Volume 13, Issue 4 - May 2012


Join Us on Our Journey
A Technical Tour of Trends in German, Swiss Door and Window Production
by Megan Headley

When looking to invest in new machinery, one might start at a trade show to collect ideas about what’s available to meet a specific need, or maybe by talking with a rep you trust about how their products can meet your needs, or in discussions networking with colleagues who have invested recently themselves. Once an idea is in mind, a fabricator would be well-advised to see that machine or a comparable line in action, to get a more accurate view of how it might work in his plant.

Stiles Machinery Inc. is one machinery supplier that has sought to provide each of those opportunities with its group technical tours. For 40 years, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based CNC distributor has hosted technical tours through Europe, only recently adding tours of China as well. The plant tours boast various themes, attracting professionals interested in finishing or panel processing or, in this case, door and window production, and that variance draws a number of repeat visitors.

From March 18-24, Stiles hosted a benchmarking tour of door and window industry trends in Germany and Switzerland, which brought a group of industry professionals through five door and window manufacturing plants, one machinery manufacturing plant and a preeminent fenestration industry trade show. As our host Doug Maat (who, when not acting as official tour guide, works as product manager for the Stiles Machinery edge processing group) explained early in the week, “This tour isn’t about showing you the top of the line automation—that’s easy. We’re trying to show you a cross-section of how things are done here, big and small plants, automated and old world craftsmanship, and hopefully you’ll see something you can take back to your plants.”

Over the years, Maat has helped lead tours of 30-plus fenestration professionals, making this group of 14 fairly intimate. Still, the group setting provided interesting context as, in addition to learning about the production process in Europe, the primarily North America-based professionals on the tour shared insight into how those processes relate to their own facilities.

DWM's photo slideshow includes more than 50 photos with commentary regarding the unique processes at these plants.

Stop 1: Nestle Fenster Waldachtal, Germany
When we were given our itineraries, a member of the group gravitated to the fact that the first company on our tour, Nestle Fenster in Waldachtal, Germany, was founded in 1597. Today it still has only 40 employees, two of whom are children of the current owner continuing the family-owned tradition. “So they aim to stay small?” the tourist wondered aloud.

Maat pointed out, “They also do a great job of leveraging technology.” That soon became evident.

The first shop on the tour would set a standard of sorts for the others we’d see; a mix of manual window woodworking and impressive automation. The first impression of the shop was how empty it seemed, about ten employees handling various processes in the visible nooks of the 40,000-square-foot facility. Part of the reason for that seeming sparseness is that one employee alone can handle cutting wood to length and quickly profiling each side, due to the company’s recent introduction of a BMB 923 PowerProfiler. Christian Eberhardt, a representative of the Homag Group who acted on the tour as host and ever-helpful translator, explained that the machine automatically changed tooling to create a different profile each time, if necessary. The sequence is programmed in the office and later entered into the machine.

Our host in the shop, Till Wagner, explained that before investing in the line, two people were able to process approximately 20 units each day on their CNC. We watched one employee churn out sash and frame for, ultimately, 50 units in that day.

The tour members noted that the chips resulting from the profiling process hardly go to waste; they’re pelletized and either burned in the boiler or given to employees to burn at home. It would be an example seen time and again over the week-long tour of how little goes to waste in these European fenestration facilities.

The heavy automation of the profiling line seemed at first an odd contrast with the next step, assembling by hand. We watched two techs, one clearly an example of the German apprenticeship program in action, brush on the glue and then clamp each frame by hand.

Wagner explained that the company produces high-end wood, wood-aluminum and vinyl products. He told our group that aluminum windows are seldom produced there anymore as they’re generally unable to meet the country’s incredibly stringent energy codes. “In volume, vinyl windows are the most produced here, say 50 percent, but in turnover, the wood-aluminum windows are most important for our company,” he added. He noted wood demand has gone down dramatically over the last 20 years and is only recently seeing marginal increases in demand again.

The company’s distributors supply its products primarily in Germany, but also in Western Europe. Maat pointed out the European interest in buying locally made product gives Nestle a leg up within its niche.

Stop 2: Riwag Turen AG – Arth, Switzerland
Upon entering the Riwag Turen AG facility in Arth, Switzerland, our group experienced a similar reaction. One touring U.S. door manufacturer summarized it well: “This is phenomenal,” she breathed as we began our visit of the completely automated interior door processing line. From every angle of the plant we could see the glass cube positioned high above it all, where one worker oversaw the production of 350 doors each day.

