From Software to Hardware

June 27th, 2020 by Nathan Hobbs

Automation’s Grip Now Extends to Production of Handles and Hinges

By Trey Barrineau

The labor shortages that have affected door and window-related businesses for the past few years are being felt in every segment of the industry—including hardware manufacturing.

Companies that make those plastic and metal parts are coping with the lack of workers the same way window manufacturers are —by automating as many processes as possible.

“We embraced automation in our production facilities years ago and continue to integrate new machines and technologies,” says Matt Taylor, director of product development with Hoppe North America. “Robotic arms are employed in several applications, along with purpose-built assembling and packaging machines.”

“Automation is becoming more affordable and provides numerous improvements in the areas of productivity, quality and safety,” says Aaron Mundt, a business unit manager for AmesburyTruth. “Making additional investments in automation also helps solve the labor shortage and promotes domestic production of hardware.”

And with door and window makers facing tougher standards, whether for impact resistance, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or thermal efficiency (see below), it’s important for manufacturing to be as precise as possible.

So what are companies doing with automation to meet these demanding requirements—or simply to reduce production costs? More of them are turning to automated manufacturing processes powered by design soft-ware, whether it’s for injection molding or die casting. Robots play a major supporting role.

Why Automation Matters

Precision manufacturing via automation is becoming vital to meet these goals:

Energy Efficiency

Energy-efficient windows feature at least two and often three lites of glass, in addition to thick-er, heavier frames. That extra weight demands hardware that can handle the load. The growing popularity of European-style tilt-and-turn windows also requires hardware that can move heavier sashes.

Impact Resistance

In coastal areas subject to hurricanes, durability is probably the most critical hardware feature. Jim Bell, the windstorm coordinator for Assa Abloy, says it can protect life and property.“The door itself is rarely the cause of failure,” he says. “Where we see failure is at the door-hardware connection,” with 99 percent of failures coming at the latch point. “Without the hardware, the door is just a tripping hazard.”The Federal Emergency Management Agency also recommends the use of stainless steel hard-ware in coastal areas to prevent corrosion.

How Injection Molding Works

According to The Rodon Group, injection molding is considered the most versatile molding technology because it creates parts that can vary greatly in size and shape.

Just like the name sounds, injec-tion molding involves the injection of melted plastic into a steel mold.

Because it’s so versatile, Rodon says injection molding can be used to create everything from large automotive parts to small, intricate parts used in surgical equipment. Injection molding also is highly customizable, allowing for the use of a wide range of plastic resins and additives. Much like dies for extrusions used in window profiles, the molds are the most expensive part to make. However, after that, Rodon says production costs become quite low.

What is Die Casting?

Die casting is a production process in which molten metal is forced under high pressure into a mold cavity, which is two hardened tool steel dies that have been assembled together. It performs much like an injection mold. Most die castings used in door and window production are made from metals such as zinc, copper and aluminum.

Safety

This is always an important consideration for hardware. AmesburyTruth says customers are looking for products with added features addressing child safety.

“The adaptation of ASTM F2090 is becoming widespread with a growing awareness of child safety within local municipalities,” says Aaron Mundt, a business unit manager for AmesburyTruth. “Window opening control devices (WOCDs) that meet the ASTM F2090 code have grown exponentially since the original code was released.”

ADA Applications

These are expected to see strong demand during the next few years as America’s 76 million baby boomers retire and place a higher priority on accessibility. ADA requires hardware to have an operating force of less than five pounds. It must also be operable with one hand with-out tight grasping, pinching or twisting of the wrist.

“Consumers prefer hardware that is easy to operate and will stand the test of time in the most extreme conditions,” says Jim Seaser, a business unit manager with AmesburyTruth.

What Do Customers Want?

Hardware manufacturers say homeowners are seeking contemporary styles and more color choices.

“The contemporary design trend is here to stay,” says Hoppe’s Matt Taylor. “Our Dallas Series contemporary handle sets continue to see strong growth especially with the recent addition of options for sliding doors, lift and slide doors and turn and tilt windows. Matte black is trending as well.”

