As Glass Sizes Increase, Automation and Robotization Become Vital to Quality

By Sam Barnes

As architects push the outer realms of the design envelope to satisfy an increasing demand for jumbo glass, machinery and equipment manufacturers and glass fabricators find quality is challenged as never before. This, in part, is fueling a seismic movement toward automation and robotization in their work processes.

Much of the demand growth has come from U.S. commercial customers who want increasingly larger glass sizes, while also testing the boundaries in terms of shapes, curves, flatness and transparency. “Europe tends to lead the U.S. by three to five years in new uses of glass, and we’re a little slow to catch up,” says Mike Willard, chairperson and CEO of Salem Distributing Co. in Greensboro, N.C., a U.S. distributor of fabrication equipment manufactured in Europe and China.

After all, the move to jumbo glass requires a significant investment, as local fabricators must dole out large sums of money to update their equipment. “To make that large sheet of glass, you’ve got to have proper lifting equipment at the end of the line and room to pick it up,” Willard says.

Tempering equipment is also evolving to achieve the larger sizes while keeping anisotropy, or iridescence in the glass, to a minimum. Additionally, manufacturers and fabricators are digitizing their work processes, improving the working components of their machines
and implementing more stringent quality measures to turn designers’ dreams into reality.

For example, Italy’s Mappi International recently entered into a partnership with Siemens to offer a new “smart” system—MindSphere—within its tempering furnaces. The system, which will be widely available this summer, will enable data from the tempering process to be stored and managed in the cloud, thereby giving a fabricator access to a wealth of data and advanced analytics. The data can, in turn, be extrapolated and analyzed to improve efficiency and quality, as well as perform predictive maintenance.

Nancy Mammaro, Mappi CEO, says the concept will be beneficial, particularly for glass companies fabricating the larger jobs. “By having access to this data, we can prevent quality issues that are typical with the large tempering furnaces,” Mammaro says. “This is important when you’re dealing with jumbo size glass. It’s not an everyday job. The furnace will be able to collect and manage the data, providing valuable information in the process.”

The MindSphere technology also works in tandem with the company’s line of low-power consumption tempering furnaces, which enables fabricators to decrease their energy use and receive government credits. “I have customers in Canada and elsewhere that benefit from this because they’re investing in something that decreases power consumption,” she adds. “That’s a big deal, since the furnace uses more power than any other machine in the factory, especially on the larger jobs.”

Meeting the Challenge

Since joining the Minnesota-based fabricator Viracon some 15 years ago, technical resources manager Alissa Schmidt has noticed a greater level of experimentation by architects. “They’re now working with software that can design buildings with very challenging shapes,” Schmidt says. “As a result, the glass is becoming more complex in terms of lengths, ratios, shapes, etc. It can be a challenge to make sure we meet all those demands.”

Schmidt “cut her teeth” on the design side of the glass business and currently serves as a liaison with project architects through the company’s Technical Services Department. She says while today’s architects have more design tools at their disposal, sometimes those designs are impractical. “We’ll have a consultation where we might make a few tweaks to help it flow easier through the fabrication facility, whether by separating the glass into two
units or adjusting the length-to-width ratio or angle of the shape.”

In anticipation of the jumbo-sized glass, Viracon expanded its Minnesota manufacturing facility in 2016, adding more than 360,000 square feet to its existing site. The addition houses glass fabrication technology and equipment that increases its maximum finished product size capability. “Along with larger size capabilities, we are also introducing higher levels of automation for increased efficiency and even greater levels of glass quality,” says Kelly Schuller, president of Viracon, in a press release.

Quality Assurance

These changes bring corresponding strains on quality, and automation has been the industry’s answer. Willard is most excited about the entrance of robotic systems by his largest supplier, Italy-based Bovone.

“The use of robotics reduces labor needs in the plant, and produces a much higher quality, more consistent product,” he says, admitting that it does require a significant investment as robotics don’t work well with older equipment.

Viracon’s Schmidt has also noticed a shift toward automation. “Fewer people are handling the glass, so you get the consistency that you need,” she adds. “There’s equipment that can examine the glass surface versus relying on humans.”

Of course, there will always be steps that require the discerning eye of a skilled fabricator, says Jeff Wilkins, vice president of operations at AGNORA, an Ontario-based fabricator. He says his company’s engineers must be intimately familiar with the “recipes” they’re running and cognizant of when those recipes should change. “Your tempering furnace must also be in pristine condition (to run the jumbo glass),” he adds. “All of your elements have to be firing and relaying correct information across the whole bed. Therefore, maintaining the equipment is absolutely critical—100% of your equipment has to be functioning … not just where you’re running the glass.”

While AGNORA has made significant investments in its facility in the last 10 years in anticipation of the jumbo glass, there have been challenges along the way. Until recently, all of its coated glass came from Europe as there were no coated glass manufacturers in North America producing jumbo sizes.

Quality Matters in Manufacturing

Marcus Bancroft, sales manager of the Americas at Vesuvius USA in Dillon, S.C., says the quality of the jumbo product begins at the manufacturing plant. In that regard, Vesuvius has focused its attention—at manufacturing facilities in the U.S., Mexico and Brazil—on making its rollers used in tempering furnaces as straight as possible to keep glass eccentricities to a minimum. “We work to make those rollers as straight as possible for as long as possible, in order to give that glass the smoothest ride to the furnace,” Bancroft says.

As demand increases for larger and larger sizes of glass, Vesuvius is working in tandem with machinery manufacturers to accommodate larger furnaces. “Through a joint development initiative,” Bancroft says, “we get the engineers in both companies talking so that we can get down to the hard facts of what needs to be done.”

Vesuvius communicates with both the customer and the machine manufacturers in what he refers to as a “feedback loop.” In the process, everyone shares information and works together to develop new solutions. “The customers are pushing the machine makers,” he adds. “They come to us with requirements and requests for a certain tolerance to help them achieve what they need to achieve.”

Just like the glass fabricators, equipment manufacturers are making the move toward digitization and automation. Finland’s Glaston Corp., for example, has invested in research to keep pace with demand, and has developed flat tempering lines for a range of sizes, including jumbo sizes made specifically for larger architectural jobs.

Sam Barnes is a contributing writer for USGlass magazine.

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