A Changing Industry: How Innovation Seeks to Alter Glass Industry Landscape

Thanks to rapid innovation, the glass industry has seen an increase in automation in recent years. This has allowed companies to save time and reduce the need for labor, which has proven to be a complex problem to solve in today’s workforce climate.

Investing in robotics and handling equipment helps glass companies gain a competitive edge. This is because innovation in warehousing allows glass companies to keep operating costs minimal while delivering high-quality products. The increase in robotics also helps reduce labor costs and improve return on investment time.

“The investment in one of those machines is generally [equal to] about three years of labor that you would be paying an employee with no risk of that employee getting hurt, calling in sick, having marital problems, not showing up for work one day and all the stuff that goes along with having humans do that task,” says Chris Cullum, sales manager for CMS North America Inc., of Caledonia, Mich. The company manufactures computer numerical control (CNC) machines and systems for advanced materials such as glass, stone and metals processing.

In the plant, robotic automation is used primarily for material handling tasks, such as heating, forming, mixing and packaging applications. These tasks can expose humans to burns and other injuries.

The goal of these machines, Cullum says, is to increase efficiency and minimize lead times while producing quality products safely.

“In this industry, it’s more about increasing quality,” says Jason Williams, general manager of American Insulated Glass in Birmingham, Ala. “Automation increases quality and throughput without adding labor. If I’m manually making a shower door maybe I can make a couple an hour. However, if I’m making shower doors on the CNC machine, I still need that guy, but now I can put out 15 to 20 an hour.”

Despite the advantages of robotics, many small plants are still not heavily automated, due to costs, building size and other factors.

“We’re still highly dependent on manual labor,” Williams says. “A lot of your small fabricators are still labor dependent. It’s mostly cost. The bigger guys can leverage automation because of the scale of their plants.”

Increased Size of Glass

The increasing size of glass lites has also brought a need for robotics and larger, more efficient machines. This led Wood’s PowrGrip Co. Inc. (WPG), a Laurel, Mont.-based manufacturer of vacuum lifting tools and equipment, to build a curved glass lifter with a wingspan of up to 20 feet and a capacity of 5,300 pounds. The model is currently the company’s largest capacity vacuum lifter.

“We are getting more requests than before, but these very large pieces are still an exception,” says Ross King, WPG sales manager. “With the smaller labor force, there will likely be a trend to produce larger curtainwall assemblies, which will require larger lifters to install.”

The size of glass has increased over the years as architects desire glass that is bigger and more transparent. This allows them to illuminate and energize interiors with natural light while serving as a catalyst for a building’s aesthetic success.

“The architectural community is pushing for glass, especially windows, to be bigger,” Cullum says. “They’re basically saying ‘how big can you make these?’ They want to take out what was six different lites with metal in between them and put one piece in. For that reason, machines have to be big.”

The challenge for glass companies isn’t the size of the glass but moving it. According to Cullum, big horizontal lines in warehouses take up a lot of room. Some companies are investing in vertical lines. This takes advantage of ceiling height, not square footage.

“Big horizontal lines are not as popular as they were years ago,” Cullum says. “They just take up so much room. If you have to lay that piece down flat and it’s humongous, it just takes up a ton of room in your shop.”

The New Generation

As technology improves, so do the lives of workers. In fact, a survey conducted by Lucas Systems, which studied 500 on-floor warehouse workers across the U.S., found that 74% of workers are willing to trade pay for better technology to do their jobs. Additionally, 90% of workers believe technology is a critical driver in employee attraction and retention.

These findings come as the pandemic has altered the workforce landscape. Employees are less likely to take jobs that pay little and require long, strenuous hours. As such, many manual labor jobs, such as in factories and warehouses, have had a tough time hiring and retaining quality workers.

Cullum believes that the solution is altering the way workers view the job. He says most workers view warehouse jobs as unrewarding. However, with the rise in robotics, many of these jobs now require technical skills and offer less manual labor than before.

“The generation of workers that we have now is not into working factory jobs, like lifting glass all day,” Cullum says. “They’re more interested in programming robots and running highly advanced pieces of machinery that operate with computers. The new generation is more technologically advanced.”

Modern machinery accommodates this new way of thinking. Most machines now come with touchscreen functionality and panels with big, easy buttons that look like the interface of a cellphone. The trick is to keep the process basic and intuitive to cater to the younger generation.

“This industry is ripe for continued automation,” Williams says. “Especially in those monotonous, manual positions of just loading and unloading. You know, the grunt work.”

Joshua Huff is the assistant editor of USGlass magazine. Email him at jhuff.com and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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