Less is More: How Equipment is Helping Fabricators Stay Productive
Finding ways to do just as much—if not more—with fewer people has become the new norm. That’s certainly true for glass and glazing industry companies that are struggling with a lack of labor to do the job. To help meet this need, many companies are updating or replacing their equipment with lines that can do the work faster and more efficiently. Machinery suppliers say this demand has been keeping them busy, as glass fabricators invest in the equipment they need to meet the current demand for fabricated glass.
Demand for equipment is strong, according to Mike Synon, president of HHH Equipment Resources, which is part of Salem Fabrication Technologies Group, headquartered in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“We’re seeing people not so much looking to expand, but update and replace what they already have. They are looking for the latest and greatest,” he says.
Chris Cullum, sales manager with CMS North America in Caledonia, Mich., points out that while many companies held on to their money throughout quarantine, business started to get busy by March of this year.
“Construction as a whole has picked up substantially,” he says of the increased activity.
Tom Bechill, sales manager with Hegla U.S. in Stockbridge, Ga., adds “We’re potentially two clicks away from our biggest year ever in North America.”
CNC equipment is common in many fabrication operations. Like other types of machinery, this is evolving to help companies meet their production needs.
“These have been big changes,” he says. “The equipment can process sizes up to 98 inches and in the past that wasn’t the case. The machines are bigger, more durable and designed for today’s glass market.”
Equally, if not more important, is that equipment also provides glass fabricators with the means to continue operating, despite the severe labor shortage. For example, many fabricators are looking for options to allow them to make up for not having people to do the work.
“We lay out equipment to have two machines facing each other in the factory, so one operator can run both,” says Synon. “Loading can be robotic or automated, but the breakout table is still done by hand. Factories used to have people who etched glass and now they have a 4-inch grinder that only takes one person to operate. It’s generally connected to a washer where there is one worker who then loads the glass onto the tempering line. In the past this would have been done by four to five people.”
Cullum agrees that CNC equipment is evolving to be both faster and more efficient. Companies also need to get more yield from floor space, so they are looking at more compact machines. “With our horizontal lines we’ve gone back to having the tanks underneath rather than on the side,” he says, adding that the vertical lines are also a big space safer.
Bechill agrees, pointing out that since companies can’t hire, they are turning to automation and overall integration. He says they are seeing interest in automated sorting equipment, which can automate the flow of glass between processes.
“Their [fabricators] number-one concern is not only growing their business, but maintaining the business because of the lack of workers. They are asking, ‘how do I eliminate manual steps between processes?’ That can be through automation as well as integration of the fabrication process. That’s probably the biggest trend, full integrations,” he says. “We have several customers updating or building new facilities that they are [setting up to be] totally connected. They are looking for fully integrated solutions that eliminate the number of people [typically needed]. The cutting table always had the option to go from cutting to [the other fabrication processes], but now we’re seeing a push to tie them all together so you don’t have to have manual handling in between.”
Cullum says his company also focuses heavily on bringing automation to their different equipment lines, “even if it just eliminates one or two things people do.” And for those vertical lines, much of the loading and unloading of glass is moving toward robotics.
“The price of [robotic systems] has come down and you can even buy used ones,” he says. “We used to have just a standalone loader and we’ve phased those out because they cost the same as the robots and the robots do more.”
Supply chain issues, such as a lack of glass, have also prioritized these investments. Cullum likens it to a trickle down from the supply chain.
“Everyone is having a hard time getting glass. So the things that used to not matter much, like a remake, are now a bigger deal because they are running out of glass.” In other words, upgrading to better, faster more efficient equipment can also help fabricators ensure high-quality, on-time production— which in turn can help keep construction projects on schedule.
Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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