Automated Dreams and Support Teams: Realizing the Potential of Automated Insulating Glass Fabrication

By Travis Rains

Glass fabricators turn to automated insulating glass (IG) production to bolster efficiency, product quality and employee safety. But as those processes are put in place, several considerations come into play that could affect the productivity and success of trending technology.

Uwe Risle, head of insulating glass product management for Glaston, says his customers are all looking into automating IG production. He says most companies are not put off by the technical discussions that come at the early stages, but says there can be a learning curve for those new to the process.

For example, a company must undergo some degree of reorganization when incorporating his company’s Thermo Plastic Spacer (TPS) IG line. Other processes may have allowed for IGUs to be placed on trucks and sent to customers upon completion of sealing, but the TPS line works a little differently.

“This is not possible with TPS; they have to wait a bit,” he says. “So the organization is a bit more challenging.”

Once processes are in place, however, Risle says companies fall in love with automated production.

“There’s a direct application, no displacement and with TPS, every time it’s the same quality,” he says.

Morgan Donohue, president of Erdman Automation in Princeton, Minn., says a customer must know what they want, and why, before technical discussions can begin.

“Is their goal increased production, a lower head count or higher quality? Those are sort of the three main fillers in terms of why people generally are looking to automate,” Donohue says. “The other one might be are they changing spacer types, and if they are, what are their goals with that?”

Bruce Wesner is the senior director of automation and reliability at PGT Innovations in Nokomis Beach, Fla. He points to volume goals as a paramount factor.

“High levels of investment need to have high levels of utilization to get the return on that investment,” he says. “That has to be part of the decision-making process, but I think longer-term impacts on quality and warranty are significant.”

Companies must then be mindful of the infrastructure, space and labor with which they have to work.

“Do they have the right people in place from a maintenance perspective? What are we interfacing with in terms of the actual interface between the machinery and the data coming from their network?” Donohue says.

Donohue agrees with Risle that most companies know what’s in store when they start looking at automating IG production. Companies putting in second or third automated lines will likely move through the process faster than first-timers who have a bit more to learn.

“It is a little more difficult for customers that are starting from scratch,” Donohue says. “If they have a line they’re replacing because it’s old or they’re already doing a particular type of spacer, but want to move to a different platform, they already have some concept of the IG experience. If they’re presently buying all of their insulating glass and starting from scratch, there’s a lot more to learn.”

While companies that add second or third lines may produce and meet goals in as little as a week, those just getting started may need as much as two months before meeting goals. Donohue says that’s because companies familiar with the process already have employees cross-trained on other lines.

“We have many customers who bought one machine not thinking they’d buy another, but shortly thereafter decide to, and sometimes another and another,” Donohue says. “It’s really a testament to what automation can do for reliability, sustainability and efficiency.”

Wesner says insulating glass can sometimes have quality issues because of the potential for seal failures. Automation can help.

“With that comes a need for a support organization to run the technology, so you have to have a good technical team behind it,” he says. “Any time you put advanced technology in, it comes back to creating the training on the technology side and on the operations side to take ownership and care of that equipment.”

Wesner says preventative maintenance helps his company protect its investment, but that only remains viable when support teams are in place.

“Folks have to understand that as you automate … you have to make sure you have the technical support teams around it,” Wesner says. “If you get the technology and don’t have the infrastructure in place, it makes it tough because with complexity comes the expectation for some rigor around ensuring the assets are going to perform.

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