At first glance the line, stretching from one end of the plant and back again in snakelike rhythm, seemed intuitively to be producing standard door after door, but our host noted that each door has 1,200 permutations and all are made to order.
“The raw materials are pretty standardized, but the finished varieties are so many you can’t count,” our translator, Eberhardt, explained.

The company produces fire-rated and other specialty doors as well. The more manual processes of exterior door production are spread out in several buildings, and will be the subject of the company’s next update.

As our host, Aldo Rickenbach, would later explain, the momentum to undergo this full-scale automation was that he decided something had to be done to increase his output to better serve customers. The end result was improved quality, improved price and improved lead time over competitors, from four to six weeks to a total of 10 days.

The plant uses a proprietary ERP system developed by the owner’s brother decades ago and then, over the course of about a year and a half, optimized for the current system, installed eight years ago.

Certainly there were compromises when it came to installing the line; everything was made to fit into an existing building. Order measurements are still received manually and input into the system by the office team, an area where the company is looking to upgrade. Still, the material flow from slab to detailed door was impressive.

What made the Riwag plant seem more remarkable yet was that its efficiency went beyond the production process but to the building itself. The entire facility is a study in passive house design.

Our tour extended to the basement, where we saw, among other things, the room dedicated to taking the woodchips and briquetting them, to be used for fuel. This efficient recycling of waste saves the company roughly $300,000 USD each year in oil costs for keeping the facility a consistent 71 degrees Fahrenheit.

Stop 3: Huber Fenster – Herisau, Switzerland
Martin Huber is the fourth generation to head up the 129-year-old Huber Fenster in Herisau, Switzerland, and a fifth generation is prepping to continue that tradition. The company has been working for the last several decades to be a leader in the production of high-end residential windows, and Huber proudly shared that many of their products are featured in celebrities’ homes.

All of the companies’ products are custom and benefit from manual assembly, although the shop is no stranger to automation. Still, even the CNC machining centers were selected, Huber explained, because they were the automated options that provided the greatest flexibility and input from the operator, necessary for the company’s highly custom production.

The company produces up to 50 windows daily, all standard products made to order. Huber commented that the company aims to supply “fewer” products to a “higher” quality to architects in Switzerland.

Huber repeated a concept our tour group heard several times over the course of the trip, that their 65 employees included no salesforce. Perhaps it was an error in translation or a difference in concept (or he filled that role alone), because he later explained that the company advertised to architects, inviting them to the branch office in Zurich to showcase their products and then see how they can create something new to meet the architects’ design. The word-of-mouth concept for these local window manufacturers must be a success as, according to Huber, the company turns away 50 percent of inquiries as being over their capacity.

While Huber also noted that the look of his wood windows was equally as important as performance, the performance showed all the energy-efficiency demanded by the Swiss marketplace. The windows were all triple-glazed, a trend that is becoming commonplace throughout many parts of Europe (see Fensterbau at the end of this page). In addition, the facility featured in the finishing stages a mock-up of a massive frame to be installed in a passive house. Huber noted that while the company doesn’t hold passive house certifications, it’s able to prove their products meet the low-energy standards much in demand.

Given the high degree of customization and complexity of its products, Huber Fenster greatly relies on its apprenticeship program for employees, rather than hiring outside. Today the company has 12 apprentices learning the craft over the course of four years.

Stop 4: Schindler Fassadenlösungen – Roding, Germany
Façade fabricator Schindler Fassadenlösungen, in Roding, Germany, was founded as a small construction shop in 1931; since then the third-generation company has created a niche for itself in crafting a full range of façade solutions in wood, metal, glass and stone.

When asked which material shows the highest demand, our host, Karl-Heinz Schlecht, shrugged and explained that it’s possible one year to have 80 to 90 percent metal construction and then another 80 to 90 percent wood. Either way, the company might do ten projects across Europe in a year, leading to an average annual turnover of roughly $60 million USD.

Given that ever-fluctuating demand, it may not be surprising that the shop is set up for similar flexibility. In touring the roughly 258,000-square-foot production area, in which separate buildings house separate materials, our group couldn’t help but notice that the wood shop seemed quiet on that day. What we learned is that each employee is cross-trained to work on the various machinery necessary to fabricate wood, metal or stone. Of the 45 people normally in the wood shop, 20 had been moved to assist in assembling a large aluminum window order.

It might seem out of the ordinary to have workers trained for such a large number of jobs, rather than perfecting one. Schindler, like other German manufacturers, has an onsite training program unlike those in the United States. The company hosts a three-year apprenticeship program, and students rotate through each department, as well as additional schooling. Schindler’s program has been in place since its founding, and they aim to provide a thorough education to be assured that their union workers have all of the skills necessary to create a custom façade.

