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Supplement, November 2000

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Labor Panes

by joe almasy

To the general public, a low unemployment rate is the sign of a good economy. Since October 1999, the U.S. unemployment rate has hovered between 3.9 and 4 percent, the lowest it has been in decades. Welcome to the 21st century—a time of unequalled opportunity and prosperity.
But there’s a flip side to this familiar story that window fabricators across the country know all too well. In fact, the lower the unemployment rate falls, the louder their cry for help can be heard.

Labor Shortages
Labor is an operational factor that’s becoming much more dynamic—and troublesome—for insulating glass (IG) manufacturers. Finding and retaining enough reliable, unskilled labor can be an all-consuming task that leads many companies to face a sobering reality: the better the economy gets, the more employees want to be paid. It’s a cycle that eventually erodes a manufacturer’s ability to remain competitive. 

Because manufacturers cannot afford to wait for the labor cycle to turn around, most have begun to hunt for a solution. A growing number are finding it in automation. In fact, the labor issue has been one of the driving factors for the rapid increase in automation throughout the window industry. Obviously, automation will not eliminate a manufacturer’s need for labor, but it should reduce and refine it. 

If implemented correctly and supported by an appropriate level of labor and supervision, automation will also help increase productivity and improve overall IG unit quality.

To Automate or Not to Automate—A Tough Question
One way to begin assessing the costs and benefits of automation is to analyze how it will change your labor needs. Differing automating spacer systems (Auto Bent, U-Channel, Silicone, Butyl/TAPE, etc.) require different numbers of direct line personnel. This means some of your unskilled labor will need to be replaced or trained for skilled positions. To aid in this process, develop a plan as to how you will fill and retain these positions. Take the time to 
develop job descriptions that explain in detail what each employee must do for the automated system to produce the desired throughput.

To accurately assess your labor needs, you must also determine what parts of the process should be automated. To produce a high quality finished unit, an IG system—whether it’s manual or automated—must provide:

• Clean, dry glass;
• Consistent sealant application that is square to the glass;
• Muntin assemblies that are square to the glass edge;
• The correct matching of top and bottom lites of glass. 

There are a number of automated systems available on the market today for each of these steps, each with their own requirements, limitations and varying amounts of required human intervention. The extent to which you automate your facility depends on several factors including the 
capacity to invest, available personnel, product mix and unit configuration. 

Greasing the Wheels of Productivity
Achieving and maintaining optimum productivity with an automated system starts by taking a hard look at your business mix and asking, “How does my mix of IG units lend itself to automation?” 
For many manufacturers, this is a tough question because they need more flexibility than a single automated system can provide. Moreover, while multiple systems aid in the handling of special shapes, remakes, odd-sized units and small rush orders, they also increase a facility’s complexity on nearly every level, from manufacturing to scheduling, purchasing, human resources and more. 

The key to making sense of these decisions and keeping focused on productivity is good counsel. Form an internal team of employees from every department to engineer solutions to trouble spots in the process continually. Such an investment of labor is well worth the expense. Furthermore, don’t overlook resources located outside the company. For example, a sealant system vendor should bring more than just the spacer system to the table. Vendors who are true partners will also help you with facility layout, production flow diagrams and equipment quotations that cover all the insulating glass that must be produced. Use today’s robust economy to your advantage—demand superior customer service. If you don’t get it, move on until you do.

Automating Quality Through People
Perhaps one of the strongest benefits of automation is improved IG unit quality and consistency. An automated system should help greatly reduce the incident of human errors, yielding a better product at a lower cost. Maintaining quality starts by knowing what to expect in terms of quality. Develop a firm understanding of each system’s optimum performance level and what level of human interaction and skill is necessary to produce a quality IG unit.

Ironically, a large part of maintaining quality in an automated environment still relies on human labor, but it is in the form of preventative maintenance. An automated system will demand increased upkeep efforts as compared to a manual system. The schedules, equipment and labor associated with such preventative measures need to be included in the overall cost of the system.

Automation offers IG manufacturers a solution to today’s tough labor issues. However, capturing the fullest benefits of an automated system in terms of increased productivity and improved quality requires more attention to labor planning, not less. The potential benefit of such planning is well worth the time and effort.

  Joe Almasy is a technical services representative for TruSeal Technologies, based in Beachwood, Ohio.


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