From Full Integration to Machine by Machine, Fabricators are Increasingly Automated

By Ellen Rogers

Safer, faster, better. These three words often come to mind when thinking about automation—and for good reasons.

“This topic has become a must lately. Worldwide, every customer is asking for automation for two main reasons, the glass is getting bigger and labor shortages are getting wider,” says Nancy Mammaro, CEO of Mappi, an Italian machinery company.

Joe Gates, technical services manager with Lattuada North America in Toledo, agrees that customers are turning to automation because it increases efficiency and productivity while decreasing downtime.

“With automation, there is a big [drop] in downtime, which increases the company’s production,” says Gates.

But there’s no one-size-fits-all option when it comes to automation. What works for one company doesn’t necessarily work for another. Some companies want to automate everything, while others want to simplify one part of the process. Some companies revamp existing facilities, while others build brand new ones. Whatever the approach, the process will be different for everyone.

A New Start

Solar Seal, which was acquired by 03 Industries last summer, is currently constructing a new factory in Connecticut, where everything will be automated.

“For us, this is driven by quality and handling large glass and the amount of [people] you’d have to have to do it all manually,” says Jeff Heintz, senior vice president of Solar Seal. “If we were doing this a few years ago, we probably would have automated one or two processes at a time.”

Heintz says with the exception of bent glass up to 240 inches, all fabrication processes will be automated within the new location. As an example, the full cutting line, of which he says, “If that weren’t fully automated, we would have six to eight people in the area. Now it’s down to two people. We’ve interlinked cutting to seaming, and seaming goes to frit and tempering. It is safer for the workers and much more consistent for quality.”

In addition, the company will have fully automated laminating operations.

“Not only is this being applied via robots, the glass is placed and edges trimmed without humans,” he says, adding that they also will employ a quality control system and scanning system that’s independent of other equipment.

“Each process is dependent on the ones before and after. It’s much more constraining than we originally expected,” he says. “Automation forces you to see these things … you have a lot more emphasis on efficiency because of how the processes are interlinked. It’s eye-opening to see where you can be limited.”

One thing to keep in mind, though, is while automation can minimize or eliminate the need for machine operators, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate people from the plant.

“With automation, you can provide much more advancement for retained staff; people move from labor-based roles to a supervisor or technical roles. There are still growth opportunities, and you can provide larger employee development pathways than a conventional labor-based plant because technology and human interaction drive higher paying roles in equipment/technical expertise in lieu of pure labor-based pay.”

Machine Automation

Tom Wanamaker, president of Splendor Shower Door in Holland, Ohio, likens his company to a glass fabricator that also does shower doors. Automation has become an essential part of his company’s operations.

“We are mainly custom,” he says. “We do have some standard products, but our business is mostly custom, so automation is tougher than if you’re doing the same size over and over.”

For this reason, he says much of his focus has been on the machine rather than the overall process. About three years ago, they updated their basic Lattuada edger to an automated system, which can adjust automatically. “We did not need extensive training for the worker to run the machine. Plus, Lattuada uses all-digital amp meters, which was important because not everyone knows how to read a dial,” he says. “With the auto pressure, we don’t have to worry about figuring out which wheel isn’t working right because the machine automatically gives you the feedback in real time, and anyone can make the adjustment.”

About six months ago, he added one of the Lattuada Robotic Systems, which they use to transfer glass from one edger to another. Since adding the system, Wanamaker has seen efficiency increase by about 50%. “You don’t have people carrying glass, so [the work] physically is much easier,” he says. “Most of our employees aren’t nervous about automation and losing their jobs because the equipment is filling the jobs no one wanted to do.”

Speaking of people operating the equipment, Gates adds, “You have to adapt and understand to work the equipment. They can do it; it just takes patience and time. We have software engineers connected to the machine and can work with the customer to solve any issue.”

He adds that while their software techs are in Italy, they are available and ready to work with customers.

“We have no major delays with the time difference, and they can connect right into the machine and can see what’s going on in the equipment.”

Speaking of process automation, Wanamaker adds that all of their CNC equipment has also gone in that direction. For example, the equipment can make all of the holes, notches and cutouts in one operation.

