How Contract Glaziers are Using Technology to Get Ahead

By Jordan Scott

In some people’s minds, the words “construction technology” may conjure up images of robots and people in a metal exoskeleton lifting heavy building materials. While those concepts certainly exist, many distinct technologies are being used behind the scenes to make the design and installation process safer, as well as more efficient and cost effective.

Printing Prototypes

3D printing technology isn’t quite to the point where companies can use it to create curtainwall, but it does already offer many uses for the glass and glazing industry. Minnesota-based glazing contractor Enclos has been using 3D printing since 2009 when its Advanced Technology Studio acquired a prototype machine that created onsite working models directly from CAD modeling tools using ABS plastic.

The technology can be used to create prototypes and models, saving time and money during the design and building process. Jeffrey Vaglio, vice president of the Advanced Technology Studio at Enclos, says that when working in the design-assist phase, having a one-to-one scale of part of the design helps stakeholders, such as university or hospital directors, understand the project more completely.

“What we’re trying to do is get to a full one-to-one scale as early in the design process as possible and that, for us, helps us test things like the fit and function of how extrusions snap together, tolerance and how much clearance there might be,” he says. “But more importantly, it helps the client understand where the performance is located in their system and how that might come together.”

Enclos often uses the 3D prototypes as a sales and communication tool, and increasingly is using them as educational tools for its field and shop crews to show how a system comes together. For example, 3D printing can be used to create layout templates for the field crews. The company also creates building models that are used to plan field activities, site logistics and to determine what strategies might be used to access some of a building’s unusual conditions.

“For a lot of our projects, every unit might be different, or the geometry may be complex. So if we can create some sort of jig or tool that simplifies some of the math for the field or shop crews in executing the work, then we found that has had a lot of value,” he says. “That’s just an assistance within our organization. It may not be of value to the client, but it definitely makes some of the more complex designs come together a little smoother.”

It can take up to four weeks to print a prototype, depending upon the complexity of the system. Vaglio explains that some clients underestimate how long it takes to prepare a prototype.

The Power of Prototypes

“It’s not an on-demand thing; it’s still a process which requires craftsmanship to compile it together in the end … We print all of our aluminum in gray, we make plexiglass insulating glass units (IGUs) that go into the framing. We try to integrate real gaskets and real parts and real screws into it, and so many pieces are being aggregated into a whole composition, which is a much more challenging task than just printing an overall building model.”

Enclos uses an outside company when a prototype or model is too large to be created with its own 3D printer. Vaglio says the company would much rather see a piece printed in its entirety than stitching together two smaller pieces because the prototype should look as real as possible.

He recommends that companies focusing on custom systems development consider investing in an in-house 3D printing program and that companies focusing on more standard products consider outsourcing their 3D printing.

“The second you do bring that service in-house, it changes the expectations internally from a sales and testing perspective. It’s an effective tool when done right that [quickly] becomes very high in demand,” says Vaglio.

Taking Flight

Drone usage is on the rise, especially among larger companies. Enclos has used drones occasionally throughout the past six years to capture challenging installation feats faced by the team in the field.

“That way we can educate others on how we did it, as well as tell a great story. It’s pretty impressive what our field crews are able to do, and I think there’s a lot of pride when they get to showcase that with others in the field,” he says.

Vaglio says the real value drones may bring is for exterior inspection and quality control, which isn’t usually within the contract glazier’s scope.

The Virtual Jobsite

It takes practice to handle large machinery, such as boom and scissor lifts, safely and efficiently. The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT) has invested in virtual reality (VR) simulators to give glaziers and other members training opportunities to use these machines in a controlled and safe environment.

“We knew there’s a way to train craft workers better and this technology could be a part of it,” says John Burcaw, strategic initiatives coordinator with the IUPAT.

Serious Labs coordinated the development of 32 different VR scenarios involving the machines by reaching out to subject matter experts and health and safety professionals. The scenarios involve individual tasks to be completed. Workers are scored based on safety, proficiency and efficiency.

