Join Us on Our Journey
A Technical Tour of Trends in German, Swiss
Door and Window Production
by Megan Headley
When looking to invest in new machinery, one might start at a trade show
to collect ideas about what’s available to meet a specific need, or maybe
by talking with a rep you trust about how their products can meet your
needs, or in discussions networking with colleagues who have invested
recently themselves. Once an idea is in mind, a fabricator would be well-advised
to see that machine or a comparable line in action, to get a more accurate
view of how it might work in his plant.
Stiles Machinery Inc. is one machinery supplier that has sought to provide
each of those opportunities with its group technical tours. For 40 years,
the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based CNC distributor has hosted technical tours
through Europe, only recently adding tours of China as well. The plant
tours boast various themes, attracting professionals interested in finishing
or panel processing or, in this case, door and window production, and
that variance draws a number of repeat visitors.
From March 18-24, Stiles hosted a benchmarking tour of door and window
industry trends in Germany and Switzerland, which brought a group of industry
professionals through five door and window manufacturing plants, one machinery
manufacturing plant and a preeminent fenestration industry trade show.
As our host Doug Maat (who, when not acting as official tour guide, works
as product manager for the Stiles Machinery edge processing group) explained
early in the week, “This tour isn’t about showing you the top of the line
automation—that’s easy. We’re trying to show you a cross-section of how
things are done here, big and small plants, automated and old world craftsmanship,
and hopefully you’ll see something you can take back to your plants.”
Over the years, Maat has helped lead tours of 30-plus fenestration professionals,
making this group of 14 fairly intimate. Still, the group setting provided
interesting context as, in addition to learning about the production process
in Europe, the primarily North America-based professionals on the tour
shared insight into how those processes relate to their own facilities.
DWM's photo slideshow includes more than 50 photos with commentary regarding
the unique processes at these plants.
Stop 1: Nestle Fenster –
When we were given our itineraries, a member of the group gravitated to
the fact that the first company on our tour, Nestle Fenster in Waldachtal,
Germany, was founded in 1597. Today it still has only 40 employees, two
of whom are children of the current owner continuing the family-owned
tradition. “So they aim to stay small?” the tourist wondered aloud.
Maat pointed out, “They also do a great job of leveraging technology.”
That soon became evident.
The first shop on the tour would set a standard of sorts for the others
we’d see; a mix of manual window woodworking and impressive automation.
The first impression of the shop was how empty it seemed, about ten employees
handling various processes in the visible nooks of the 40,000-square-foot
facility. Part of the reason for that seeming sparseness is that one employee
alone can handle cutting wood to length and quickly profiling each side,
due to the company’s recent introduction of a BMB 923 PowerProfiler. Christian
Eberhardt, a representative of the Homag Group who acted on the tour as
host and ever-helpful translator, explained that the machine automatically
changed tooling to create a different profile each time, if necessary.
The sequence is programmed in the office and later entered into the machine.
Our host in the shop, Till Wagner, explained that before investing in
the line, two people were able to process approximately 20 units each
day on their CNC. We watched one employee churn out sash and frame for,
ultimately, 50 units in that day.
The tour members noted that the chips resulting from the profiling process
hardly go to waste; they’re pelletized and either burned in the boiler
or given to employees to burn at home. It would be an example seen time
and again over the week-long tour of how little goes to waste in these
European fenestration facilities.
The heavy automation of the profiling line seemed at first an odd contrast
with the next step, assembling by hand. We watched two techs, one clearly
an example of the German apprenticeship program in action, brush on the
glue and then clamp each frame by hand.
Wagner explained that the company produces high-end wood, wood-aluminum
and vinyl products. He told our group that aluminum windows are seldom
produced there anymore as they’re generally unable to meet the country’s
incredibly stringent energy codes. “In volume, vinyl windows are the most
produced here, say 50 percent, but in turnover, the wood-aluminum windows
are most important for our company,” he added. He noted wood demand has
gone down dramatically over the last 20 years and is only recently seeing
marginal increases in demand again.
The company’s distributors supply its products primarily in Germany, but
also in Western Europe. Maat pointed out the European interest in buying
locally made product gives Nestle a leg up within its niche.
Stop 2: Riwag Turen AG – Arth, Switzerland
Upon entering the Riwag Turen AG facility in Arth, Switzerland, our group
experienced a similar reaction. One touring U.S. door manufacturer summarized
it well: “This is phenomenal,” she breathed as we began our visit of the
completely automated interior door processing line. From every angle of
the plant we could see the glass cube positioned high above it all, where
one worker oversaw the production of 350 doors each day.
At first glance the line, stretching from one end of the plant and back
again in snakelike rhythm, seemed intuitively to be producing standard
door after door, but our host noted that each door has 1,200 permutations
and all are made to order.
