Volume 7, Issue 7 - July/August 2006

Custom Challenge
Manufacturers of Custom Doors Excel in a Competitive Market
by Alan Goldberg

So how do you manage to make custom products in a highly competitive market where standard doors and windows lend themselves to higher efficiency? This is a question I posed to manufacturers, large and small, throughout North America. Most said their entire operation is custom. That’s their niche. To clarify the challenges they face, many compared their operation to producing standard doors and windows. 

Custom vs. Standard

According to Terry Rex, director of marketing for BF Rich, one difference between custom and standard has to do with the segment of the market being served. For the most part, new construction is characterized by standardization—standard sizes, standard materials.

“It is easier to minimize, if not eliminate, waste because of the standard practices in place,” says Rex. He points out that specifications are based on energy and performance codes which become guidelines to follow.

“It’s all pretty standard,” says Pat Thompson, vice president of operations for Graef Windows, who compares his products to those made for new construction.

Don Jones, vice president and general manager of Champion Windows, agrees.

“When your customers are buying replacement windows, there is no such thing as standard,” he says. “The variables that are characteristic of a custom window eliminate the possibility of things like pre-optimizing.” 

He says there is no inventory of finished product.

“We don’t manufacture until we receive an order,” he adds.

Bob Pecorella, president of Northern Building Products, points out some significant differences.

“You can’t effectively serve both masters [custom and standard],” he says, although he explains that what the industry calls custom is really semi-custom. He asks, “What is the cost to interrupt a standard operation with a customized product, or the true cost of a machine that adds efficiency to an operation but eliminates flexibility in the process? There is a ‘give-and-take.’ How much does automation impact production?” he asks.

According to Jody Garrett, vice president of manufacturing for Simonton Windows, when an operation (or operational model) relies on automation, custom work or changes can be expensive. She says automation is associated with repetition and producing a common item, with little allowance for flexibility so that change becomes costly.

Comparing custom to volume production of standard units, Joe Shoots, general plant manager for Vinyl Design Corp., says while the latter lends itself to higher efficiency, volume is characterized by high-tech automation which requires “significant continual volume.” Any fall-off can create cost constraints because of the high capital investment.

With standard products, there is the luxury of predetermined stocking levels to fill in labor capacity needs to keep a production flow, says Mike Rempel, president of Gorell Enterprises.

Making It Work

So what must custom manufacturers do to control costs and improve efficiency?

Rex says maximizing every piece of raw material in the plant is one of many challenges.

“From our standpoint, this is best accomplished through optimization. We bring sheet glass in and optimize our glass cutting and minimize our waste. Ultimately, you get the best yield. We’ve had to do that with our vinyl as well. By optimizing our lineals, every piece we cut is used to the max.”

He says the technology of optimization is what has made the difference, especially when most of the operation is custom. 
Optimization also makes the difference for Champion Windows. 

“We control our costs and achieve efficiency through optimization,” says Jones. 

“All vinyl is optimized. Scheduling is optimized through automation and integrated software.”

He points out that these programs must be robust to deliver the most efficient use of its equipment. The company is changing product information constantly to send to the glass line and saws in order to minimize waste. 

According to Tony Grossi, director of sales and marketing for Windoor Inc., sophisticated computer programs make it possible to run an efficient, custom operation. 

“Technology allows us to juggle so we operate with minimum waste,” he says.

Rempel says it takes a very sophisticated synchronized system and a quality-oriented, conscientious workforce to consistently produce products, accurately, timely and efficiently.

“With custom, it is critical that all systems–insulating glass, grids, frame production, sash assembly and glazing—are perfectly synchronized so that components reach their destination in the right order, at the proper time to maintain consistent delivery.” 

Jones refers to it as proper scheduling and staging which he says is vital for maintaining efficiency.

Scott Keddie, vice president of operations at Loewen Windows, describes some of its challenges as meeting “requirements for a robust planning and configuration management system, solid data integrity and superior workforce skills.”

Bob Taylor, plant manager for Sierra Pacific Windows, who says manufacturing is one of the shorter periods in the process, points out that it is the prep time—getting components prepared and in proper sequence and organizing steps—that improves efficiency.

To Shoots, planning is paramount. He says on a day-to-day basis, strategic planning is required for “continual flow manufacturing environments.”

Part of this planning, he explains, includes additional training of employees to recognize change in size, style or options of “made-to-order” products. While this process does not increase efficiency through volume, it has a positive impact on improving margins.

For Simonton, costs are controlled through lean manufacturing and continuous improvement programs. The goal of each, according to Garrett, is to eliminate waste “which we identify as unnecessary movement, waiting, work in process, overproduction, excess inventory or defective production.”

