Volume 9, Issue 5 - May 2008

Ready for its Close-Up

DWM Provides a Detailed Look into the World of Fiberglass Manufacturing 

By Alan B. Goldberg

The large banner that hangs in Milgard’s young facility in Tacoma, Wash., says it all—Focus on Fiberglass. Obviously fiberglass wasn’t always the focus of this company. But with a vision toward the future, Milgard began devoting resources to fiberglass production almost 20 years ago. 

When founder Gary Milgard started Milgard Glass Co. 50 years ago in a 3,750-square-foot building in Tacoma, his dream was not to be the biggest aluminum window fabricating company, only the best, says Phil Sironko, product development manager. What Gary Milgard may not have envisioned when he started the company were the paths his company would follow and the growth that would take place. Ten years after its founding in 1968, the company produced its first sliding glass doors. Two years later, it redesigned aluminum frames to fit single-pane and insulating glass. It also developed an aluminum frame for cold-weather areas where only wood frames had been effective. It responded to the market’s demand for high-quality, tempered glass in the Northwest region by establishing Milgard Tempering Inc. nearby. A second tempering operation was started in Dixon, Calif. 

The year 1989 marked two new paths of growth: the introduction of aluminum and wood-clad windows and windows made with vinyl frames, establishing Milgard Vinyl in the same locale. Recognizing the value of vertical integration, the company began extruding vinyl. Additional vinyl fabrication plants were opened, mostly on the West Coast, to serve the company’s primary market. One year later, the company was producing fiberglass windows nearby in 25,000 square feet of space. Its success with vinyl extrusions made a strong case for vertical integration. 

“In 2002, we started a pultrusion operation with five people in the existing fiberglass facility,” says Randy Buchanan, general manager. Additional space was needed within a year. “By 2003, we had developed a full line of patio doors and we moved the door department to another space and in 2004 we moved windows to a new facility (adjacent to the door operation),” he adds.

Today, there are three fiberglass facilities totaling 260,000 square feet, employing 260 people, most of whom are making approximately 550 doors and windows each day. This is based on one shift for pultrusion, a single shift for doors and two shifts for windows. 

Pultrusion—Link to the Future
What makes this operation different from all the company’s manufacturing facilities is that, “our customers are internal and we have to be flexible enough to meet all of their needs,” says Dan Cazalet, production manager. 

Drawing a distinction between the pultrusion and vinyl extrusion operations, Cazalet says the goal is to make a custom product to order, not to stock. 

A tour of the 81,000-square-foot pultrusion facility begins at one end where raw materials are received. The window manufacturing process actually starts in the mixing room, a shining example of a very successful 5-S program (see March 2007 DWM, page 46). Based on the Japanese Kaizen philosophy, these stand for sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain.

“Visitors have told us that this is the cleanest mixing room they have ever seen,” says Mark Kaiser, project manager, who points out that the 5-S program was implemented as recently as four months ago. Kaiser explains that resin, generally a polyester, is mixed with mold releases, a catalyst, ultraviolet (UV) inhibitors, pigments and filler to become a mixed formulation. Numerous quality control procedures and tests are performed throughout the process. Even raw materials are tested as a quality check on properties.

“We test to American Architectural Manufacturer Association (AAMA) standards,” says Kaiser. “In fact, our goal is to become AAMA-certified [for fiberglass lineals].” 

To understand how dies and preformers are used in the pultrusion process, visitors can get a closer look in the tool room. “We make and maintain our own preformers and our dies are good for 250,000 feet,” says Scott Reutercrona, maintenance and facilities manager. 

The first phase of the operation is prepping the line. Production lead Lee Gant explains that small, hair-like glass strands or fibers are heat-cured and wound together into bundles. 

“We can have as many as 300 rovings (the longer strands of fiberglass) in a bundle or as few as eight, depending on the specifications,” says Gant. 

Another element in the bundle is the fiberglass mat, made up of shorter strands of glass fiber, and positioned in designed orientations in varying thicknesses and densities, and reinforcement materials, called veil, which provide strength and surface finish.

Prior to the pultrusion or continuous molding process, the bundles are drawn through a resin station where each fiber is coated with the resin mixture. The coated reinforcements are pulled, or pultruded, through a die and under heat and pressure, the resins are cured. 

Ten polyester and one polyurethane production line reflect the growth that has taken place in the fiberglass market.“When I joined the company six years ago as an operator, we had one line,” says Gant. “What has made the biggest difference for me is the 5-S program. The plant is cleaner, safer and we are much more organized.” 

Jon Helsel, a production operator responsible for new die set-ups, agrees. “Everything is at your fingertips. It’s easier to do your job.”

Cazalet points out another benefit of the program. “People on the line decide where 5-S will work best and that empowerment with their participation gives them ownership.”

Once the pultrusion process is complete, the next stage is finishing. Cazalet points out that there are many options regarding exterior coatings and interior finishes. The characteristics of fiberglass make it possible to coat the surface in a variety of colors that will resist the effects of extreme temperature and UV-exposure, he says. 

As profiles go through an infrared oven, the surface is flooded with paint, and then a vacuum press is used to remove the excess. One of the most significant improvements in this area is single-minute exchange of dies or SMED.

“We’ve lowered the time it takes to make a color change from 20 minutes to 14 minutes, although this is an area of continuous improvement,” says Cazalet.He explains that wood veneers (very thin slices of wood) are available in many species, including vertical grain fir, oak, alder and pine. Regardless of the selection, extensive testing is required. “We’ll test the veneer for adhesion by boiling and baking at certain time periods and within every run, for quality and consistency. If need be, we’ll run the surface through a sander to get the smoothness we need, ” says Cazalet.

