How Robots and Software Redefine the Way Glass Fabricators Operate
By Joshua Huff
As construction starts continue to rise throughout the U.S., the demand for flat glass products increases. To keep pace, glass fabricators have turned to new technology to enhance efficiency and productivity. Technology helps establish lean assembly lines and greater organization through cost reductions and increased production capacity.
The research division of Key Media & Research (KMR), parent company to USGlass magazine, reports that glass- and glazing-related construction spending has increased by an average of 4.5% yearly since 2015. This increase, however, collides with the well-documented labor shortages, which have placed fabricators in a bind.
To meet the increased demand for glass and mitigate the impact of workforce shortages, fabricators responded by diving deeper into technology. These technologies include various automated lines and robotics, such as horizontal washing machines, cutting tables, storage machines and computer numerical control (CNC) work centers.
Joseph Gates is the vice president of Lattuada North America, a glass machinery manufacturer based in Northwood, Ohio. He says that automation and robotics have helped fabricators increase production by up to 38% daily. He explains that when most machines were manually operated, it would take operators around an hour to set up the machine. That’s not the case anymore.
“With automation, it’s a press of a button,” he says. “Everything is motorized. You can now set a machine up in under a minute and hit the ground running.”
Evolution of Technology
As fabricators turn to automation for output, machinery companies have had to innovate to satiate the demand for faster processes and zero-touch systems. Carey Brayer, vice president of sales – glass division at Charlotte, N.C.- based Intermac America, says glass machinery has come a long way in the past decade, especially within the last two to five years.
Doug Mangus, the general manager of Bovone North America, a Reidsville, N.C.- based manufacturer of solutions and technologies for flat glass processing, agrees. Since Bovone first integrated robotic loading and unloading for its edgers eight years ago, it now has more than 35 systems in the U.S., all at various levels of automation and all incorporating robots.
“Our systems now have three robots instead of two,” he says. “That allows us to automate the process further, bringing us closer to zero-touch. That’s where robotics comes in. They offer repeatability, increased productivity and safety. As we move forward, we keep experiencing new applications where we can take the technology to the next step and essentially eliminate dependency on an operator.”
Brayer has seen fabricators’ desire for more automation firsthand. Many of Intermac’s advanced automated solutions were displayed at glasstec 2022 in Düsseldorf, Germany, and he says the response from fabricators was magnificent. He adds that was partially due to European fabricators’ thirst for solutions to ongoing energy and labor shortages.
Brayer explains the most sought-after equipment centers around glass storage combined with cutting lines. He says the abundance of machinery now offered is the most significant advancement in automation. Partnerships, he adds, have changed the game. Brian Ludwig is the South Central North America sales manager at Princeton, Minn. – based Erdman Automation Corp., a custom equipment manufacturer for the glass and fenestration industry. He says that robotics is the next phase of automation, and the transition is happening now.
“We have fully automatic lines where you don’t have to have anybody operating them,” he says. “You just put the glass up to it, the robots will put it up to the machine and get the IG off the other end. It’s about taking all these hand operations that are unsafe and replacing them with robotics.”
The overall goal of automation isn’t to replace workers, says Mangus. The goal is to repurpose workers and place them in areas out of danger and into situations that are more mentally stimulating.
“If you know anything about unloading and loading a machine, it’s mundane and brainless work,” adds Mangus. “It can be dangerous because glass is heavy. It’s monotonous, and it’s hard labor. Most people do not like to do that anymore. Automation is taking that part of the equation and allowing companies to take a worker and put them in different areas.”
The Cost of Automation
Automation comes at a price, says Brayer. He adds that beyond obtaining glass, the biggest obstacle for fabricators is affording automated machines. The two are linked. If you don’t have glass, you aren’t making money, he explains.
“Many of my customers have been on allocation for four years now,” he says. “If you can’t sell more products, you can’t automate as quickly as you want to. The market right now is starting to reach a point where even with a 40% price increase, everybody is paying that price, but they’re still on allocation.” He adds once fabricators find more glass, the adoption of automation will accelerate.
Software Increases Efficiency
Automated machinery is vital for glass fabricators looking to meet increased demand, but it’s useless without software.
Software controls an automated machine’s operation, allowing it to perform specific tasks and functions. Programs can be developed specifically for a machine or part of a larger system that controls multiple machines. They can also be designed to interface with other software or systems, such as databases or enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
Josh Rudd is the North American sales executive for A+W Software North America, a software developer for the flat glass industry based in Rosemont, Ill. He says software helps glass fabricators do more with less labor, control production and inventory, consolidate information and offer insight into issues.
“Software is vital to running glass fabrication shops of any size from order entry to how orders get configured and put in, priced, quoted, fabricated, built and out the door,” says Rudd. “In the old days, a lot was done by hand with various paperwork. We are continually evolving to make that process more efficient.”
Rudd adds his company provides software programs that tackle various issues, including purchasing, shipping, planning and control. The company’s highly customizable software allows glass fabricators to tailor it to their needs and processes. Software can also be integrated with other systems, such as computer-aided design (CAD) software and production machinery.
Dave Miller is a business development executive at Solon, Ohio-based FeneTech, a provider of ERP systems for the glazing industry. He says the accessibility of software began to evolve around the mid-1990s thanks to the rapid evolution of Windows OS.
“If you think back to those days, it took a little bit more technical knowledge to adapt and use DOS-based systems because you’re typing everything in,” he says. “When the Windows environment came along, we started having the opportunity to make things more visual and user-friendly. A new person could better conceptualize their task on the computer.”
As software became more powerful and intuitive, companies pushed developers to design programs integrating advanced systems into the workplace. Rudd says that within the past three years, he has seen an evolution in A+W’s existing and prospective customers. They want to be able to do more with the entire value chain, from when an order arrives to
when it ships out.
“One of the expansions that [A+W] has had recently is better scanning technology,” says Rudd. “The ability to use our smart companion to do more than just take one item and move it from one place to another. You can get a lot of intelligence about what is happening with that particular lite and job from a hand-held scanner.”
Software is the glue that holds the operation together, says Miller.
“If you look at a fabrication facility, you’ll see many different machines and processes on the shop floor,” he says. “Those machinery and procedures are important for getting the final process out. But a lot of those are focused on one individual task, which is an important task, such as tempering or cutting, but software is the piece that ties everything together.”
Joshua Huff is the assistant editor of USGlass magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and connect with him on LinkedIn.
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