The Machinery Movement: The Art of Handling and Moving Fabrication Equipment in 2023

Just about everything is different in 2023 than it was three years ago. From contactless grocery runs to remote healthcare consultations, various industries have adapted and evolved in a post-pandemic world. This evolution presents labor, economic and safety challenges. When it comes to handling and moving plant equipment, the glass and glazing industry is shifting its strategy.

Advancing with Automation

Tristar Glass Inc., Catoosa, Okla.

“In the past (and still very much in the present), glass was most commonly moved through a facility in a very manual manner,” says Rob Carlson, head of engineering at Tristar Glass. “An operator manually loading and unloading from a furnace, fab equipment or insulating glass line is by no means out of the ordinary, but concerns with safety, as well as challenges in operator retention, move fabricators toward a higher level of automation that either provides the operator with equipment-assisted manipulation or equipment that removes the operator from handling the glass entirely.”

Tristar Glass has implemented automated seaming, batching and washing systems that take glass directly from the cutting table and feed it all the way through to the unloading end of the tempering furnace without an operator touching the glass. A large portion of the glass the company handles has a low-E coating that is very fragile. By reducing the
amount of handling required by the furnace operator, they reduce rejects from the heat-treating operation.

“Another area we have automated is the polishing of our heavy glass through the use of a KuKa robot and Bovone’s polishing systems,” Carlson adds.

More Movement, Less Personnel

CMS (Costruzioni Macchine Speciali), Zogno, BG Italy

Chris Cullum, the sales manager of the glass division of CMS North America, says labor shortages are driving the justification for automation and automatic material handling. He believes that once glass fabricators realize the benefits of automation, this trend will continue to grow.

“The biggest shift during the past few years has been in how to move larger parts throughout the plant using less personnel,” Cullum explains. “Design and architecture are constantly pushing the envelope toward larger glass. For this reason, the less a piece needs to be moved to different stations for different fabrication operations, the better. This point is the reasoning behind most of the requests for automation that we are seeing today.”

Cullum says fabricators are looking for a machinery solution that can perform all of the necessary processes (grinding, polishing, milling, drilling, countersinking, etc.) without the need for material handling in between each of them.

“To take this one step further, we can incorporate automatic loading and unloading as well as automatic lite separation/protection,” Cullum adds. “Glass fabricators also need flexibility in a line like this as it needs to be able to process all of the different sizes and shapes that a fabricator may need to produce. Due to the amount of space a line of this type takes up in the plant, it has to be flexible enough to accommodate a large percentage
of the product that a plant produces.”

Addressing Fabrication Challenges

Hegla Corporation, Germany

The way fabricators handle and move glass around their facilities has evolved in recent years.

“Automation and integration—we see this approach as the primary and most attainable solution being employed to address virtually all of the challenges facing fabricators,” says Thomas Bechill, the sales support manager at the Hegla Corp.’s Stockbridge, Ga., operations. Here’s his list of the top trends he’s seeing in fabrication plants.

1. Labor Shortages: Automation can help address process consistency and throughput capacity that are many times the result of inadequate labor availability during fluctuations/peak demands in daily order volumes, spikes in specific product types and seasonal variations;

2. Quality and Continuous Improvement: Automation, when used effectively, helps to greatly reduce process variation allowing fabricators to address the issues and inconsistencies that inherently exist in both manual processing and material handling;

3. Safety: Mechanization creates a safe and consistent method to accomplish many tasks in the fabrication process and transportation of product is less likely to vary from process or line to process/line and shift to shift as we typically see in manual process;

4. Laser Marking: Laser capability provides laser printing and etching for product-related marking requirements and process and material traceability and performance data;

5. Software and Integration: This provides better understanding and management of capacity planning, process flow, production balancing and materials availability and traceability of raw materials through production, process performance, defect/reject analysis, order status and finished inventory providing a highly efficient and measurable plant/process flow;

6. Growth and Future Capacity: Automation and integration will help streamline and increase process performance and capacity of existing process equipment and help identify where expanded capacity is required.

Chris Collier is a contributing editor for USGlass magazine.

To view the laid-in version of this article in our digital edition, CLICK HERE.