Volume 9, Issue 3 - March 2008

Your Way, Right Away
When it comes to Custom Fenestration Equipment, 
Communication is Key

by Ellen Rogers

Frank Sinatra might not have been singing about customizing fenestration equipment when he belted out “I did it my way …” but for many window companies, their way is the way much of their machinery is made—for their own unique needs. As manufacturers watch the bottom line, especially, in these uncertain economic times, it is increasingly important to make sure plants are running as efficiently as possible. 

Dan Green, director of engineering for Alside, a window manufacturer located in Akron, Ohio, says the majority of the equipment he purchases is always at least somewhat customized. “It’s not that often we buy a truly custom piece of equipment that no one else would use, but it’s often that we do some customization,” Green says. “Window companies all want to make something a little different.”

Keith Koenig, director of manufacturing and engineering at Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork, a window manufacturer based in Wausau, Wis., also says the majority of the equipment his company purchases is altered. “The equipment is very task-oriented and very specific and there’s just not a lot of that available out there,” says Koenig.

Modifications are not only made to new equipment only. “The cost to introduce a new line of windows is large, so to minimize costs and keep older, still-productive equipment useful we opt for retro-fitting rather than buying new,” says Scott Channell, president of National Vinyl Products in Chicopee, Mass. “Costs can vary from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars depending on what is to be done. Regardless, it is always much less expensive than buying new.”

Machinery suppliers also say most of what they sell is customized to some extent, and both manufacturers and suppliers agree this is because no one final product is ever identical to another.

“Customers have a unique product design that necessitates custom modifications to produce the window,” says Dave Pirwitz, vice president and chief operating officer for Urban Machinery in Port Townsend, Wash.

Mike Biffl, national sales manager with Sturtz Machinery in Solon, Ohio, agrees. “The specifications for all window systems are different. Based on the window, you have to modify the machinery to process a specific profile,” says Biffl.

Buying customized equipment may be a common occurrence, but it still takes a lot of communication to make sure customers’ needs are met. 

Why Customize Anyway?
For window companies, accommodating their unique manufacturing process is only one reason for customizing equipment. Other considerations often come into play, too, such as ergonomics, programming and layout/orientation.

“The safety of our employees is our number-one concern so we always want to make sure [that the equipment] is safe,” he says. For example, some of his safety concerns involve the overall height of the work surface, noise of the equipment, adequate sawdust collection and tripping hazards from cords and control panels. Creating a safe working environment ties directly into the main non-product-related reason for customizing equipment: lean manufacturing. 

“When manufacturers are in a capital crunch (as with the past two years) they often want to extend the life of the equipment they already have,” says Matt Sell, corporate account sales manager for Carlson Engineering Systems. Sell explains that, rather than purchasing new lines, window companies modify what they have to make it more productive. Tim McGlinchy, vice president of engineering and research and development with GED USA in Twinsburg, Ohio, agrees.

“Customers may want to increase quality levels, so they look for ways to become more automated,” McGlinchy says. “They want more volume at a lower cost with increased quality.” According to Ed Kelly, vice president of operations at Joseph Machine Co. in Dillsburg, Pa., companies are customizing more and more to reduce costs, improve quality and increase production. “We may incorporate a proximity sensor to detect a mis-oriented reinforcement bar, or we can add a sensor to determine that the profile set up in the machine is consistent with the process that was selected by the operator. 

This level of customization can help prevent what otherwise might be a downtime problem, or in some cases, a quality issue with the finished window,” says Kelly. Lean manufacturing has played a major role for Alside when it comes to equipment customization. “If we can add a certain tool to process a certain part and can eliminate a manual operation later and we can also control the quality, then our lean initiatives can be met. The driving forces are better accuracy, better quality and reduced labor,” Green says.

“Continuous improvement is a big part of our culture,” adds Koenig. “We look more toward small pieces of equipment that are task-oriented instead of large, monument-type machines that are all-inclusive [so we can improve] cycle times, flow times, etc.” 

Getting Started
The process each company follows when designing and ordering custom equipment can vary depending on the complexity of the customization.

“If it’s a standard piece of equipment [that will be modified], we specify the equipment and then the final step is to provide our vendor with our drawings,” says Green. “We specify the process and then our vendor will determine the best way to meet our specifications with its equipment.”

It’s a similar process for Kolbe & Kolbe.

“Whether it’s a specific product or a machining step that needs to be done, [we start with that] specification and work with multiple vendors,” says Koenig. “Once we select a vendor we go through a drawings approval process.”

Channell says when all parties work together early it is beneficial to the entire process.

“In our last introduction I brought all parties together to meet and review the project as a whole,” says Channell. “We all went over all steps and timelines and agreed on what needed to be done ahead of time. This was beneficial since all were able to see our production layout and equipment, which provided a clear understanding for everyone. It also allowed for input on items we may have overlooked.”

As a supplier, Bill Weaver, vice president of sales and marketing with GED, says it’s good to be able to meet with customers early on to discuss their needs.

“We’re a hands-on, customer-focused company. We go on to the [production] floor with the manufacturers to see that their needs are met. We gather their information and then work with engineering. It’s consultative—sales, engineering [and] operations all come into play to understand [our customers’ needs].”

