Artificial Headaches

July 14th, 2021 by Nathan Hobbs

By Drew Vass

In centuries past, there were no door and window manufacturers; there were only door and window makers. When a house went up, a man walked into his shop, fired up the pedals on a treadle-driven saw, then made and glazed them one by one.

Fast forward to the manufacturing plants of the 1980s, and you’ll hear the screech of dot-matrix printers and the pecking of fingers on simple, MS-DOS-based systems, reeling out orders. In those days, information was exchanged across plant floors through the tearing of perforated and carbon copied pages. These days? In most cases, not so much.

Before automation, door and window components, “… would be accompanied by paperwork and placed on carts that followed the product throughout the process— from saw to welder, to final assembly,” says John Ryba, technical services manager for Quanex Corp. “The issue with that kind of paperwork was that it was easy to lose or misplace. Then you’re wasting time looking for lost paperwork, identifying it with the right parts, so on and so forth.” The alternative, he says, was to have duplicate copies delivered to each and every workstation, where workers would cross reference them with arriving parts.

On comparison to today’s manufacturing systems, that’s putting the related issues rather lightly.

Nearly 40 years after dot-matrix printers dominated, all of the information associated with each phase of manufacturing—from raw materials and components, to assembly and shipping—can be transferred digitally and automatically from machine to machine and station to station, making the full body of information available to every person. Meanwhile, that information technology gives some manufacturing facilities a “mind” of their own.

Collective Intelligence

In best case scenarios, door and window manufacturing has become artificially intelligent—posting automatic decisions for everything from raw materials ordering to shipping. In most scenarios, that intelligence remains broken, some industry professionals say—separated by language gaps between machines and platforms. As newer, fully-automated machines arrive, functioning on the latest operating systems, others continue to run on much older or proprietary systems, ranging as far back as MS-DOS. “Ten years ago, we had two people in our information technology department,” says Matt Kaufman, general manager for Seal-Rite Door. “Today there’s nine.” His company is building a new manufacturing facility in Beloit, Wis., that was designed from the ground up. While that will make life easier for Seal-Rite’s IT department, professionals throughout the door and window industries continue to pull their hair out, while being forced to connect various eras of manufacturing devices. At the same time, what some refer to as “the Amazon effect” and the need for just-in-time manufacturing have the entire industry under pressure to provide additional real-time data points.

“Our society as a whole is so data driven now,” Kaufman says. “Now this, the Amazon effect, is driving instant gratification. People want to be able to see everything, all the time.”

That concept has also driven data from door and window manufacturing to the internet, says Matt Batcha, who worked as a software development manager for ten years, before going into business development at FeneTech. When FeneTech released its web-based coding tool back in 2007, “There was apprehension among some manufacturers,” Batcha says. “They weren’t sure how quickly their customers would adopt to entering their own orders online. Where, nowadays, you’ve got to have it. If you don’t have it, and you’re selling in a dealer distribution type market, you’re not going to get that business.”

With those changes in tow, and a new Amazon-based reality, Batcha and others say a tipping point has come for the entire industry toward complete, open-source integration.

“I think it’s forcing us on the manufacturing side to be more open to different things, and I think you’re going to continue to see more interconnectivity and so forth, as people are implementing smart home technologies,” Batcha says. As people become familiar and more reliant on those advancements in their personal lives, “They’re going to want to see that more and more in their manufacturing environments,” he adds. At the same time, in many ways, the industry is already there, Batcha and others suggest.

Today, when a salesperson delivers a quote, or writes an order, often that system is tied to data streaming from raw materials and the capacity of individual manufacturing stations, to the availability of last-mile delivery. Why? “If a customer calls in and says, ‘Hey, can you tell me when my door’s coming in?’” at any point in the process, you’ve got to be able to tell them, Kaufman says. In the meantime, in place of what used to be dot-matrix printers and papers, the full extent of information is stored on the back-end, in a centralized database, that’s available to systems throughout the manufacturing process—all the way to final delivery.

