Volume 7, Issue 8 - September 2006

The Two Ps 
For Patio Door Manufacturers, Product Positioning is Crucial 
by Rudy Kessler

Door and window manufacturers and, consequentially, their suppliers such as hardware manufacturers, are continuing to feel the considerable slow down in the housing market. In addition, prices for commodity materials, such as zinc, copper, aluminum, steel, stainless steel and energy have increased tremendously over the last 12 months due to global demand, especially from the Far East. It is an unusual and challenging situation that costs increase and at the same time the demand decreases.

Although these factors are beyond our control this is the environment in which patio door and hardware manufacturers must operate. What is the best way to deal with this unique situation? In the short run, decreasing production capacity might offer short-term relief, but it is painful and does not necessarily lead to the desired results in the long term. A better option is to gain market share. The question is how.

Creating a Clear Position
The answer: clear product positioning and differentiation. It has been shown in the past that manufacturers who position their products between the low- and high-end within their category feel tremendous pressure from both sides. When demand shrinks this is the toughest position in which to be, because this large middle ground category shrinks at the fastest pace. Typically product prices in this category are not low enough to compete with the low-end market and the features of these products are not significant enough to compete with products from the upper- to high-end market.

If a company chooses to service the lower-end market with its patio doors, it is critical to have superior efficiency. An effective method to increase efficiency is to avoid using inferior quality products in patio doors, including hardware components, because service calls erode any perceived cost advantages quickly. Even limited lifetime warranties do not protect from expensive service calls, because they typically cover only the component. Also, efficiency cannot be obtained with suppliers that have long, inconsistent lead-times and do not have the necessary flexibility to react quickly to shifting demands. 

Companies in this category that understand their markets are successful because they cut away everything that does not have significant value for their customers. Therefore, it is crucial to be careful in selecting what components to install in products. For example, in recent years it seemed that stainless steel hardware components were used almost everywhere. While stainless steel is approximately three times as expensive as mild steel, some manufacturers that produce doors for the middle- or low-end category, used stainless steel locking hardware on all their doors—even when it was clear that the patio door was installed outside a coastal environment where corrosion resistance was not a predominant issue and a mild steel product would have performed well for many years. This is especially tricky if the typical up-charge for stainless steel is waived, because this could be due to the use of weaker materials, such as plastic components or other insufficient materials, which might compromise the durability of the product. If a hardware component fails, the door fails and the first responsibility for this failure is the patio door manufacturer.

On the other hand, stainless steel locking hardware might be just a prerequisite for companies that choose to service the upper-end to high-end market–regardless of the location in which the door will be installed. However, the door needs additional features that consumers value in order for the manufacturer to distinguish its product from the mid-range. These features need to address appearance, performance and functionality. In addition to components such as glass, door stile materials, cladding materials or screens, just to name a few, the correct hardware selection can be a critical piece for all these areas, especially for patio doors.

Considering Hardware Selection
Functionality, appearance and durability are all important in patio door hardware selection. Since patio doors experience high usage, functionality is very important. Consumers do not want to execute a multiple number of steps in order to open or close a door, especially if they are difficult to memorize. It is also important that the opening or closing of a patio door not require a lot of manual force. Locks with only shootbolts are typically difficult to operate. If a door is not 100-percent straight and is only warped minimally, it is difficult to engage the upper shootbolt. Safety and security are also critical features, especially for the upper- to high-end market. Conventional roller cams or tongues provide only a compression seal. However, locking points that provide a positive interlocking, such as hooks that engage behind the strike plate, can address these safety and security issues far better than locking points that compress the door in only one direction against the weatherstripping. This is the reason why positive interlocking hookbolts (not to be confused with tongues), in the last decade, became the world’s most preferred locking mechanism for multi-point locks.

Adjustability is a must, in order to ensure the functionality of all the categories of patio doors. Different levels of humidity make wood doors swell or shrink and the installation is not always perfect. These factors are hard to control for a patio door manufacturer. Adjustable hardware, such as hinges and strike plates, are helpful in making it possible to fix a situation relatively easily without incurring a tremendous amount of cost.

The appearance of a patio door is another important factor to consider and the hardware plays a key role. Tastes are different. Some prefer the more traditional look and others a more contemporary one. 

For lower-end products it might be acceptable if the finishes of different hardware components do not match perfectly. However, this is not the case for upper- and high-end products, because these customers expect and demand a variety of options.

The durability of the trim finish is very important as well. A handle will be exposed to a large amount of wear and tear. Rings might scratch a handle and damage the surface. As a result, the surface may react to its environment and tarnish or discolor. During the last two decades, hardware manufacturers developed many different methods to protect finish hardware from environmental influences, such as salty air or ultraviolet-light. The most successful method worldwide to protect finish hardware is a physical vapor deposition (PVD) process. This enables the creating of metallic vapors in a vacuum, which allows the creation of metallic compounds through the introduction of reactive gases in the vacuum chamber. However, not every PVD finish is equal. The methods of electroplating, cleaning and degreasing are critical as well. If these processes are not controlled properly, the PVD coating does not deliver the desired results. In the past, only gold colored finishes could be applied with this method, but now other finishes, such as brushed silver finishes (similar to nickel) and dark bronze finishes (similar to oil rubbed) can be applied this way as well. 

These are just a few examples to outline how patio door hardware can support efforts to position a finished patio door successfully. In a market that is becoming more competitive, now is the time to rethink the products and find the competitive edge for a successful future.

Rudy Kessler is president of Winkhaus North America based in Whitewater, Wis. 

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