The next stop is the bake oven for final curing. In one of the last steps, the lineals are coded and packaged for delivery to the nearby fabrication plants.

Making Fiberglass Windows
Many changes have taken place since window fabrication began in this 91,500-square-foot-facility in 2004.

“We had twelve Kaizen events last year,” says Milo Hagemeier, production manager (see related sidebar on page 42). 

Production begins at one end of the plant with three lines: single-hung and slider windows; casement and picture windows; and double-hung and special shapes. Warehousing is at the other end. If there is one line that has been most affected by change, it is the slider and single-hung line.

“Kaizen changed our whole way of doing things,” says Brad Keetch, production supervisor. “Today, we are the only line that is one-piece flow. We don’t have our windows taking a side route for part of the process.”

In the initial or fabrication stage, Sampson automated pusher saws cut parts to specified sizes. The establishment of an assembly line where each person is responsible for specific tasks, such as applying sealing material or assembling corner keys or attaching hardware, has improved the consistency of the product. Efficiency was improved by replacing a manual glazing step with an Erdman Automation XY, or tilt table.

Casement and awning windows are produced in a similar way. For picture windows, it is a little different. For example, a Bostik sealant is applied robotically with an applicator made by PVA.

“This applicator replaced a labor-intensive manual operation that required two people,” says Mark Marshall, a production supervisor. 

Eventually this equipment will be used for assembling all other window styles. Marshall points out another major improvement, a patented, four-step corner joining process that includes injecting polyurethane foam as a way to increase the energy efficiency of the window. “Corner joinery is a more repeatable method and because of its simplicity, it is easy to train people,” says Marshall.The double-hung and shapes production line also has benefited from improvements.

“The Joseph Machinery fabrication centers have changed a very time-consuming manual process, where we would saw, punch and shape, into a single-step,” says James Curbow, production supervisor. “It is operator-friendly and 100-percent better than our old method.”

Insulating glass is made in another part of the plant. The company uses clear low-E glass from Cardinal that generally is supplied in 48- by 96-inch sheets. The glass is washed with a washer supplied by Miller Engineering at a rate of 600 sheets per shift.

A notcher by Joseph Machinery is used to cut and notch spacers, and a piccolo unit is used for punches and to notch profiles. Muntins are notched with a McKeegan unit and a gravity-fed hopper is used to fill desiccant. Hot-melt butyl has been replaced by dual-seal equivalent supplied by PRC-DeSoto.

Simulated divided lites also are assembled in this area. Five years ago, shadow bars were introduced to create an impression of separate panes. “This is a unique feature,” says Dave Jakl, production supervisor. “It enhances the window and we believe consumers will find it to be very appealing.”

Quality control (QC) is maintained by constant testing. “Every hour, as part of our QC program, we fill a sill with water and check to see if it weeped correctly,” says Keetch. He also points out that a window is pulled from the warehouse daily and subjected to a full inspection. 

Making Fiberglass Doors
In an adjacent 60,000-square-foot facility, fiberglass doors are fabricated on three production lines: inswing and outswing patio doors, including a new patio door line; sliding doors; and specialty doors. Russell Robinson, production supervisor, explains that panels and frame profiles are cut to size and sequenced through various machines for shaping, routing and drilling with automated frame and sash saws and CNC equipment made by Kent Automation.

“They [Kent and Joseph] have been good partners for us,” says Sironko. “Both suppliers have developed and advanced the technology of processing fiberglass to mirror the level of automation that vinyl and aluminum enjoy today.”

Like the window operation, assembly is mostly manual, including glazing and the installation of grids, screens, nailing fins, jamb extensions and brick mould.

Throughout the operation, there is evidence of a strong emphasis on ergonomics and safety. “When you consider the weight and unwieldy nature of door frames and panels, ergonomics prevents back and shoulder injuries,” says Robinson.

According to Mat Fisher, production lead for the three lines, there have been many improvements since he joined the company. For example, a roller system has replaced a lot of hand movement and a buddy system for the movement of multi-panel doors has helped to prevent back injuries. What has not changed is testing as a means of quality control. “Our water test confirms that a door is either water-tight or prone to leak,” says Lenny Kirkland, supervisor, who has written the quality standards for this operation.

One of the latest improvements in efficiency can be seen in the last step of the process. A unique, automatic wrapping system made by Kalamazoo Packaging Systems has replaced the time-consuming task of packaging doors for shipment.

In spite of the demand, the use of fiberglass in doors and windows is still considered to be in its infancy, says Sironko, and there are challenges, one of them being production. He points out that since fiberglass is abrasive, it requires diamond-coated saw blades which is more like a grinding operation and produces a fine glass dust. Another challenge, as with any new material, is gaining market acceptance. But to remain in the forefront (another challenge), Sironko sees more automation and innovation, new techniques and methods and the next generation of products in the near future. Second only to safety, product quality and empowering people, these priorities are as continuous at Milgard as the pultrusion operation that exemplifies the company’s commitment to and focus on fiberglass. 

A Kaizen Event Defined
Kaizen Events (part of the Six Sigma philosophy) commonly are referred to as a tool that does the following:
1) Gathers operators, managers and owners of a process in one place;
2) Maps the existing process (using a deployment flowchart, in most cases);
3) Improves on the existing process; and
4) Solicits buy-in from all parties related to the process.

Kaizen Events are an extremely efficient way to improve a process quickly with a low Sigma score. Kaizen Events also are useful for convincing organizations new to Six Sigma of the methodology’s value.

At their core, though, the true intent of Kaizen Events are for owners and operators involved in a process to have a chance to make improvements within their scope to that process. Source: www.isixsigma.com

Alan Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM magazine. He has 31 years of experience in the door and window industry. 


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