“The raw materials are pretty standardized, but the finished varieties
are so many you can’t count,” our translator, Eberhardt, explained.
The company produces fire-rated and other specialty doors as well. The
more manual processes of exterior door production are spread out in several
buildings, and will be the subject of the company’s next update.
As our host, Aldo Rickenbach, would later explain, the momentum to undergo
this full-scale automation was that he decided something had to be done
to increase his output to better serve customers. The end result was improved
quality, improved price and improved lead time over competitors, from
four to six weeks to a total of 10 days.
The plant uses a proprietary ERP system developed by the owner’s brother
decades ago and then, over the course of about a year and a half, optimized
for the current system, installed eight years ago.
Certainly there were compromises when it came to installing the line;
everything was made to fit into an existing building. Order measurements
are still received manually and input into the system by the office team,
an area where the company is looking to upgrade. Still, the material flow
from slab to detailed door was impressive.
What made the Riwag plant seem more remarkable yet was that its efficiency
went beyond the production process but to the building itself. The entire
facility is a study in passive house design.
Our tour extended to the basement, where we saw, among other things, the
room dedicated to taking the woodchips and briquetting them, to be used
for fuel. This efficient recycling of waste saves the company roughly
$300,000 USD each year in oil costs for keeping the facility a consistent
71 degrees Fahrenheit.
Stop 3: Huber Fenster – Herisau, Switzerland
Martin Huber is the fourth generation to head up the 129-year-old Huber
Fenster in Herisau, Switzerland, and a fifth generation is prepping to
continue that tradition. The company has been working for the last several
decades to be a leader in the production of high-end residential windows,
and Huber proudly shared that many of their products are featured in celebrities’
All of the companies’ products are custom and benefit from manual assembly,
although the shop is no stranger to automation. Still, even the CNC machining
centers were selected, Huber explained, because they were the automated
options that provided the greatest flexibility and input from the operator,
necessary for the company’s highly custom production.
The company produces up to 50 windows daily, all standard products made
to order. Huber commented that the company aims to supply “fewer” products
to a “higher” quality to architects in Switzerland.
Huber repeated a concept our tour group heard several times over the course
of the trip, that their 65 employees included no salesforce. Perhaps it
was an error in translation or a difference in concept (or he filled that
role alone), because he later explained that the company advertised to
architects, inviting them to the branch office in Zurich to showcase their
products and then see how they can create something new to meet the architects’
design. The word-of-mouth concept for these local window manufacturers
must be a success as, according to Huber, the company turns away 50 percent
of inquiries as being over their capacity.
While Huber also noted that the look of his wood windows was equally as
important as performance, the performance showed all the energy-efficiency
demanded by the Swiss marketplace. The windows were all triple-glazed,
a trend that is becoming commonplace throughout many parts of Europe (see
Fensterbau at the end of this page). In addition, the facility featured
in the finishing stages a mock-up of a massive frame to be installed in
a passive house. Huber noted that while the company doesn’t hold passive
house certifications, it’s able to prove their products meet the low-energy
standards much in demand.
Given the high degree of customization and complexity of its products,
Huber Fenster greatly relies on its apprenticeship program for employees,
rather than hiring outside. Today the company has 12 apprentices learning
the craft over the course of four years.
Stop 4: Schindler Fassadenlösungen
– Roding, Germany
Façade fabricator Schindler Fassadenlösungen, in Roding, Germany,
was founded as a small construction shop in 1931; since then the third-generation
company has created a niche for itself in crafting a full range of façade
solutions in wood, metal, glass and stone.
When asked which material shows the highest demand, our host, Karl-Heinz
Schlecht, shrugged and explained that it’s possible one year to have 80
to 90 percent metal construction and then another 80 to 90 percent wood.
Either way, the company might do ten projects across Europe in a year,
leading to an average annual turnover of roughly $60 million USD.
Given that ever-fluctuating demand, it may not be surprising that the
shop is set up for similar flexibility. In touring the roughly 258,000-square-foot
production area, in which separate buildings house separate materials,
our group couldn’t help but notice that the wood shop seemed quiet on
that day. What we learned is that each employee is cross-trained to work
on the various machinery necessary to fabricate wood, metal or stone.
Of the 45 people normally in the wood shop, 20 had been moved to assist
in assembling a large aluminum window order.
It might seem out of the ordinary to have workers trained for such a large
number of jobs, rather than perfecting one. Schindler, like other German
manufacturers, has an onsite training program unlike those in the United
States. The company hosts a three-year apprenticeship program, and students
rotate through each department, as well as additional schooling. Schindler’s
program has been in place since its founding, and they aim to provide
a thorough education to be assured that their union workers have all of
the skills necessary to create a custom façade.
