Volume 14, Issue 2 - March 2013


Start your Engines
As the Economy Betters, Companies Plan Machinery Purchases

by Tara Taffera

Richard Stephens is going shopping. “We will purchase more machinery in the next 12-18 months than we have in last four to five years,” says the chief operating officer at Windsor Windows and Doors who is responsible for four plants across the U.S. Companies such as Windsor are pleased that housing indicators are pointing up, and orders are coming in so they can finally make these much needed procurements. And this is making door and window machinery manufacturers very very happy.

The Need is There
“We have had made minimal purchases the latter part of 2011 and early 2012,” says Stephens. “We have been conservative given the state of the housing economy so, as a result, you kind of sit on the fence.”

That is all finally changing.

“You get that warm and fuzzy feeling when you see orders grow and grow,” he says. “We are already seeing that we will have some capacity issues to deal with this coming spring and summer.”

New machinery purchases will solve some problems for Windsor. For one, purchasing automated equipment will solve employee resource constraints.

“It’s time to improve capacity and also time to improve the automation that we have so we don’t require adding as many people,” says Stephens. “We can’t throw people at it this year as people are hard to come by. Specifically, our operation in Des Moines has a more difficult time finding skilled employees just due to the overall low population in that area.”

Automation is definitely a key factor when looking at equipment as Windsor already places a high emphasis on this. “Our glass equipment in Des Moines has three robots on the line. That’s the type of machinery we gravitate toward: a higher repeatability and computer-controlled machinery.”

That high-quality machinery also makes finding skilled employees that much more important.

“It puts pressure on us to find a higher-caliber person who is not afraid of working on these types of machines,” he says.

So in the next 12-18 months the company will look to make purchases such as CNC-controlled routing and fabrication centers, CNC-controlled cleaners for synthetics and both powder coat and vinyl paint lines.

Earthwise of Cincinnati (EOC) has invested in new window manufacturing equipment over the last two years after performing a great deal of research. The division of Tri-State Wholesale Building Supplies also looks beyond just the need for new equipment to be added to its plant. President Kathy Caldon also considers how this will benefit employees.

In fact, in what may be described as a mix between the TV shows Dirty Jobs and Undercover Boss, Caldon worked alongside production workers for a day.

“One of the things that they were doing I saw could lead to carpal tunnel,” says Caldon. “I want to create a healthy work environment; not create health problems. That kick-started our research. We investigated other options as well--there were so many benefits to new machinery that it made total sense.”

Along with helping employees, the company sought to strengthen its manufacturing division by investing in equipment to improve production capacity in its window manufacturing plant. By investing $160,000 in automation, with a 7-8 year anticipated ROI, EOC was able to triple its glass manufacturing production while reducing waste.

The company had been looking at the 6000 Series IG Sealer from Erdman Automation for about a year before it made the decision to move forward.

“Our orders had been picking up but you have to make the decision—do you put the cart before the horse? If you get sales up and you don’t have equipment you have a huge problem,” says Caldon. “But if you invest and you don’t have the orders …”

The company began its research when it hired Ed Buyniski, a college of engineering intern from Case Western Reserve, to perform a study. “We wanted to increase production but we didn’t want to cause layoffs,” says Caldon. “Ed did the initial research over the summer in 2011 and got the ball rolling. We discovered the purchase of a weld cleaner would not only eliminate the possibility of carpel tunnel or other injury, but would allow for tripling the capacity in the sash and frame welding department. With his recommendations and the research done by Tim Utz, production manager, the decision was made to purchase an U-R-B-A-N SV 350: CNC Twin Head 4 Axis Corner Cleaning Machine (2.5 year expected ROI).

The company brought Buyniski back in 2012 to do a study on the purchase of another piece of equipment, a secondary sealant applicator.

“The recent purchase in 2012 of the 6000 Series IG Sealer from Erdman Automation enabled us to capitalize on a faster cycle time while maintaining total quality/consistency of seal,” says Caldon. “But the real payback is realized through reduction of waste and cleanup and less defective products. Once again, the elimination of employee health risks in the insulating glass department was paramount. 

Earthwise has more plans for future purchases as well.

“We have a five-year plan to double our window business,” says Caldon. To that end the company is exploring other markets more aggressively and expanding its territory beyond Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.

The Used Equation
In the last several years, machinery suppliers have suffered particularly hard as many window companies closed, leaving a glut of used equipment saturating the market. These “slightly used” products were attractive to those wanting to buy at a lower cost.

Jeff Wigington, general manager at American Window in Evansville, Ind., saved 20 percent by purchasing a PTC refurbished glass cutter as opposed to buying new, to replace his current model that was 18 years old.

He mentioned to Jim Plavecsky, Windowtech Sales, that he was looking for a new cutter and Plavecsky asked if he would consider a previously used model.

“Someone else turned it in and they had a deal where we could contract to buy it and they would work it into our specifications and give us the exact warranty as brand new one,” says Wigington. “Jim ran across it as an agent … it has the old frame but all new electronics.”

Stephens says he is not a proponent of buying used but he would make such a purchase if, “the process it would need to perform was very simple.” He equates older machinery to an older smart phone: it has less functionality.

Another challenge is that sometimes it requires a larger employment staff to operate that equipment. Also, “it’s not as lean nor six sigma-friendly as we would like the workplace to be,” adds Stephens.

“The newer machines are multi-functioning and you will pay more but when you look at the return on machinery versus two to three additional employees, there is more to be gained through the speed and precision of newer machinery.”

Caldon adds that she did take this ROI into consideration when making her purchases of new machines and the payback is something that interested her board of directors keenly.

Stephens says employees like working on the newer equipment just as they would rather drive a new car, as opposed to a used one. “Employees will raise their hands and say they want to learn that,” he says.

Caldon also refers to the used car analogy. “Like a car, if you buy something used it may have some bugs.”

Still, second-hand equipment could have its place in certain situations. For example, if a company has a CNC router and someone is selling that same brand “you would probably jump on it,” says Stephens. “When you get into an operation like we have with multiple facilities, it would have to be brand specific to what we already have.” Earthwise has considered buying used and event went to two different plants to look at a certain type of used equipment.

“One was eight years old and we didn’t know the history so we made the determination to purchase new as we would get more out of it,” says Caldon. However, the Erdman machine the company purchased was a floor model.

She adds though that if there was data available on a machine she would consider buying previously owned systems and updating it. “Just as when you buy a car you pull up the Carfax report you would look up the data on a used machine.”

She also says the company would also consider whether the machinery supplier was still in business. Additionally, the company uses its network of supply reps to inquire about their knowledge of particular machines in the field.

For Wigington, the fact that he had experience with that glass cutter and supplier, undoubtedly helped.

“We had one of their machines since 1995 and we had reworked that three different times but this time it was becoming obsolete,” he says. “We could have refurbished ours but that would have required us to shut down for 3-4 weeks and we can’t do that.”

Wigington adds that having the refurbished machine gives him an added benefit in the plant.

“We have the opportunity to get a cost back on this one if we were to turn it in but we can put a few parts on the floor as it’s not our primary table anymore. We can use it for miscellaneous jobs and as a backup. So I am upgrading and have a backup which I never had … I sleep better.”

Whether new or old, the fact that companies are looking to make some equipment additions is a song we have been waiting to be played. And that will make everyone rest easier.

Architects' Guide to Glass & Metal
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