Flexibility is found in other areas as well. Typically the façade shop operates one shift, but on big projects longer hours may be required. Rather than accruing overtime, employees put flex time into an account, so that on slow days they still draw pay.

Our tour of the facility took us through the wood shop, where the company stocks just enough raw planks and joined boards—ranging from oak and Oregon pine to fir and other local supplies—for the next one or two projects. From there, in a climate-controlled space, wood is cut to length and planed, and eventually the product makes its way to a CNC processing center that provides cuts for hardware and some profiling. Larger pieces, our host explained, are on an older tenoner that can process frames for up to 16-foot openings.

Further into the wood shop, we saw an example of uncharacteristic finishing—that is, manual—being done that day for a custom project. Typically the company makes use of a fully automated surfacing plant with a drying unit. Frames are fed into an automatic system that has been optimized for dust extraction; a detection system on the exterior checks the outline of the frame and inside the finish is sprayed against one wall and runoff is retrieved and reused.

In the sheet metal shop, we saw workers cutting metal to size, before bending and arching and manually routing. In the aluminum facility, we saw two 5-axis CNCs for specialty projects. In that area our host took a moment to explain, “Glazing is done almost entirely in shop for quality reasons.” With their unitized approach, the fabricator is able to control dust and dirt and the installation of electronic components in the cases of operable windows. The company also performs quality checks for certification testing in-house, with some exceptions. The company has recently branched out into the United Kingdom, and is required to perform testing for those projects in the country.

Each pre-assembled piece is numbered for easy location and installation by subcontractors onsite. The company’s latest expansion is space for final assembly and a stock area for finished products, so that product can be quickly moved onsite once the project is ready.

The tour concluded in the creative space of the employee offices. Out of Schindler’s 300 employees, approximately 10 project leaders lead small groups devoted to engineering the systems.

Stop 5: Jeld Wen – Oettingen, Germany
Bend, Ore.-based Jeld Wen acquired the door manufacturer Vest-Wood in 2006; this plant in Oettingen, Germany, is today the largest of the company’s 12 plants in Europe. It produces one million doors each year. A separate plant produces frames, and in Germany there are two logistic centers where the products are fully assembled and sold to distributors in Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

Five hundred fifty employees here produce 20,000 door slabs daily for a spectrum of doors. Our host walked us through the plant from the warehouse where raw materials await, to finishing lines and beyond.

We watched the automatic core composing, a clockwork dance as machinery repetitively fed slabs from the left and stiles and rails from the right, clamped the components together, matched the core with top and bottom skins and then fed the whole to a massive porcupine press. Two doors fit in each of the press’ six slots, and were ready for the next step in finishing following one five-minute rotation (a second press sat quietly nearby awaiting specialty products).

In touring the roughly 322,000-square-foot production facility, one of our group members commented that it almost seemed like visiting three factories, given all the variations in finishing. Indeed, we saw several automated finishing lines, for white painted doors, for colored doors, for adding foils and processing veneers, in addition to areas for manually painting specialty doors. Seeing the numerous options available—from range of hardware to specialty products such as fire-rated doors—made it more surprising when we learned of the company’s recent addition of a stock supply program.

The group’s collective jaws dropped as we entered the stocking room for the company’s five-day delivery system, introduced in 2009. As we entered the warehouse, a red neon sign noted that at that moment the room contained 38,370 stock door slabs. A metal staircase led to the room and the sight was impressive indeed; but it was upon looking up and realizing the extent to which the rows of doors towered overhead that the awed chuckling began.

Upon receiving an order, those already-formed doors are cut to size, the bottoms edge-banded or finished as necessary and the slab run through the automatic hinge processing line. Stocking is fully automated, and managed by the company’s ERP system. Approximately 1,000 doors are restocked each day, and the standard stock includes up to 25 percent of the facility’s full production. As a result of the five-day delivery system, the company saw an increase of 2 to 3 percent market share, our guide noted with pride.

Homag Hosts Behind the Scenes Look at Machinery Production

While anyone buying new machinery may be eager to see it in action in a colleague’s plant, few may be fortunate enough to learn what goes into producing that particular machine. The Stiles Machinery door and window benchmark tour, led in conjunction with Homag Group, stopped one afternoon at the Homag factory to provide such a look.

The facility stretches 645,000 square feet of production and office space through Schopfloch, Germany. Here, the company produces machinery for nearly every step of woodworking, all built to order, to a lead time of two to three months. The facility we toured sees an annual turnover of approximately 400 million EUR.

