Rise of the robots

Chris Alderson, managing director of Edgetech, explains how automation is already changing the way fenestration businesses operate.

We’re living through the rise of the machines. There were 1.9 million industrial robots in the world in 2014, according to US think-tank the Brookings Institute. By 2020, that’s expected to have risen to almost 3 million.

Everywhere you look, businesses and industries are looking to automation as the next big driver of efficiency, productivity and innovation. Even fenestration is beginning to take the topic seriously.

Automation is often presented as a frightening, destabilising phenomenon. There’s no question, it’s set to drastically change the way companies, industries and even whole economies work. But in doing so, it’s got enormous potential to help businesses improve – and face the increasingly complex and ever-multiplying challenges of the 21st century.

It’s not about replacing your human workforce with robots. It’s about using automation technology to redirect manpower elsewhere. In manufacturing, fewer points of contact reduces human error, while allowing managers to reassign workers to more valuable and specialised tasks.

At the same time, it also offers a way through one of the biggest problems facing the construction sector over the next few decades: the skills shortage. The Manufacturing Institute estimates 3.5 million construction jobs will need filling in the next ten years, and that the lack of qualified candidates will mean that as many as two million of those could go unfilled.

But it’s got particular benefits for fenestration. For a number of years, the fenestration industry got used to seeing the energy efficiency and overall performance of glass units improve all the time.

Ground-breaking innovations appeared – polyamide thermal breaks, warm-edge spacer bars, and others – manufacturing techniques improved, and in the second decade of the 21st century, the best window products offer a level of thermal performance that wouldn’t even have been conceivable not that long ago.

Now, those drastic gains have flattened off; exceptional thermal efficiency is the new norm. Fabricators, installers and end-users don’t just expect great performance from the most expensive windows anymore, they expect it from all products, no matter the price.

And that presents IGU manufacturers with a challenge – the need to produce huge volumes of windows, all of which offer best-in-class energy efficiency.

At Edgetech, we’ve watched the make-up of the IGU market shift quite dramatically over the decades that we’ve been operating in the UK. Back in 2007, there were approximately 1,300 companies making glass units. Today there are only 848.

But despite the number of IGU manufacturers dropping by over a third in just a decade, the total number of units being made has increased. So how has that happened?

The answer is unsurprisingly complex, with all number of different of factors at play. But one of the biggest has undoubtedly been automation.

The idea that exceptional thermal performance is now the norm is borne out by two key trends we’ve watched closely over the last decade – first, the fact that between 70% and 80% of sealed units now incorporate warm edge technology, compared to just 5% in 2007. And second, the soaring interest we’ve seen in automation.

Particularly in America, we’re now experiencing a huge demand for automated Super Spacer lines, and in time that’s a shift we fully expect to be replicated this side of the Atlantic.

One of the automated lines available can make a high-performance IGU every 15 to 20 seconds. The efficiency gains are obvious.

There’s more to automation than just producing more windows with better thermal performance, however. Increasingly, it’s automation that’s driving businesses and industries forward in a much broader sense.

Automation is allowing businesses to operate more efficiently, to continuously improve, and to up quality and consistency. But to fully realise its potential, we need to be bold and embrace change throughout whole sectors and industries.