Adopting Automation: Technology is the Future for Glaziers

For Horizon Glass and Glazing in Denver, it was the need to increase productivity and reduce stress on workers that drove it to invest in new equipment. Chris Medina, an estimator with Horizon Glass and Glazing and president of the Colorado Glazing Contractors Association, says his company bought an Elumatec SBZ 628 series machining center several years ago, which allows for fully automatic machining of various profile types, such as windows, doors and curtainwalls.

“The move was mostly to increase production, save some stress on the workers and relocate them to other positions where they were needed,” he says, adding that while the machine greatly improved accuracy and efficiency, it came with a learning curve.

“Learning the machine was a challenge,” he says. “Programming the machine and ensuring that everything is done correctly was difficult. If you make one mistake while you send a bunch of profiles through, you just ruined all those profiles. We also had to retrofit some things to allow it to run some profiles we decided to include.”

When they eventually figured the machine out, it became a vital cog for the company.

“More automation is the way of the future,” says Medina. “If you do it right, you will be more efficient and productive. You put the people machines replace in different roles so that you’re not eliminating positions in the long run, but you’re finding ways to use those people.”

The advancement of automation, robotics and software continues to help glazing contractors increase productivity, even with a smaller workforce.

Labor Shortages

Contract glaziers have pointed to a lack of labor as one of their biggest challenges for many years. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, construction employment declined nearly 20% during the Great Recession, representing the largest percent decrease of all major nonfarm industry sectors. Many people left the industry for good, prompting a skilled labor shortage, the ramifications of which are still with the industry today.

Then, there was the COVID-19 pandemic, which escalated those challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that from March to April 2020, nearly one million construction workers lost their jobs. The Department of Labor (DOL) claims the industry has recouped nearly 80% of its workforce following the brunt of the pandemic but is still down 238,000 workers from pre-pandemic levels. The DOL adds that one million more workers are needed over the next two years to keep pace with the demand for new construction.

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% each year since 2015, and a similar growth rate should persist over the next decade. The shortage in skilled labor remains a primary headwind the industry faces when addressing this inevitable growth in demand.

Todd Tolson is the sales director for the U.S. and Canada at Pro-Line Automation Systems, a Woodbridge, Ontario-based engineer and builder of machinery and automated systems. He explains that automation and robotics can assist glaziers with various fabrication tasks, ranging from cutting glass to size, milling, drilling, lifting and placing heavy pieces
of glass, and even applying sealant.

“You can get a lot more done with fewer people,” he says. “If you look at processing a jamb on a window wall system in a universal machine, you will process one jamb at a time. Depending on how many horizontal junctions you have, it will take three to five minutes, maybe more. If we combine all those processes into one machine and do two pieces simultaneously, we’re now in the minute to two-and-a-half-minute range. It’s significantly quicker but takes a complete reboot of the manufacturing philosophy.”

Technology helps to eliminate duplication, wasted movement and increases overall productivity, says Bill Cole, president of Canisteo, N.Y.-based Glaziers Center Inc., a designer of fabrication equipment and software.

Cole says production automation makes a lot of sense for fabrication shops, “especially those operating in more traditional production methods, i.e., manual production moving from one station to another. There’s a lot of wasted material movement, and shops have limited floor space.”

U.S. Slow to Adopt

Tolson says that automation has proven to increase productivity. Still, he has noticed a lack of urgency in U.S. glaziers to adopt modern fabrication technologies compared to their European counterparts. Tolson suggests this is due partially to more reasonable energy costs in the States. He explains that higher energy costs in European countries have forced companies to turn to automation to cut costs.

When Tolson started with Pro-Line 10 years ago, the company had a well-developed line of automated machinery for curtainwall and window wall manufacturers. Yet, when he visited curtainwall and window wall companies in the U.S., he was surprised to see little beyond a universal machining center, as opposed to companies in Canada and Europe,
which have fully embraced automation.

“There are some companies unwilling to look at alternative methods,” he says. “Automation reduced a process that typically included an experienced operator to instead doing all the work on a machine. This allows fabricators to hire someone who can load and unload the machine instead of someone who needs 10 years of experience to do a particular job.”

Cole explains that companies have their systems and processes that have been built up over time.

“They’re used to it,” he says. “They have spent thousands of hours perfecting it. We often hear that customers reach a tipping point or even a breaking point, and they say, ‘We can’t keep operating like this.’ They then realize they need to do things differently and change.”

Medina admits that some glazing companies have an “old-school” mentality about automation.

“A bunch of companies still think that if they adopt automation, people will lose jobs,” he says. “Companies think they will have to find people who know how to operate and program the machines. I do think more people are moving toward automation. It will be better off in the long run.”

Software Increases Efficiency

DJ Pavlock is the director of sales and marketing for Clearwater, Fla.-based TRUE Contractor Software, a provider of project management digital applications. He says software helps glaziers keep tabs on timekeeping, sales, procurement, inventory control and accounting, among others.

“Software helps glaziers become better organized and stay on track company-wide,” he says.

William Downing is an operations manager at Arvada, Colo.-based Orgadata USA, a developer of software to digitize door, window and curtainwall construction. He says that software can streamline entire projects for glaziers. This includes ordering from manufacturers, producing optimizations from the shop, and feeding fabrication information to computer numerical control machines. Data can also be fed to inventory software and other platforms.

“Glaziers are starting to realize that there are not many new people,” says Downing. “They’re realizing that they need to integrate and become more efficient … They have to wear many hats, and you can wear many hats simultaneously with software.”

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

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