Upon passing through the offices, our tour began in the machining area. With a pair of binoculars one might have been able to see the half mile to the end of the facility, and that was just one sense in which visitors obtained a sense of the scope of what is produced there. We were led past heavily automated pre-processing centers, such as the robotic welding center where the steel for the CNC machinery is shaped and the station where each link is formed and then bonded to create the conveyor belts.

It became quickly apparent the degree of custom assembly required, for each machine is produced made to order. The installers must be able to meet the standard for each country to which the machines are shipped, be it UL certification for the United States or other standards around the globe.

Nowhere was the customization more apparent than the final assembly area. Every machine or full line is manually assembled and successfully run to the customer’s specifications before delivery.

The factory floor itself seemed much a tribute to German efficiency, or perhaps to a 5S Lean system of organization (although the Lean system per se is not used in Germany); each tool and cleaning supply had its clearly assigned place, each part it’s own bin, each worker a tidy assembly area.

Among the facility’s 1,500 employees are a significant number of apprentices. At Homag, we learned that the students spend 1 ½ days a week at school, and the rest in the shop, for about three years. Approximately 90 percent of the students remain with Homag following the training period.

Editor’s note: Stiles Machinery hosts two to three tours each year in Europe and now China. Learn more by visiting http://www.stilesmachinery.com/events.

Fensterbau Offers "Triple" the Excitement
The Fensterbau Frontale 2012 trade show for windows, doors and facades, held March 21-24 in Nuremberg, Germany, featured 800 exhibitors and 100,000 attendees.

The stringent energy codes have led triple glazing to be seen as nearly standard offering in Germany, it seems. Approximately 50 percent of the new windows sold here use triple glazing, although, “It’s very diverse from country to country,” noted Andy Jones of Quanex.

Peter Appel, international marketing and sales manager for Swisspacer, agreed, “In Europe it’s clear: everyone is going to triple.”

Bystronic product manager Klaus Puschmann placed the German use of triple glazing at about 50 percent. For the company, that means, “Our customers are looking for a solution that can produce triple glazing in the same time as double glazing and the speed’sealer is that [option].”

Technoform focused its message of sustainability in a new direction. Company representatives talked about its bio-based polyamide strips last fall at Greenbuild, and at Fensterbau the company had its green (literally and figuratively speaking) thermal profile on display. Thomas Henkes, product manager, expects the research on the new castor oil based insulting profile to be concluded and the product released by early next year. In addition, a display sample window showed how the company’s products, including the new product and existing TGI warm-edge spacer, can work together for improved efficiency in aluminum window systems.

Accoya was present at the show to demonstrate the applications for which its “modified” wood product (the product puts soft woods through non-toxic proprietary process to improve durability) can be used. With its German distributor in the booth, the company showcased, among other things, a door with a modified wood core that had been through its process, and also featured an MDF facing likewise stabilized. According to Victor Vos, general sales manager for Europe, the products’ “dimensional stability” means that once a color is applied the wood won’t shift and lose colorfastness down the road.

Renolit focused on the frame color itself. On display in its booth was the new range of finishing options. As David Harris, exterior segment product manager, explained, the polyvinlidene fluroide (PVDF) cover of the foil is part of the Teflon family, so it’s very simple to clean—most daily dirt should rinse away with a good rain—and cleaning chemicals don’t damage the finish.

Prodim took a new look at frames, with its Proliner 8. According to Marc Pustjens, solutions manager, “The first question that we get from the market is not just about measuring the opening, but also storing [the measurements].” In response, the portable Proliner 8 was designed to provide accurate measurements in 10 to 15 minutes. Those measurements are stored for later use or can be automatically transmitted to the CNC. “The whole world is gaining digital,” commented Berry Cuijpers,
Prodim sales manager, in explaining the new approach to measuring.

Several halls in the show were devoted to machinery for door and window processing. The German company Schirmer showed off several profile processing centers including those able to process a mix of materials. One of the new centers on display would cut profiles of any material type to length before machining for profiles and hardware. The universal clamping system was one key component of the new system, designed to handle nearly any frame material type, added David McFarland, representing Schirmer for Stiles Machinery Inc. in the United States.

Steve Waltman, vice president of marketing and communications for Stiles, noted that two years used to be enough for product development, and this industry would aim its innovation for LIGNA, the biannual European woodworking event. “But now that’s not enough, and this show has taken on a new importance,” he commented. Demand for improved products continues to reduce the product development time and lead to more innovation.

Megan Headley is special projects editor for DWM Magazine.



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