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Be Ready for What’s Next

How adaptable automation allows manufacturers more flexibility in times of uncertainty 

As Heraclitus said 2,500 years ago, “The only thing that is constant is change.” As the world responds to the current COVID-19 pandemic, his words still ring true today.

Just a few years ago, the industry was coming out of the housing crisis that began in 2008. As the fenestration market ramped back up and the economy started to grow, there was a steady stream of capital investment. After the industry consolidation, window and door fabricators tried to find a better way to grow and capture new markets. Labor markets tightened and automation was on everyone’s mind. There was a major shift in manufacturing philosophy in an attempt to become more flexible in future economic downturns. There was also a greater effort to watch the key indicators in the economy and be ready for the next bump in the road. 

Our industry, and the economy as a whole, enjoyed steady growth over the past five years or so. It isn’t the out-of-control situation we saw earlier this century but, rather, a seemingly more sustainable year-over-year growth. When 2020 started, we were all optimistic. Housing was strong. Window fabricators were investing in new capacity and new technology. By all accounts, the future was bright for fenestration in North America.

Then we hit the proverbial bump.

As we were making our plans for growth and success, a novel coronavirus was starting to spread. There was no way to see this coming—it wasn’t like the fiscal irresponsibility, poor financial markets or a glut of unsold homes that hit us before. The forces of nature caught us all off-guard. In a matter of a few short weeks, what had seemed certain to be another good year became a mass of uncertainty, both professionally and personally for most.

As more cases of COVID-19 were reported around the U.S., states began implementing measures to slow the spread. As more businesses were forced to close, many states deemed fenestration to be an essential industry, allowing window and door fabricators to remain in operation. Still, some companies chose to close voluntarily, while others were forced to close due to staff either being unable or unwilling to come to work. 
While business has by no means dried up, we are now faced with a slew of unknowns that could impact our industry in both the short and long term. So, where do we go from here?

Availability of labor 

One of the major issues we face in the current COVID-19 era is uncertainty about the availability of labor. While the labor market has been tight in recent years, the current state of affairs makes it an even bigger issue for manufacturers in all industries. 

This is not only due to the spread of the illness, but also the restrictions put in place to try to slow that spread. Responsible businesses view the health and safety of employees as critical. As that health and safety has been put at risk in recent months, employers need to adjust operations to minimize that risk.

In many cases, this has meant fewer people in the facility or limited numbers within a certain area—both of which require rethinking manufacturing methods and plant layout. The most common solution thrown out there is to add automation to reduce labor requirements. While this is the most effective way to reduce reliance on labor, it is not possible for everyone.

Automation scenarios

Automation allows larger operations with high capacity requirements to streamline the process, improve efficiencies, reduce operator errors and minimize intermediate handling. However, the vast majority of window manufacturers in North America are smaller-scale operations and cannot afford a lot of automation or realize the full benefits automation offers. These fabricators are better served with a mixture of manual and automated or semi-automated equipment to allow flexibility, frequent changeovers and the capacity to adapt to future challenges. 

Regardless of size, most window and door fabricators can benefit from this hybrid type of layout. The ability to eliminate some of the operations that are conducive to operator errors, to move parts automatically from one machine to another, or invest in current technology that speeds up some of the operations to produce more with the same number of machines, allows for flexibility in staffing and the ability to grow without adding a lot of labor. This adaptability can allow manufacturers to shift on the fly when things don’t go as planned. Because, as evidenced recently, they eventually won’t.

Every manufacturing company can learn something about themselves when they look at how they’ve responded to this pandemic and the ways it has impacted their operations. Based on this, consider where we need to be in two years to reduce the impact of unforeseen circumstances. Do your due diligence. Research equipment options and look at how to make changes now to be ready for whatever comes next.

We likely won’t see anything like this again in the near future, but whether it’s an economic downturn, new market conditions or nature reminding us who’s boss, there will be new challenges that arise. Nobody knows what will change, only that it will. 
 

Author

Mike Biffl

Mike Biffl is the eastern sales manager for Sturtz Machinery Inc., a Twinsburg, Ohio-based supplier of standalone and automated equipment and systems for vinyl window production. Biffl joined Sturtz in 2000.