysis helped Eric and Steve make their decision, and the deal was made, making them the owners of the first Forel line to be sold in the U.S. market.
“People are really surprised we bought this system without more extensive research, but we have been in the glass business for 30 years, and we know if something works or not,” Eric said. “Also, knowing that spare parts and service would be provided domestically by IGE Solutions helped us make the decision to purchase this Italian equipment,” he added.
The components purchased included a washing unit, an inspection unit, a press unit, a corner-conveyor, a sealing unit and an air suction handling system. All of this equipment stands vertically, taking up much less floor space than traditional horizontal equipment. This was another important consideration for CGP.
Eric Reeder says he was thoroughly impressed when he saw the Italian equipment.
Making It Happen
Since the equipment was already in the country, it was shipped to the plant just a few days after the show, but it couldn’t be set up right away. The system was 106-feet long and CGP’s production area was only 80 feet, so an automatic 90-degree corner-turning conveyor had to be ordered. This unit was built and shipped in just 30 days. When the corner unit arrived at the plant, two IGE Solutions technicians, Michael Evans Sr. and Jr., had everything running in only seven days. Training, using real production glass, started on the eighth day.
“Forel’s instructions for setting up the wiring and plumbing were perfect, so the system installed quickly,” Eric said. “We use a different type of sealant than Forel, so the sealer required a little adjustment, but that was our only glitch. After seven days of setup and three days of training, we started running a full production schedule on the system.”
According to CGP, the results of implementing this equipment have been phenomenal. “We are currently producing 50 percent more IG units, with less people than we used before, and this is just the start,” Eric said. Once we get our pre- and post-processes fine-tuned, we should easily attain a more than 100 percent increase, actually doubling our production.” Several other benefits have also been realized, including less waste and less injuries than before the system was implemented.
One of the most obvious indicators of less waste is the elimination of sealant mess. The sealer applies the exact amount of sealant required and wipes the corners clean. This precise sealant application allows the units to dry almost immediately. No stacking or drying time is required, so the units do not need to be cut apart, which eliminates inevitable injuries from cuts that occur during this process. Omitting the stacking and drying process also eliminates the width variations and concaving problems that can occur, thus reducing the number of scrapped units and increasing the consistency of the finished IG units.
Back injuries that occur from manually lifting and tuning large pieces of glass have also been minimized, since the automatic equipment reduces manual handling. Less glass breakage and fewer cuts is another benefit of reduced manual handling.
"The biggest lesson we learned is that we should have done this sooner," Eric said. "Aside from that, we learned we were simply not prepared for the dramatic increase in production output. We are having trouble keeping the machine busy, because it processes everything so quickly. For instance, we recently ran 150 large IG units in only 2 1/2 hours! We need to totally change our production processes to get the full benefit of this equipment. Since it takes less people to actually build the units, we have shifted people to spacer building and prepping, glass cutting, material handling and shipping functions. We have had to rethink our entire process for material flow through the plant," he said.
When CGP achieves full optimization, Eric is confident that the total increase in production will be above 100 percent. This automatic equipment has increased the company's ability to accept larger orders and to ship them faster, thus increasing profits and allowing the company to continue growing without hiring more employees.
Michael Spellman is president of IGE Solutions Inc., based in Chelsea, Mass.
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