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Automation's Role on the Factory Floor

Benefits of automation, plus where to begin and what's coming next

Forel's high-speed TSS Automatic Flexible Spacer Applicator modular unit features a dual bobbin system and two belts that automatically adjust the tension due to product variations. Spacer is automatically applied to squares and rectangles; shaped glass dimensional information is obtained through a built-in shape scanner or manual input. The machine also includes a self-diagnostic troubleshooting system. Forel

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our new approach to product coverage. In each installment of Trendhunter, Window + Door will dig into the underlying trends in various categories of the industry. For the debut of this new section, we talked to GlassBuild America exhibitors to get some insights on the automation that is driving the industry. 

Automated machinery is moving into the front lines of the factory floor as demand for windows and doors remains strong and companies continue to struggle to find workers to produce the products. Manufacturers are responding with suitable products for all clients—those just entering the automated space as well as clients who request fully integrated systems. 

Mitchell Heckbert, vice president of sales and service with Urban Machinery, reports that the company sold very few auto lines in the past 10 years but sold 10 in the past year. “The challenges that people are having with getting employees, getting people to show up to work who are wanting to be there, are willing to work and add value is getting harder and harder,” he says. •

Increasingly diverse product mixes also make automation more important, according to John Moore, vice president of marketing at GED Integrated Solutions. “Plants that used to offer one or two window lines are now offering five, so their need for automation is increasing and the labor required to build the total product mix has been increasing.”  

Intermac America's Master One 3- or 4-axis CNC is designed for processing glass with maximum acceleration and axis speeds, says the company. It is equipped to operate the Diamut Helix tool that produces holes in glass with integrated upper and lower countersinks for glass sheets up to 3/4-inch thick. Intermac America

Labor and quality benefits 

Morgan Donohue, vice president of sales and marketing at Erdman Automation, reports that large material handling, heavy lifting, the need for machinery that can work with manufacturers’ new products, and continued strength in high-speed automation, are all drivers of automation.  

The tight labor market, of course, is another large force behind the trend. “Business owners and corporations are having a hard time hiring people, getting them in the door and keeping them on board,” says Tony Mehringer, vice president of sales and marketing, Sturtz Machinery. “The reality is that the work isn’t very sexy; it’s hard work in factories.” He says that manufacturers are looking for anything they can do to put a computer screen on a machine, push a button and let the machine do the work. “Along with the quality being better with automation, it takes more of the human element out of it.” That automation also frees the limited human resources to be reallocated to areas of the operation that can’t be automated. 

Moore says some of GED’s products take complex manual intensive processes and automate them, such as the company’s robotic gas fill system. “It provides higher quality and consistency of the product,” he says. “You just need the person to do some manual loading and unloading instead of the more technical gas filling, so the training is reduced.”

GED Integrated Solutions' Intercept 2.5 warm-edge spacer fabrication system is designed to eliminate internal muntin grid misalignment with notching and snap-in muntin clips. The control system provides hardware reduction and technology ensures the integrity of the fourth corner is identical to the first three corners, according to the company. GED Integrated Solutions

Where to begin 

The benefits of automation are undisputed, but with automation being available in nearly every aspect of manufacturing, knowing where to begin can be overwhelming. The answer? “It depends.” 

That is, it depends on what a company’s existing infrastructure, support and maintenance capabilities are. It depends on where existing bottlenecks and quality issues are. And, it depends on safety and how much of an investment companies can make, say sources. 

“It’s not a canned answer,” says Tim McGlinchy, vice president of engineering/research and development at GED. “With high turnover at our customers’ locations, they’re looking for sustaining automation, and [the ability to] reproduce the job and maintain quality,” he says.  

GED conducts an overview of where a manufacturer currently is and what their next steps are. “We design [automation processes] with a modular intent so there’s a lot of ability to reuse an initial piece of equipment. The longevity of the capital is preserved compared to past products.” This allows companies to purchase an asset and integrate it into a more automated system later, McGlinchy continues. GED also evaluates a manufacturer’s budget, ability to attract and retain labor, and throughput goals in relation to automation. 

Donohue agrees that throughput is a huge factor to determine what level of automation is appropriate. “A customer who puts out 100 windows per shift will have far different needs than someone who puts out 1,000 or 3,000,” he says. “The lower the volume, the more likely it is they’re going to concentrate on quality—on automation that will assist them with difficult tasks from a quality perspective. They might not be too concerned about ergonomics and certainly not into high speed automation,” he says. 

In the next level of production, what Donohue calls the middle ground, a customer might concentrate on quality but also examine support from a safety and ergonomic perspective because of repetitive motions. As companies get into really high throughput, he says, “they’re looking at all the compartments: quality, repetitive motion, safety and high-level throughput with fewer people.” That’s also generally the level where customers start looking at high-speed automation, he says. 

Sturtz has seen a lot of demand for fully automated welding and cleaning lines. “We ask where bottlenecks are, where they’re struggling or where they’re finding quality issues, mistakes, problems with the workforce and employees,” Mehringer says. “Safety is another big thing; we don’t want people hand-cleaning knives.”  

Erdman Automation's Vertical Frame Clamp has an operator interface control system that is designed to allow the operator to quickly and accurately change sizes and assemble frame components according to the application. The machine will automatically clamp square and hold the frame components in place, and then nail, staple or screw the components together. Erdman Automation

What’s next 

Mehringer says many manufacturers haven’t upgraded a lot of their equipment since the Great Recession and a lot of existing equipment is “becoming obsolete from a programming standpoint.” When upgrading, Mehringer and his team urge manufacturers to consider multi-processing centers. Fabricators, he says, are also asking for more automation in other areas, such as with hardware application. Mehringer reports that Sturtz is working to further understand that market and establish partnerships.  

According to Mehringer, the company is also addressing operations that get done via punch presses, drill machines, jigs and other multiple one-step processes on the factory floor. A linear positioning saw from the company can conduct many of these processes in one step. “That has been very powerful this year,” he says, and expects to see that trend grow. 

GED reports that its customers are looking toward granularity of knowing where every window order is. McGlinchy says this is becoming more important as lead times get shorter. Manufacturers want the working process to be as short as possible to save money and reduce inventory. “The real driver is making sure the product is delivered in a complete fashion on a timely basis and to eliminate waste,” he says. “We found paybacks to be extremely good by eliminating lost windows and remakes.” 

Erdman’s Donohue also predicts automation will only continue to grow. “There’s more and more need for factory automation as fewer of our younger generation are getting into factory level jobs,” he says. “The demand for automation and the continued progress it creates—as well as the continued progress we make in terms of advancements—will continue to be strong.” 

Related Reading | Read what our sources had to say about return on investment as well as for a look into automation’s role in European fenestration manufacturing.


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Laurie Cowin

Laurie Cowin is editor of Window + Door. Contact her at