Volume 10, Issue 2 - February 2009

Making the Case for Automation
by Tara Taffera

Three door and window manufacturers reveal the savings and efficiencies they realized through the purchase of automated equipment. Although the economy and housing market is down, manufacturers say this is the perfect time to research—and even purchase—equipment so when the market picks back up, you’ll have equipment in place to meet the demand while realizing a variety of efficiencies. 

Supreme Windows
Vinyl Door and Window Manufacturer, Calgary, AlbertaEquipment Purchased: SV 800 Automatic 4-Head CNC Weldseam Cleaner; and AKS-1600 Horizontal 4-Point Welder from Urban Machinery, www-u-r-b-a-n.com; and an automatic glass assembly line from Forel Spa, www.forelspa.com 

For many individuals working for door and manufacturers, including Craig Grant from Supreme Windows, relationships with existing suppliers play a huge role in making purchases. Grant’s company bought an automatic welding and cleaner system from Urban in January 2008.

“We’ve dealt with Urban for 20 years. I think they have the highest quality equipment available,” says Grant. “So we were leaning toward them but we did our due diligence and we definitely looked at other suppliers as well [and focused on three].” And, while some may think that automated purchases are only for the larger manufacturers, this is not the case. Supreme Windows is a small manufacturer that produces a few hundred windows per day. “With this new machine we can now double what we are doing on one shift,” says Grant. “We’re definitely built for growth.”

Price Tag 
In addition to the Urban equipment, the company also purchased an automatic glass assembly line from Forel Spa, and Grant says both machines were million-dollar purchases. “The price varies depending on the options you get,” says Grant. “I went on the high side when it came to options.”

Main Reasons Behind the Purchase
For Supreme Windows, these purchases were necessary due to labor issues. Grant says that in Canada labor rates were increased and that had a huge effect on his business. Additionally, he also found it difficult to find qualified employees. “We reduced the number of positions needed while also increasing our productivity,” says Grant. “We went from 16 employees to five though the purchase of Forel’s vertical sealed unit assembly line.”

Another positive was that Grant didn’t have to let people go due to new equipment purchases. In fact, the opposite was actually true. The company actually lost a few employees who quit due to “being intimidated by the new technology” (four computers, etc.). “We lost a few employees and we didn’t need to rehire,” he says. And for the employees who stayed, they were just transferred to other parts of the plant were help was needed. And labor wasn’t the only cost savings.

“It’s all automatic [Forel machine]. The less you touch the glass, the [fewer] errors you will have,” says Grant. “The amount of rejects were reduced by half. This is due to the high quality of the machine.”

Advice for Manufacturers
Grant says he spent 18 months researching the new equipment, which included traveling to Europe.

“These require long-term planning, six to 12 months,” says Grant. So his advice for manufacturing companies looking to make automated purchases is to research these now and says that current economic conditions are no reason to put plans on hold. 

Vinyl Window Designs (VWD)
Vinyl Door and Window Manufacturer, Woodbridge, Ontario. Equipment Purchased: i-3 line from GED Integrated Solutions, www.gedusa.com

“This is probably the most automated piece of equipment in the plant,” says Mike Newman, general manager for VWD of the i-3 line that was purchased in the fall of 2008. Newman also has strong loyalty to GED as he’s worked with the company for a very long time and is extremely pleased with the level of service provided. “Every time I look to improve, modify or expand I always consider a number of companies,” he says. “There may be half a dozen companies I consider when looking at equipment. In the end, I might strongly consider two or three. More often or not, I find that GED brings the best overall package to the table. And not because they are the cheapest [but] because they deliver the best value.”

Price Tag
The i-3 line is part of a complete system that includes cutting tables and other machines. “It’s very easy to put over a million dollars into a complete new glass line,” he says. 

He adds that at VWD price is not the deciding factor when it comes to equipment purchases. “If you’re looking at equipment purchases you have to look at the potential for downtime you might have. Any savings you thought you would gain through a purchase can evaporate very quickly sometimes by going with a cheaper piece of equipment,” he says. 

He adds that the company might pay more up front, but one of GED’s claims to fame is the level of service and knowledge they have. “They work hard to keep us up and running,” says Newman. 

