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July-August 2002


                            Two for One
                            Improving Productivity While Enhancing Quality
                                                by jim Plavecsky

LISEC Lisec's automated insulating glass assembly line drew large crowds at the recent glass show in Houston.

More and more window manufacturers are considering automated systems for insulating glass (IG) fabrication. There are several reasons for this trend. First of all, many window manufacturers have to deal with turnover. In order to remain competitive in the window industry, wage rates in many window factories are not much greater, and in many cases less, than other companies in the area. I often hear production managers complain, “It is hard to keep good people when they can quit, go down the street and make the same wage rate working at McDonald’s.” 

“Sure, with the recent economic downturn, unemployment rates are higher and labor is more readily available, but we cannot count on this situation remaining that way in the long term,” said one midwest window manufacturer. “When the economy picks up, so will our business, and then we will lose people when we need them the most. Then we will have to hire new people and train them all over again!”

Indeed, the consistency factor is one of the main reasons many modern window manufacturers are considering automation. Once the machinery is set up, there is typically a break-in period where the machine is adjusted and debugged. But with the proper preventative maintenance program in effect, automated machinery can give the modern window manufacturer key advantages in the form of improved productivity in addition to more consistent and uniform fabrication. This translates to lower cost production combined with improved quality assurance!

Even manufacturers utilizing semi-automated production techniques where nine or more people are involved may achieve seemingly high output rates, but find themselves running a significant number of remakes at the end of the day. This means that normal production of the insulating glass (IG) production line is shut down for the last hour to 90 minutes of the day so all of the IG units that were made incorrectly are made all over again. The added cost of these remakes includes not only the cost of the new materials and labor to make the units a second time but also the lost production time involved when the line is utilized for this process instead of being used to run the regular production. The more people that are involved in the IG fabrication process and the more steps involved in the overall process, the harder it is to avoid these remakes because of the old adage that, “if something can go wrong, it will.”

Automated systems take the workmanship factor out of the equation, reducing the number of workmanship-related fabrication steps to a minimum with the overall result being improved consistency the number of remakes cut to an absolute minimum!

The four key areas where workmanship is absolutely critical are glass handling, spacer application, Argon filling and sealant gunning.

With the increasing concern for energy conservation, today’s soft-coat low-E coatings are becoming more popular than ever before, but soft-coat low-E coatings must be washed, handled and transported with special care so the protective barrier coating is not scratched or scuffed off. This ultimately can cause discoloration in the field and lead to recalls. Automated glass handling, cutting and washing keeps human hands off the glass which reduces the likelihood of such problems. 

Automated spacer application has many advantages—including precise placement of the spacer with a continuous framing system, which means no corners. With manual production methods, corners frequently have been a problem because of the workmanship issues related to cutting spacer and proper insertion of the keys themselves. Improper cuts on the spacer can result in rough edges or burrs. Also, corner keys that are not crimped properly can work themselves loose eventually. In both cases, a void can develop allowing excessive moisture vapor to penetrate the unit.

Automated Argon filling can be a great advantage as window manufacturers are scrambling to meet energy codes or trying to compete in a market where increased thermal efficiency is in demand. Argon itself is relatively inexpensive, but most manufacturers will agree that the labor involved in filling the unit is a bigger issue. Gas filling units “in-line” manually often slows the overall production rate to the point that the units to be gas-filled are taken off-line and filled in an adjacent gas-filling department and then re-sealed with a separate manual operation. Indeed, the ability to automatically fill units in-line with a high-speed process can increase overall productivity greatly while at the same time assuring consistent and accurate fill rates.

Finally, automated sealant gunning can do wonders in terms of reducing re-makes and improving unit durability. Sealant application is such a key area when it comes to long-term unit durability because even small fissures or voids in the sealant can cause moisture vapor transmission rates to be many times higher than expected for a given sealant type—a flawed unit may last a few years, but ultimately will fail prematurely potentially resulting in a warranty claim.

In order to gain market share in this increasingly competitive market, today’s top window manufacturers are looking at taking IG manufacturing technology to the next level in terms of improving productivity while enhancing quality and durability. In this regard, automated IG production is becoming viewed as a worthy investment, and one which may provide the window manufacturer a significant advantage in the marketplace. As one West Coast manufacturer commented, “the insulating glass unit is the heart and soul of the window system—we need to make it right and make it last!” 

Jim Plavecsky serves as vice president of marketing and sales for Edgetech IG, based in Cambridge, Ohio.


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