According to Ryan Winterton, national accounts manager at Serious Labs, the VR scenarios are designed to be as realistic as possible. The VR hardware includes a platform that vibrates and simulates the movements of the boom and scissor lifts to make the scenarios accurate to real life and feel real to the mind and body. He explains that the technology offers a safer way for glaziers to train.

“There are a number of scenarios that are very challenging to recreate in a training environment, so in the VR world, we can develop and build scenarios that would be difficult to replicate. They would also be quite unsafe to do in a real-word replication because there would be a lot of hazards … Trial-and-error is not the best way to get to that high-level of proficiency,” says Winterton. “That’s where VR can be a game-changer
… We’re taking away any safety considerations and concerns because somebody failing in VR is just going to get a notification on the screen, whereas in the real world, it has a lot more dire consequences.”

The IUPAT has trained a number of different district councils to set up and troubleshoot the technology to integrate it into a broader training methodology at their individual IUPAT district councils.

“This training can be made available to those who are new to the industry who need to get their credentials in order to go to work. It could be used by those who need to shore up and refine their operator abilities and someone who needs remediation, maybe after a near miss, accident or injury,” says Burcaw.

He says that glaziers are often working at height and are able to use this technology to practice in simulation, especially for complicated locations at height.

“With this, they’re able to learn in an online environment to take the most robust theory prior to getting on a live piece of equipment,” says Burcaw.

In the near future the technology will simulate different weather conditions, such as wind, rain, snow and cold temperatures, that impact how the machinery operates, according to Burcaw.

“I think the biggest thing that we may see this year is the ability to certify craft workers using simulation. The argument against may say, ‘We want folks certified using a live piece of equipment.’ That’s true, but existing operator training is only putting people into a live piece of equipment for 5-20 minutes, and we just think that we could do better by doing it in a simulation,” he says. “Live practical assessments are designed to be objective, but there could be some flaws. The evaluator can’t always see the person in the piece of equipment and can’t always tell if they’re looking left when they turn right, are checking their environment and handling the controls. In a simulation, all of that could be measured very objectively. To have a certification in simulation is actually going to be a more rigorous and more honest evaluation of the craft worker.”

Burcaw recommends that glazing contractors be open-minded. He says that construction companies often “get stuck in [the] traditional approaches to training workers. Be open-minded to the adoption of technology. Look at it and experience it before you make a decision on its ability to truly train.”

Empowering Glaziers

The glazing industry can use technology for more than training and education. It can also be used as a service provided by one company to empower another. Schüco USA, based in Newington, Conn., has an entire office in New York City devoted to technological innovations. From virtual reality to technical animations, the company’s Virtual Construction Lab uses technology to better communicate about its products to architects and glaziers, as well as a project’s decision makers.

The company’s virtual reality technology showcases its products by putting the client in a showroom setting. Clients can walk up to a particular glazing system and be transported to a building featuring that product, complete with a detailed kitchen or pool. The technology makes it easy to show a client how the product would look in an application without having to visit a jobsite or rely on images.

One part of the virtual reality program allows glaziers to practice putting together one of Schüco’s glazing systems.

The company also can create virtual tours of the building site with solutions to both anticipated and unanticipated project challenges. This allows clients to demonstrate the sequence of events for any aspect of the project such as site logistics and installation procedures.

For custom and complex projects, the Virtual Construction Lab can create a dynamic proposal, which includes design drawings, 3D visualization, performance analysis and prototyping. A printed book is accompanied by a tablet with digital animations, which can be customized to a particular part of a project. This is a billable service provided to glazing contractors that need to address specific site concerns more effectively.

“With design becoming a lot more complicated, normal means of presenting a proposal are becoming obsolete,” says Atilla Arian, president of Schüco USA. “…We’re empowering mid-sized companies to do work [above] their level with this.”

Jordan Scott is an assistant editor for USGlass magazine. She can be
reached at jscott@glass.com.

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