“We get the complete details for every product,” says Joe McGinley, account manager for CDS Logistics, a distribution and delivery company. “If you aren’t putting the right number and type of products onto a truck for delivery, [the system] stops you, and then you have to have a supervisor check the details for every product and sign off.”

Central Nervous System

These days, the network between enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and individual machines (many now fully automated) makes up a central nervous system of sorts, Batcha says. “We have all of this data,” he adds—from the forming of orders to production schedules. “We feed all of that information out to the various machines.” In some cases, those transfers happen automatically, via wired or wireless networks, but only when various machines and systems are compatible, he and others suggest. In a best-case scenario, every machine and system is either from the same manufacturer, or at least compatible with one another using various interpretive hardware and software modules. At the other end of that spectrum, however, manufacturers are forced to bridge various points in the process using such archaic devices as flash drives or even floppy disks. As a result, so long as those gaps exist, one of the most important components in manufacturing remains: barcodes.

By serving as a point of reference for querying back-end databases, “Scanning a barcode tells you all the information you need to know about a job, and helps associates know the parts that need to be assembled,” Ryba says. In other cases, that same identifying information can be contained within radio-frequency identification (RFID) labels, concealed within extruded parts. For instance, WinTrax, an “intelligent logistics system” by GED Integrated Solutions, utilizes RFID not only to eliminate the need for barcodes, but to automatically track materials and products throughout the manufacturing process, via stationed sensors, automatically logging information along the way. Veka is working on a system that will allow users in the field (door and window contractors or even consumers) to draw up identification for doors and windows—right down to their specific components.

“We have customers that will get into such detail that they actually deliver the entire DNA or make up of a window,” says Tony DiFiore, GED’s software research and development manager.

For this reason, in addition to barcodes, a centralized database remains key in today’s systems. If the interconnectivity of machines and systems is the central nervous system of manufacturing, ERP software and backend databases serve as the “brain,” DiFiore and others suggest. “Customer service or production supervisors, they’re not running around the floor asking people where you’re at in production at a given moment. You can just see that data by bringing up a real-time report on your screen,” Batcha says. In order to keep those systems working together, representatives for companies such as GED, Quanex and FeneTech all say that, in addition to seamlessly networking their own hardware and software, in most cases, they also know how to work with and tie into existing equipment.

Striving for Singularity

Though it’s easier said than done across a hodge-podge of equipment, when full integration occurs between the latest manufacturing systems, experts say that’s when a sort of “artificial intelligence” emerges. For instance, when one of GED’s automated cutting stations knows the materials available to it and precisely what needs to be fabricated, those systems can maximize materials by coming up with a unique formula for cuts— allowing manufacturers to get the most out of every linear foot. DiFiore says his company has spacer fabrication lines, glass washers, IG assembly units, vinyl welders and other systems—all of which can automatically communicate information related to incoming components, or products, for fully-automated fabrication.

“We’ve had it on the insulating glass side for several years now. The machines, as they produce the different components, actually track material usage, rates of production, down time, and so forth, logging it into a localized database,” he says. “Then we have a centralized database that will pull that information up to provide the line supervisor or manager the information as to how the machines are performing throughput wise, material wise, efficiency wise and so forth.”

Throw one antiquated machine or system into the mix, however, and things can get difficult.

“There are times when we obviously try to work as much as we can with our customers to try to integrate into their process, but there are times when the technology they have in place is just so out of date that it becomes more detrimental to try to conform to that instead of trying to bring whatever they have up to the current levels of technology,” DiFiore says.

And while Batcha, DiFiore and Ryba all say that their companies’ have a variety of methods for tying together incompatible systems, everyone agrees that—as the door and window industries play catchup to automation—a common language would be beneficial.

On the other hand, there could be no need for such a language, if individual machines become more artificially intelligent. As advancements of those types surface more throughout machinery and the industry, and IoT technologies increasingly connect those moving parts to front-end businesses, manufacturing will no doubt take on a language of its own.

Drew Vass is the editor of DWM magazine.

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