“Process automation is harder for custom glass fabricators because everything is so different,” he says. While there are some systems on the market that can automate the entire process, every different point/variance on the shape of the glass could be a breakpoint. This might be a change in the radius or something about the unique shape of the glass that stops the process, which then has to be reset manually.

Staying Focused

Viracon in Owatonna, Minn., has automated much of its operations for several reasons. These include safety and reducing the strains on its workforce, keeping up with the demands, costs, yields, etc., and enhancing business with new offerings and options for customers.

Doug Betti, director of operations, says investments such as robotics to unload glass, case packers, and sorting machines help improve plant safety and efficiency.

“Every company is battling staffing issues. Automation helps us keep up the throughput. It’s an issue for everyone these days,” he says.

Over the past decade, Viracon has implemented these changes to much of its operations.

“It started in cutting, now we are looking at options in tempering and coating,” says Doug Zirngible, director of engineering and maintenance. “We used to do a lot of manual sorting, and now we’re using the sorting system, which saves a lot of manpower.”

He continues, “If you walked through the process 10 years ago, we have today eliminated [steps] through the sorting process, we have better yields, and handling defects and safety have improved greatly. On the tempering side, we used to seam everything manually, and now we’re moving to machines that do that …” The company also has an automated TPS spacer system, among other types of equipment.

While Viracon has made the automation move in many areas, laminating is one area where they’ve not started.

“Today [laminating is] manual … we cut the interlayer, store it, build the stack in the cleanroom. Now, how can we take that to the next step so the interlayer is cut to size and there’s no trimming? Then, how do we get away from handling the glass altogether?”

He adds that keeping workers safe drives the need for many of these changes. For example, finding a way to eliminate manual trimming could help minimize the likelihood of carpal tunnel.

Changes in products to meet architectural and customer demands have also driven the company to look at new automation opportunities. One of the most significant has been the growth in increasingly large pieces of glass. Zirngible says once they get into jumbo sizes, the glass is not handled manually between cutting and tempering. “No one touches it until it’s off the tempering line. You can’t handle [glass that size] without automating.”

Betti adds, “We’re also looking into how we can expand in areas such as smart glass, which we’re just starting with, and what kind of machine automation we can use going forward.”

Benefits and Challenges

While automation brings many benefits, the move requires a lot of research and planning. Betti says it’s important to first identify a need.

“We have a certain number of people who do a function; we need to continue meeting throughput,” he says. “We then brainstorm the technology that’s available that may help assist with that. We need to know what’s out there in the industry and work with vendors to develop solutions to address these issues. After that, it’s a matter of justification. How
much it costs, what will it save, and deciding whether to pursue.”

The question of how much it will cost is one every company has to address. However, there is no quick and easy answer.

“With automation, no matter how good you are at budgeting time and money, you never go into it thinking the first price you see is the final cost. It will probably be twice that,” says Heintz. “So much more [than just the machinery] goes into it all. No matter how hard you try and control it, you can spend a lot of money. Allow yourself a huge buffer and realize everything you knew pre-automation is only a fraction of reality post-automation.”

Space is another major consideration.

“Our facility in Massachusetts wasn’t big enough,” says Heintz. “That’s the downside-it takes up so much floor space.”

Betti agrees.

“The equipment is large, and it doesn’t move around easily. This is massive infrastructure [and] it takes significant capital to move anything.”

While adding on or building a new facility might be an option, it’s not always the right choice for every company. That’s when working with vendors is helpful as they can work with fabricators and their existing spaces.

“Some customers just want to automate parts of [their operations], and some want the full automated line from beginning to end,” says Gates.

“We work with our suppliers and say, this is what we have and what are our options to automate?” says Zirngible. “We can always look at adding on, but first, how do we do it within the four walls we already have?”

Mammaro says her company has evolved its equipment to meet the efficiency and production needs of the industry. They’ve been working toward 4.0 systems for the past eight years, and now all of its equipment can communicate with a plant’s entire operation. The challenge, she says, is adapting their furnaces and other machines to the different partners in a full line. “Each time, it can be a different customization.”

Whether a company chooses to fully automate all at once or one process at a time, this is the future. As companies continue to face challenges such as labor and supply issues, the opportunities and benefits automation can provide will help them continue meeting the market’s evolving needs.

Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @
USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.

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