“It’s all about automation.” You probably hear that all the time. You may be saying it of your own operations. Robotics and automated equipment have become a mainstay in glass fabrication. The first time I remember hearing those words was almost ten years ago at glasstec in 2014. Doug Mangus, now general manager of Bovone North America, said those words about Bovone’s robotic loading and unloading system. That year was the first time the company exhibited the system. Two years later, robotics had a significantly bigger presence on the show floor, and that’s continued to grow.
Glass fabrication continues to become increasingly automated, and that doesn’t look to be slowing down. Our industry historically has faced labor challenges. For years we’ve heard about the need for skilled labor and the importance of letting young people and students know that they don’t have to go to college and get a four-year degree to be successful. We’ve been talking about the aging workforce and replacing those who retire for as long as I’ve been here, and I just celebrated my 23rd year at USGlass.
Covid gave us the Great Resignation, which escalated a problem the construction industry was already facing. People stopped wanting to go out to go to work. I’ve talked to many people about this over the past couple of years and heard stories of hiring someone one day only to have that employee not show up the next day. It doesn’t matter how much money they’re offered, I was told, some people just don’t want to work. I’m sure you’re nodding in agreement right now.
The need for workers has a lot to do with the drive toward automation. I have thought about this a lot: are we ever going to get to the point where the plant is completely automated? We’re not there yet, but we’re very close. You’ve probably heard about Blue Star Glass, which opened a new location late last year in Dallas.
I talked with Blue Star president Alex Oanono recently and asked her about operating a fully automated facility.
“What does that mean exactly,” I asked. “No one is there at all? I mean, someone’s got to turn the lights on in the morning, right?”
She laughed and said, “Actually, even the lights are automated.”
So yes, people are working in the Dallas plant, and as others who have automated their operations will tell you, the goal of automation isn’t to eliminate people. Instead, the goal is to repurpose those people and, hopefully, shift them into more highly skilled roles.
Computers, software, machinery and other technologies have all advanced and evolved to help us do things more efficiently. I don’t hear anyone complaining about using a high-speed computer instead of a typewriter (or even that old word processor I used in college). I am excited about the future; I’m excited to see more automation and advances. This could be the shift that makes the glass industry appear fast-paced and exciting to the outside world. And maybe that’s the answer to solving some of these labor challenges.