She says that the cost of making custom products hinges on the operational model that is being used. Where it relies on automation, custom work or changes can be very expensive. 

“Our model, which is based on individual windows, offers flexibility and accommodates change. We will use automation where it makes sense and where it can eliminate waste,” she says.

Jeffrey De Lonay, vice president of manufacturing for Kolbe and Kolbe Millwork, points out that automation has to be limited because of the custom nature of options offered such as sizes, exterior casings and combinations of things. 

“In our continuous improvement activities, we develop, modify and arrange operations, procedures and equipment to maximize the production of our employees and machine time.”

At Lincoln Wood Products, where special shapes are very labor intensive and must be built entirely by hand, the challenge is to find ways to reduce costs and lead times, says Dennis Krueger, assistant general manager.

“We’re always looking at options, particularly to automate procedures for assembly so we can trim production costs, increase production and reduce our lead times,” he says. 

Rex points out that labor savings is achieved through innovative techniques. One in particular involves welders. 

“By double stacking four-point welders, we have the benefit of doing eight welds in an operation which once did two. This change in methodology has significantly reduced our man-hours per unit,” says Rex. 

Another company that stresses innovation in its operation is Eagle Window and Door.

“For us, innovation is the key to operating profitably,” says Charlie Daoud, executive vice president. “We want our operations to function in the most efficient manner. We’ve used some innovative techniques and equipment that may not be used by others but help us meet that goal. Often, we look outside of our industry to other well-run companies that have successfully employed unusual and creative ways of manufacturing efficiently.”

Jones advises, “Let production flow uninterrupted. Don’t change colors in mid-stream or do anything that will stop production.”

There are exceptions, he points out. An emergency or an urgent customer need is something else and when that happens, he says, efficiency and optimization go out the window.

Offering custom doors of the highest quality is what Gary Atkinson, plant manager for TLC Doors and Trim says is his challenge and what will help meet it, he says, is advanced technology in equipment.

He explains that the company operates two lines—one standard and one custom—and the latter is not only more time consuming but requires a higher skill level of operators and assemblers.

According to De Lonay, the time required on most construction projects is a challenge.

“While delivery is critical to the success of all projects, the custom producer must be especially aware of the development of internal manufacturing processes to meet the needs and expectations of the customer or market.”

Although characteristic of a custom manufacturing operation, adjusting to change is not easy, according to Rob Miller, president of Atlantic Windows.

“The challenges are to build a culture that can adapt to change very quickly, that is open to new ideas and products and that looks at variety,” he says. 

The Future for Custom Manufacturers

The demand for custom doors and windows remains on the rise, according to the participants, and no one sees a change in that trend.

“Every opening in a house presents an opportunity for a custom design,” adds Rex. “What it all comes down to is that customization will continue to increase as consumers want more options.”

Thompson explains that given the nature of the market, his company’s business will always be custom. 

“We work with home improvement dealers and because of personal preference and, in many cases, the need to have a different look, custom has become the norm.”

He says anyone who is selling to the home improvement market is selling a custom product. Even companies that specialized in stock new construction sizes are moving toward the needed products in a more custom, just-in-time format. This affects the supply chain, making it leaner, offering more products and at lower costs.

Atkinson says he sees custom doors becoming more and more common.

“We began making adjustments for the increase in custom order production earlier this year,” he says. 

Referring to his own research, Shoots says homeowners want made-to-order products that offer the best values in energy efficiency, multiple styles and options.

“I believe the door and window industry will continue to migrate more and more toward customization,” adds Shoots. He says a sustained strong building industry opens the door for replacement in the future. As interest rates rise, homeowners will opt to renovate rather than buy new homes. 

“We see the trend for custom on the rise, from high-end to tract housing,” adds Krueger. Consumer demand for more personal accents is increasing.”

To De Lonay, the issue is individualism.

“As one portion of the market continues for individualism, custom products will grow.”

He says the remodeling and historic replacement side of the market will play a large role in the continuing trends. 
Miller sees continued growth.

“Our percent of the custom market has grown steadily over the past five years, particularly with doors. Customization with doors means a wider range of door glass, door materials (fiberglass, steel, PVC) exterior trims, colors and combination units with transoms, sidelights, round tops and others.”

A door is no longer a standard offering, he says. 

Then again, consider what custom manufacturers are offering the consumer.

“Our ability to produce custom windows means remodelers, builders and homeowners can get exactly what they need. They can specify unique window sizes without incurring charges,” adds Garrett.

As they offer customers and end-users the benefit of options, custom manufacturers are facing their challenges by exercising their own options that enable them to operate efficiently and compete effectively.

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No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.