Tipping Point

DWM Magazine’s Drew Vass talks to FeneTech’s Matt Batcha about technology’s future amid COVID-19

If advancement is a product of necessity, COVID-19 could make enterprise-based software and automation permanent linchpins for door and window manufacturing. As more employees work from home, software providers say they’re leaning on features that connect to the workplace remotely including production lines. At the same time, machinery makers say the pandemic has reinforced the need for automation to facilitate social distancing.

Spurred on by COVID-19, those technological advancements now have some companies reaching beyond their usual comfort zones to explore new possibilities including the benefits for industry wide data sharing.

„Manufacturing as we know it has changed,“ says Larry Johnson, vice president of insulating glass (IG) sales for Quanex Building Products and along with it the minds of people, adds Josh Rudd, a sales executive for software provider A+W North America. In some cases, those changes have come reluctantly, Rudd suggests.

Take remote work, for instance: „Our industry is a little on the old-school side,“ he says. „There’s a pretty strong belief that you need to come into work; you need to be in your cubical, or office, or at your desk at 8 a.m.; you need to stay until 5:05 p.m., or whenever your boss leaves … that’s how you’re supposed to do it,“ he says.

In recent months, however, companies have no choice but to rely on remote connections to keep employees out of the workplace often involving tools like Microsoft’s Remote Desktop, Rudd says. Those systems allow employees to log into their work-based computers remotely, in order to perform onsite functions, and they’ve become the norm these days.

„We almost have to ask people, ‚Are you physically in the office, or are you connected remotely?'“ says Tony DiFiore, software and research and development manager for GED Integrated Solutions. Often the company’s technicians find that they’re remotely connecting to computers that are remotely connected to the workplace, he says.

The effectiveness of those connections now has some of GED’s customers questioning how they can extend the concept including in ways they were previously afraid to explore, DiFiore says. For instance, in recent months the company deployed a new robotic cleaner for vinyl window components that has cameras mounted to its heads. By design, „It allows our technicians to get eyes on the machine without having to actually be there,“ he says.

But now, at the urging of some customers, the company is exploring how the machine’s optics might give manufacturers the ability to connect remotely to see what’s happening in production. Prior to COVID-19, he says most customers were afraid to explore those connections, for fear that someone else could gain access. Now, „I’ve actually been getting requests from people who say they want to be able to tap into those cameras offsite,“ he says.

Opening Up

The ability to connect with machinery and processes on the floor isn’t new. Enterprise resource planning (ERP) software has long allowed company owners and managers to have a birds-eye view of processes and businesses functions. With remote work, those features have taken on new meaning as virtual representations of the workplace. While working remotely, „Managers, owners of companies they can log into the software to see what’s being produced, what’s being quoted and ordered, and purchase orders that have been submitted,“ says Paul Vonderfecht, director of product for WinDoor Quote.

More advanced companies have done this all along, says Matt Batcha, head of business development for FeneTech Inc. But these days, with social distancing, „A lot of the smaller companies I think might take another look at it and see the importance of it, because it’s about seeing what’s on the floor and spreading things out,“ Batcha says. For instance, when an employee has to enter quarantine, software has the ability to calculate and show how that impacts production and other areas of business. That information has always been available, but now it’s even more vital, Batcha and others suggest. „Production supervisors can get access to dashboards and reports,“ he says. „And we can even push that to them automatically set up alerts and reports to be automated.“

At the same time, COVID-19 has highlighted a need for sharing more of that information with other companies, such as customers and suppliers, he says. While the industry has learned to carefully examine its supply chains in recent years, amid the pressures of tariffs, with travel and shipping restrictions placed earlier in 2020, suddenly they were forced to consider which materials and components might no longer be available. In the beginning, that was as simple as identifying foreign providers, but as mandatory shutdowns occurred across the U.S., suddenly manufacturers were forced to consider where suppliers are located on a state-by-state basis. Now, even with states open for business, „It isn’t just about checking your capacity, but also about seeing how your supplier is doing,“ Batcha says, „really getting those views for not only what demands are like in sales and production, and production capacity, but your suppliers‘ capacities and inventory.“ Ultimately, those needs could trigger closer relationships between companies and their data, Batcha says, including more sharing of information. While in the past business owners might have feared sharing too much, „I think COVID-19 exposed some things,“ he says, including vulnerabilities that result from a lack of information sharing.