Flexibility is found in other areas as well. Typically the façade
shop operates one shift, but on big projects longer hours may be required.
Rather than accruing overtime, employees put flex time into an account,
so that on slow days they still draw pay.
Our tour of the facility took us through the wood shop, where the company
stocks just enough raw planks and joined boards—ranging from oak and Oregon
pine to fir and other local supplies—for the next one or two projects.
From there, in a climate-controlled space, wood is cut to length and planed,
and eventually the product makes its way to a CNC processing center that
provides cuts for hardware and some profiling. Larger pieces, our host
explained, are on an older tenoner that can process frames for up to 16-foot
Further into the wood shop, we saw an example of uncharacteristic finishing—that
is, manual—being done that day for a custom project. Typically the company
makes use of a fully automated surfacing plant with a drying unit. Frames
are fed into an automatic system that has been optimized for dust extraction;
a detection system on the exterior checks the outline of the frame and
inside the finish is sprayed against one wall and runoff is retrieved
In the sheet metal shop, we saw workers cutting metal to size, before
bending and arching and manually routing. In the aluminum facility, we
saw two 5-axis CNCs for specialty projects. In that area our host took
a moment to explain, “Glazing is done almost entirely in shop for quality
reasons.” With their unitized approach, the fabricator is able to control
dust and dirt and the installation of electronic components in the cases
of operable windows. The company also performs quality checks for certification
testing in-house, with some exceptions. The company has recently branched
out into the United Kingdom, and is required to perform testing for those
projects in the country.
Each pre-assembled piece is numbered for easy location and installation
by subcontractors onsite. The company’s latest expansion is space for
final assembly and a stock area for finished products, so that product
can be quickly moved onsite once the project is ready.
The tour concluded in the creative space of the employee offices. Out
of Schindler’s 300 employees, approximately 10 project leaders lead small
groups devoted to engineering the systems.
Stop 5: Jeld Wen – Oettingen, Germany
Bend, Ore.-based Jeld Wen acquired the door manufacturer Vest-Wood in
2006; this plant in Oettingen, Germany, is today the largest of the company’s
12 plants in Europe. It produces one million doors each year. A separate
plant produces frames, and in Germany there are two logistic centers where
the products are fully assembled and sold to distributors in Germany,
Switzerland and Austria.
Five hundred fifty employees here produce 20,000 door slabs daily for
a spectrum of doors. Our host walked us through the plant from the warehouse
where raw materials await, to finishing lines and beyond.
We watched the automatic core composing, a clockwork dance as machinery
repetitively fed slabs from the left and stiles and rails from the right,
clamped the components together, matched the core with top and bottom
skins and then fed the whole to a massive porcupine press. Two doors fit
in each of the press’ six slots, and were ready for the next step in finishing
following one five-minute rotation (a second press sat quietly nearby
awaiting specialty products).
In touring the roughly 322,000-square-foot production facility, one of
our group members commented that it almost seemed like visiting three
factories, given all the variations in finishing. Indeed, we saw several
automated finishing lines, for white painted doors, for colored doors,
for adding foils and processing veneers, in addition to areas for manually
painting specialty doors. Seeing the numerous options available—from range
of hardware to specialty products such as fire-rated doors—made it more
surprising when we learned of the company’s recent addition of a stock
The group’s collective jaws dropped as we entered the stocking room for
the company’s five-day delivery system, introduced in 2009. As we entered
the warehouse, a red neon sign noted that at that moment the room contained
38,370 stock door slabs. A metal staircase led to the room and the sight
was impressive indeed; but it was upon looking up and realizing the extent
to which the rows of doors towered overhead that the awed chuckling began.
Upon receiving an order, those already-formed doors are cut to size, the
bottoms edge-banded or finished as necessary and the slab run through
the automatic hinge processing line. Stocking is fully automated, and
managed by the company’s ERP system. Approximately 1,000 doors are restocked
each day, and the standard stock includes up to 25 percent of the facility’s
full production. As a result of the five-day delivery system, the company
saw an increase of 2 to 3 percent market share, our guide noted with pride.
Homag Hosts Behind the Scenes Look at Machinery Production
While anyone buying new machinery may be eager to see it in action in
a colleague’s plant, few may be fortunate enough to learn what goes into
producing that particular machine. The Stiles Machinery door and window
benchmark tour, led in conjunction with Homag Group, stopped one afternoon
at the Homag factory to provide such a look.
The facility stretches 645,000 square feet of production and office space
through Schopfloch, Germany. Here, the company produces machinery for
nearly every step of woodworking, all built to order, to a lead time of
two to three months. The facility we toured sees an annual turnover of
approximately 400 million EUR.