Main Reasons Behind the Purchase
Newman says one of the reasons the i-3 line was purchased was to give VWD customers the opportunity to offer something different. “We’re helping keep our customers out of the price war,” he says. “If you show up to the door with the same product as everyone else, it doesn’t help you. This machine produces a stainless steel spacer which is different. It’s been around in commercial applications, but hasn’t been affordable or practical in residential applications until recently. For us this was an investment in a unique high-end product.”

Other benefits include:

• Fully automated processing: This is designed and built with lean manufacturing in mind says Newman. “It allows you to change from one product to another on the fly without having to incur the costs of downtime and changeovers.”
• Do more with same amount of people. It’s not that this equipment allows us to have fewer people, says Newman. It reduces the demand to have to struggle to find good employees. “In all the years we invested in automated equipment, we’ve never removed anyone. It allows us to do more with same number of people. That works for everyone,” he says.
• Controls lead times and delivery. Newman says controlling lead times and providing on-time delivery is a great benefit of this system. “It gives us a level of quality that only a machine with this level of automation can deliver,” he says. 

Advice for Manufacturers
While Newman is a strong proponent of automation he advises other companies to automate “when possible” or “when appropriate.” He says there is a risk of over-automation. “Certain pieces of automated equipment won’t yield the same benefits if it’s not fitted to your facility,” says Newman. “So you can invest in highly automated equipment but because of your set-up or product line up you may not be ahead.”

He also encourages companies to not wait for the economy to pick up to consider automated purchases. “Regardless of when purchases are made the economic climate might be different in two to three years but those investment in efficiencies will still be there. That’s what matters,” adds Newman.

We also did a plant tour on them in the March 2008 issue. If you have a general plant shot not focusing on specific pieces of equipment you can also use that if needed. 

Harvey Industries
Vinyl and Wood Window Manufacturer, Waltham, Mass. Equipment Purchased: ZDM Zero Scrap Double Miter Saw, Joseph Machine Co., www.josephmachineco.com 

Jon Laporte, manufacturing engineering manager at Harvey Industries, admits that 2008 was a slow year in terms of adding equipment, but says that the company is still making purchases. In fact, it is now in the process of buying a ZDM Zero Scrap Double Miter Saw from Joseph Machine that will be used to produce vinyl window shapes.

Like many other door and window manufacturers, Laporte says there is a limited number of vendors it reviews when researching equipment. “Joseph and Urban are the primary companies that we deal with from a cutting and cleaning standpoint,” he says. “Joseph handles a lot of our saws [and] processors. Urban gets most of the weld and clean business. Most of our glass equipment comes from GED.”

Price Tag
The price of this Joseph machine can range from $70,000 to 130,000, depending on options and CPK requirements.

Main Reasons Behind the Purchase
Laporte says the company currently had no real way of cutting with any throughput.

“We had one machine that could cut these shapes and volume-wise it was going to kill us if volume picked up.”It is important to keep in mind that most suppliers will customize equipment to fit the individual needs of each facility, which was the case at Harvey. “While we were at it we wanted to take advantage of adding some drilling to the machines, so rather than just tooling Joseph is adding a drill to it,” says Laporte. “Adding the drills will take some of the labor out of it, so we don’t have to have a completely separate station for that. The fact that it’s pusher-based cuts down on needed operators,” he adds.

But he stresses that it’s not as much as about labor savings as it is about material savings (more on this below).

Advice for Manufacturers
Laporte says it’s difficult to give advice as it’s a learning process.

“It’s difficult to give advice. We’re not even certain in all cases that we’re doing it right,” he says. “Some of our automation has come about because of quality.”

He does say, though, that one thing that manufacturers definitely need to utilize is throughput. “We used to specify that we need the parts coming off this machine every 30 seconds and we found out later that we actually needed a part every minute, because some other piece of equipment downstream wouldn’t even allow you to do [windows] every 30 [seconds],” he says. “You need equipment that matches your tack time.”

And for those companies that may not know what suppliers to choose, Laporte says to look at the reliability and stability of each company. “Beyond that, it’s the reliability of the equipment, track record with the existing equipment, and obviously cost is always an issue,” he says. 

Tara Taffera is the editor/publisher of DWM magazine. 

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