It’s a similar scenario at Carlson.

“We cover the United States and Canada through our sales force and all of our sales team members have either a manufacturing or engineering background so they can go out and have a one-on-one conversation with customers [about their specific needs] to try and help solve their problems,” says Sell. “We then pull from our engineering side to further discuss.”

Communication is Key
Machinery suppliers and window manufacturers also agree that communication is paramount to the success of the job. “We set out to try and get all of the information from the customer about the job upfront,” says Pirwitz. 

“We pre-engineer the job before we quote it.”

Another reason understanding is so important is because every modification that is made to the equipment could alter the way the machine operates. 

“We put together a detailed order specification that states everything we’ll do; it shows the tooling and what it does,” says Biffl. “We try and get engineering drawings [from the customer] that show the window, profile and fabrication requirements. We’ll do an engineering review and then we’ll review it from the standpoint of how it can be done and then also [how the] cycle time of the machine [will be affected].” 

Likewise, Kelly says customization by its very nature yields itself to requiring more communication and understanding than would a standard product or service. 

“The more specific an application, the more customization and communication are required,” says Kelly. “As the machine designers, it is critical that we completely understand our customers’ needs in order to be able to create a machine that will meet their needs.” 

But the level of communication required also depends on the manufacturer-supplier relationship. 

“If it’s a new supplier and/or a custom piece of equipment then we have benchmark points at which time we come in and verify the steps that are done and whether we agree the equipment works the way we want it to,” Green says. 

Overcoming Obstacles
Maintaining clear communication on these projects sometimes can be a challenge. Advancements in technology, however, have improved communication flow.

“It used to be you had drawings on napkins and now we have animated 3-D drawing capabilities and rapid prototype equipment that actually will produce the parts out of plastic and allow us to check form, fit and function,” says Green. “When I started in this business 25 years ago there were a lot of headaches and a lot of issues, now it’s pretty straightforward. Our biggest issue used to be lead times. 

The lead-time would be quoted at 12 weeks and it would take 20. Now, most machine manufacturers are on time. We expect really tight lead times on standard products with a few modifications, but we understand that if we’re doing something totally custom, there can be a few surprises.”

Channell also says over-commitment on timelines by suppliers sometimes can be a challenge. He says you also have to weigh the timeline of first production verses when to begin (product) introduction to customers. 

“Introduce too early and you run the risk of upsetting your customer base because he can’t have what you promised. Introduce too late and your competition may beat you to the punch,” says Channell. According to Koenig just bringing new equipment into the plant poses its own set of challenges.

“Any time you introduce a new piece of equipment to the [production] line, it’s the introduction and the training cycle, the de-bug cycle and getting everybody comfortable with it running that can be a challenge,” says Koenig. “Because, in most cases, the equipment is [replacing a person]. So just getting through that learning curve [can be a challenge].”

Suppliers also are faced with challenges.

For McGlinchy, one of his biggest concerns is keeping multiple custom jobs on schedule.

“Customers often want to change the original equipment delivery timeframe, functionality, scope of automation, etc. Being that this is custom machinery, it’s hard to do that and not affect the other jobs that are currently in the works, too,” McGlinchy says. According to Biffl, his biggest challenges go back to just making sure there’s clear communication early in the process.

“During the sales stage, we have to make sure we have a full understanding of what the customer wants to accomplish and what’s going to make sense to help them meet their production requirements,” says Biffl. “It can be the smallest things. For example, one company may want to clean the window a certain way so the corner is different from his competitors. There’s a lot of give and take on the front end.”

In the Details
Machinery companies all say they take the time to test out the equipment before shipping to the customer and continually follow up to make sure everything is running smoothly. This assurance starts with a run-off that’s typically done in the supplier’s facility. 

“We get sample material from the customer, process it and have them come to our facility to see the equipment run to make sure it will meet their expectations and they understand how it works,” says Biffl. Once the line is sent to the customer and installed, training is next. Machinery companies put a great deal of effort into this stage.

“As the level of machinery customization increases so does the need for operator and maintenance personnel training. Over the last several years we have found tremendous benefits by increasing the amount of training that we include with our equipment,” says Kelly. “There’s a lot more responsibility on the maintenance person, so we do a lot more training before, during and after the installation.”

Pirwitz agrees and says maintenance training is important because the systems can be very complex. “Maintenance personnel need to have a basic aptitude of the different systems so that they can identify any problems that occur,” Pirwitz says. “If we have people properly trained we can solve 90 percent of the problems over the phone; if they’re not properly trained someone has to get on a plane and go there to fix it.”

According to Channell, training is a never-ending process. “We learn new techniques and processes every month with the help of our employees and suppliers alike,” he says.

The process of ordering custom equipment doesn’t end once the line’s installed and the workers are trained. 

“Suppliers provide phone, e-mail and fax services and some have the capabilities to dial into the unit and look at it running via their computer so they don’t always have to send a tech here,” says Koenig. 

In the end, fenestration companies have machinery made just for them; no one can produce a window quite the same way as another. But the biggest benefit sometimes goes back to the company’s internal operations. Custom machinery can allow a window manufacturer to produce efficiently and effectively with a smaller margin of error, saving both time and money. 

Ellen Rogers is a contributing editor for DWM magazine.


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