Minimalism is driving these trends, says AmesburyTruth’s Jim Seaser.

“Consumers prefer hardware in their home to match modern style and color trends,” he says. “A growing trend is a contemporary style that has a low-profile look with a minimal appearance and crisp straight lines defining the product edges. Matte black and oil-rubbed bronze finishes are the preferred colors that complement the contemporary look.”

One manufacturer says it can be risky to follow trends too closely, though.

“We have come out with more contemporary looks lately and it seems to be working in our favor, but that is always a gamble,” says Charles Maves, national sales manager for G-U Ferco.

Another manufacturer says the companies it supplies are demanding products made in the USA to ensure a secure supply chain.

“We manufacture all of our items in the USA,” says Barry Lawrence of Lawrence Hardware. “We produce all of our molds here. It’s great. Not only for the people we employ, but the window makers get a smooth supply line.”

And automation—this time for the home—continues to grow.

“There is a need for products with sensing technology that support home automation,” says Seaser, who added that his company launched the “Touch To Open” sliding door product in 2018.

Other manufacturers seconded that.

“Door and window automation is and has been a focus of ours for quite some time,” says Maves. “G-U Germany has been on the cutting edge, and we have been trying to incorporate our products, as well as compatible, third-party products, into our mix since early last year.”

However, not all products lend themselves to automation, says Dan Gray, director of sales for Roto Frank of America.

“There are very few examples of home automation systems that are actuating the window,” he says. “Entryway doors, on the other hand, are more of a focus for home automation actuation since the front door is a primary means of access and egress.”

Let’s Get Technical

Injection molding is the primary production process for plastic window hardware. The Rodon Group, a plastic injection molder for a variety of industries based in Hatfield, Pa., recently published a case study about a major fenestration manufacturer that wanted to outsource residential hardware it had been producing in-house. According to Rodon, the process involved re-designing the hardware using software that’s specific to the injection molding industry. It took into account factors such as cycle times and materials to make sure the new products met ISO and AAMA standards.

New multi-cavity molds were produced that could accommodate nylon, vinyl, polypropylene and polycarbonate depending on the individual performance requirements of each part. Rodon says the end result was cost savings for the window manufacturer.

Many pure-play hardware manufacturers say they’ve been doing similar things for a while now.

“You have to accept certain processes that can’t be automated and automate the ones that you can,” says Barry Lawrence, the owner of Lawrence Industries. “Standard practices used throughout the process such as mold changes, material handling and loading, mixing and production processes that cut time have been implemented. Mold making now occurs with lights-out production with automated tool changers and software that supports the process. We actually have had to design and fabricate many assembly machines as there is no off-the-shelf equipment for such processing.”

Lawrence says that while hard-ware manufacturing has become more streamlined, final assembly has been harder to automate. However, machines are jumping into that part of the production process as well.

At the recent Fensterbau trade show in Nuremburg, Germany, Stürtz rolled out a new product—a robotic hard-ware glazing machine. It promises to reduce or eliminate one of the worst assignments in fenestration manufacturing—manually screwing hardware onto finished products.“

A primary reason we’ve been looking at this development is because screwing hardware such as tilt latches and pivot bars and locks all day long is a terrible, terrible job in a window factory,” says Stürtz CEO Ellis Dillen.

Also at Fensterbau, Austrian hard-ware manufacturer Maco showed off a prototype of a robotic arm that could be used to move windows into different positions to allow hardware to be attached in different places.

“The robot is a statement for Maco’s march into Industry 4.0,” says Petra Janssen, a communications officer with the company.

Let’s Get Lean

Lean manufacturing, which incorporates proven techniques for reducing waste and increasing productivity in factories, is popular among door and window businesses, and many companies in the hardware industry have adopted it as well.

One firm even extends the concept to the door and window partners that use its products.

Roto Frank AG launched its Roto Lean program several years ago. It’s a consultancy service for its door and window partner companies that focuses on lean manufacturing, including automation. But it doesn’t just come up with ways to attach hardware more efficiently. It also offers solutions to improve a plant’s overall production fl ow to boost the bottom line.

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