Moving to the Cloud

By relying on cloud-based software and data storage, companies can make those connections easier to facilitate, and therein lies another shift that software providers say they’re witnessing: more companies opening up to the idea for moving to the cloud.

„If the power goes out … most of these companies have server backups, but in a lot of cases those backups are sitting right next to the original server,“ Vonderfecht says.

In addition to facilitating remote work without the need for virtual private network (VPN) connections, the efficiency of cloud-based software also allows companies to thin out onsite employees.

„We had a customer that had two people in one small office creating cut lists, creating glass order forms and screen order forms, and manually creating labels,“ Vonderfecht says. „Software can do that in seconds at the click of a button. So now you have one person in that same space doing all of that work.“ Or, no one at all, as employees work in the cloud.

The Paperless Movement

The pandemic has also hastened a migration for some companies to paperless formats. With theneed to eliminate paper shuffling between workers and customers, „Everyone has to get over that bump,“ says Amy Cooper Hakim, Ph.D., an industrial, organizational psychology practitioner and workplace expert. (See more from Hakim in the article on p34.) For some industries, that move is long overdue, she says, mostly because it requires a change of mindset. „Think back to 15 or 20 years ago,“ she says. „When certain offices made that transition, it was really challenging for some people.“

Vonderfecht says his company has eased its employees into the paperless concept by integrating DocuSign, a cloud-based e-signature program. When the pandemic ends, those technologies are expected to stick. „We implemented smart doc technology, so we can have our customers e-sign all contracts while maintaining zero contact,“ says Jay Andreas, CEO of A.S.I. Construction, a door and window dealer in Burr Ridge, Ill. „We will be utilizing the same plan when the pandemic ends, because we feel that the zero-contact process we developed has expedited the amount of time it takes a customer to buy and have doors and windows installed.“

As companies come to rely on digital formats, they’re also getting better at it, Rudd suggests. Take, for instance, webinars and remote presentations: „What I’m finding now is that this has trained a lot of companies to really glean as much value as they can out of those sessions,“ Rudd says, adding that, „The attention span and the intent on listening to the message within a web demonstration is much better than I’ve ever seen it, because this is how things are getting done these days.“

On the Floor

Of course, no amount of cloud-based data or remote connections can facilitate production, as, „No plant can work remotely, especially in doors and windows,“ Von-derfecht points out. But it seems that an industry that’s been under self-criticism in the past for lacking in automation, there is new impetus in a need for social distancing. Combined with ongoing labor shortages, COVID-19 has some manufacturers looking into how they can utilize equipment to space out employees.

„Before COVID-19, the issue was people couldn’t hire,“ Batcha says. „Now, some people still have the issue of not being able to hire or get people back to work but it’s also partly about keeping people spread out, because you want to limit the number in a facility. The questions for manufacturing have become how to distance and how to minimize contact.“

At the same time, some automated systems include a lot of touch points, says Morgan Donohue, vice president of sales and marketing at Erdman Automation Corp. As a result, technology is by no means a cure-all for social distancing. Donohue sees manufacturing moving to more cell-based formats, with as few as one person involved in each phase. Where in the past production paired up employees to accomplish certain tasks, „Now that’s off of the table,“ he says. „You can’t put two people across from one another and have one do the topside of something and the other the bottom.“ By designing equipment that follows U-shaped patterns, equipment manufacturers have made it so that the same person can load and unload a machine, by simply turning and walking a short distance. It isn’t that COVID-19 brought about such designs, equipment providers say, so much as it’s reinforced the benefits. With or without a pandemic, „We’re always looking at how we can eliminate wasted motion,“ Donohue says. „I expect that we’re going to continue chipping away at what we can automate . . . We’re going to ask how we can do what we presently do with five people with just one.“

Ultimately, the goal for manufacturers is sustainability throughout COVID-19 and beyond. Going forward, „If you can do more in your shop with 18 people than you did with 25 people, then you’re better positioned not only for profitability, but for dealing with uncertainties,“ Rudd says. „Everyone is trying to figure out the best ways to operate. The ones that are able to devote the resources not just money for equipment and software, but internal resources and choose to say, ‚Yes, this is the better way,'“ those are the companies that will come back thriving, he says.

Drew Vass is the editor of [DWM] magazine.

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