Upon passing through the offices, our tour began in the machining area.
With a pair of binoculars one might have been able to see the half mile
to the end of the facility, and that was just one sense in which visitors
obtained a sense of the scope of what is produced there. We were led past
heavily automated pre-processing centers, such as the robotic welding
center where the steel for the CNC machinery is shaped and the station
where each link is formed and then bonded to create the conveyor belts.
It became quickly apparent the degree of custom assembly required, for
each machine is produced made to order. The installers must be able to
meet the standard for each country to which the machines are shipped,
be it UL certification for the United States or other standards around
Nowhere was the customization more apparent than the final assembly area.
Every machine or full line is manually assembled and successfully run
to the customer’s specifications before delivery.
The factory floor itself seemed much a tribute to German efficiency, or
perhaps to a 5S Lean system of organization (although the Lean system
per se is not used in Germany); each tool and cleaning supply had its
clearly assigned place, each part it’s own bin, each worker a tidy assembly
Among the facility’s 1,500 employees are a significant number of apprentices.
At Homag, we learned that the students spend 1 ½ days a week at
school, and the rest in the shop, for about three years. Approximately
90 percent of the students remain with Homag following the training period.
Editor’s note: Stiles Machinery hosts two to three tours each year in
Europe and now China. Learn more by visiting http://www.stilesmachinery.com/events.
Fensterbau Offers "Triple" the Excitement
The Fensterbau Frontale 2012 trade show for windows, doors and facades,
held March 21-24 in Nuremberg, Germany, featured 800 exhibitors and 100,000
The stringent energy codes have led triple glazing to be seen as nearly
standard offering in Germany, it seems. Approximately 50 percent of the
new windows sold here use triple glazing, although, “It’s very diverse
from country to country,” noted Andy Jones of Quanex.
Peter Appel, international marketing and sales manager for Swisspacer,
agreed, “In Europe it’s clear: everyone is going to triple.”
Bystronic product manager Klaus Puschmann placed the German use of triple
glazing at about 50 percent. For the company, that means, “Our customers
are looking for a solution that can produce triple glazing in the same
time as double glazing and the speed’sealer is that [option].”
Technoform focused its message of sustainability in a new direction. Company
representatives talked about its bio-based polyamide strips last fall
at Greenbuild, and at Fensterbau the company had its green (literally
and figuratively speaking) thermal profile on display. Thomas Henkes,
product manager, expects the research on the new castor oil based insulting
profile to be concluded and the product released by early next year. In
addition, a display sample window showed how the company’s products, including
the new product and existing TGI warm-edge spacer, can work together for
improved efficiency in aluminum window systems.
Accoya was present at the show to demonstrate the applications for which
its “modified” wood product (the product puts soft woods through non-toxic
proprietary process to improve durability) can be used. With its German
distributor in the booth, the company showcased, among other things, a
door with a modified wood core that had been through its process, and
also featured an MDF facing likewise stabilized. According to Victor Vos,
general sales manager for Europe, the products’ “dimensional stability”
means that once a color is applied the wood won’t shift and lose colorfastness
down the road.
Renolit focused on the frame color itself. On display in its booth was
the new range of finishing options. As David Harris, exterior segment
product manager, explained, the polyvinlidene fluroide (PVDF) cover of
the foil is part of the Teflon family, so it’s very simple to clean—most
daily dirt should rinse away with a good rain—and cleaning chemicals don’t
damage the finish.
Prodim took a new look at frames, with its Proliner 8. According to Marc
Pustjens, solutions manager, “The first question that we get from the
market is not just about measuring the opening, but also storing [the
measurements].” In response, the portable Proliner 8 was designed to provide
accurate measurements in 10 to 15 minutes. Those measurements are stored
for later use or can be automatically transmitted to the CNC. “The whole
world is gaining digital,” commented Berry Cuijpers,
Prodim sales manager, in explaining the new approach to measuring.
Several halls in the show were devoted to machinery for door and window
processing. The German company Schirmer showed off several profile processing
centers including those able to process a mix of materials. One of the
new centers on display would cut profiles of any material type to length
before machining for profiles and hardware. The universal clamping system
was one key component of the new system, designed to handle nearly any
frame material type, added David McFarland, representing Schirmer for
Stiles Machinery Inc. in the United States.
Steve Waltman, vice president of marketing and communications for Stiles,
noted that two years used to be enough for product development, and this
industry would aim its innovation for LIGNA, the biannual European woodworking
event. “But now that’s not enough, and this show has taken on a new importance,”
he commented. Demand for improved products continues to reduce the product
development time and lead to more innovation.
Megan Headley is special projects editor for DWM Magazine.
© Copyright 2012 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.