Flexibility when pushed to the limit

With current demand in the retail sector pushing supply chains to the limit, manufacturing process, product and service innovation have never been so important, according to Mike Parczuk, managing director of Sternfenster.

No-one could have predicted our sector was going to be this busy; people were predicting U-shaped or W-shaped recoveries after the lockdown period, but I doubt anyone predicted the industry would be in boom mode.

It’s certainly better to be dealing with this level of demand than having to make redundancies but it’s clear to everyone in the industry that it is also putting significant pressure on the supply chain.

Initially faced with a back-log of projects that were put on hold at the start of lockdown, the window and door sector has since been subjected to a tidal wave of new orders.

The extended period of furlough and prospect of an increase in home working – coupled with a surplus of cash that, in many cases, would have been spent on holidaying overseas – has focused homeowners’ attention on improving or extending their living space.

This, combined with a resurgent housing market, has resulted in many manufacturers operating way above normal capacity, and while this is leading to record sales months across the board, it is increasingly being accompanied by reports of stock outages on components such as glass, profile and hardware.

We aren’t immune. There’s a significant pressure on glass supply for example. The demand we’re seeing in general, has also meant we’ve pushed out some of our lead times.

But as long as you’re prepared to communicate that and to keep people informed, I think they’re generally pretty understanding. Our customers are also busy, so their lead times are also extended. As an industry, we’re learning to manage relationships better.

We also have a lot of control over our processes, in both our PVCU and aluminium manufacture.

We invested £3.6 million in a dedicated aluminium facility in 2017, which included a FOM LMT cutting and machining centre and a powder coating line. This set-up – combined with the ability to produce IGUs – allowed us to offer its range of Smart Visofold aluminium bifold and Smart Visoglide inline sliders, glazed and in any RAL finish, in 10-days or less.

Recently, these lead times have been extended slightly but with the introduction of a second machining and cutting centre this month it will be possible to return to pre-Covid lead times.

We also streamlined aluminium casement product range earlier this year with the introduction of Smart Systems Alitherm 300. The result is a product that delivers on style, security and efficiency, but one that has proven to be a much simpler and more effective proposition for installers as well.

Our customers have also gained a commercial advantage in another key sector for growth in the industry – colour – thanks to our in-house PVC spray booth.

We’ve responded to the demand for colour and foils, firstly by working closely with our supplier Deceuninck, which has led the charge on colour, but also by making a commitment to our customers that we were going to have more coloured profile in stock.

And while we’ve always offered painted PVC frames, we’ve recently changed the way we do this. So, rather than making the window and then spraying it, we now buy the bar lengths and then spray them, which means that it takes the same amount of time to make a grey window as it would a white one.

For customers who want colour quickly – including colour matched PVC casements and aluminium bifolds for instance – the service is proving critical in winning business and getting installations completed faster.

Rapid lead times are hugely beneficial, but quality of service is also vital. We’ve worked hard to ensure our customers have all the products they need to stay competitive, but we also work with them, and to do everything we can to help on the odd occasion that things don’t go to plan.

This includes a comprehensive CRM system, developed by us and offered to installers free of charge. It allows them to manage all their leads, appointments and surveys, as well as the ability to order and obtain delivery information online.

Ultimately, our continual product and process innovations have combined to make us more reactive and more flexible. That makes a big difference to both our customers and our staff, during a time where working relationships are being pushed to the limit.