Old-School Approach to New-World Technology
Michelle Segrest | September 12, 2016
Colorado window and door manufacturer creates sophisticated, energy-efficient products with tried-and-true maintenance and operations best practices.
Even in an ultra-modern WORLD where technology is king, a small window and door manufacturer nestled in a valley of the majestic Colorado mountains still relies on proven old-school techniques to keep its machines running.
Field-tech specialist David Herman uses all his senses as he walks through the 15,000 sq.-ft. Niwot, CO, facility each day. “I know what’s going on in the plant just from what I can hear, what I can see, and what I can smell,” said Herman, responsible for maintenance of all the machines at the Alpen High Performance Products window manufacturing and assembly facility. “I know these machines so well, I can tell from across the shop which machine is running and if something is wrong.”
Herman has been monitoring the performance of Alpen’s high-tech fiberglass-cutting saws, hand tools, drilling and glazing machines, ovens, and packaging equipment for nearly four years.
“It’s a matter of being here and listening to what’s going on—it’s all about knowing the equipment,” he said. “I like to say that I spend quantity time versus quality time. Some people think the other way around is best, but I think quantity time is more important for what I do. I am here and I pay attention all the time, so I know what doesn’t look or sound right. Of course, when you spend enough time with the equipment, the end result is quality.”
Alpen relies on this time-tested approach to manufacture windows and doors that have double, and in some cases, triple the standard U. S. Department of Energy (Washington) efficiency ratings. There is nothing old school about the technology of combining insulated-glass units (which include a blend of suspended coated film, inert gases, and hermetically sealed spacers) with long-lasting durable fiberglass frames to create windows and doors that are proven to be “almost as energy efficient as walls,” said Alpen president Brad Begin.
“We make a world-class product from a durability standpoint, from a reliability standpoint, and from a price-competitive standpoint,” Begin said. “We are almost always more energy efficient than any competitor, and we have the data to prove it.”
Alpen operates the glass-cutting and film-assembly part of the operation from a 10,000-sq.-ft. facility in Denver. The insulated-glass units (IGUs) are carefully shipped 36 miles north to the Niwot facility, located about 10 miles north of Boulder. In Niwot, the glass units are baked to stretch/tension the special film coating, filled with inert gases, inserted into insulated fiberglass casings, packed and shrink wrapped, and then shipped directly to the customer. Every Alpen order is custom made. There is no mass manufacturing and no inventory of any finished products.
Alpen works with a broad range of customers on projects large and small, from single-family houses to multi-million-dollar estates. Alpen’s customized work can also be found in commercial buildings of all kinds, including McDonalds’ PlayPlaces, museums, university campuses, and even the Empire State Building. The products help designers and planners successfully meet the requirements of virtually any high-performance building-certification program, including Net Zero Energy, Passive House, LEED, and Living Building Challenge.
Old-school maintenance process
Because of the customized nature of Alpen’s business, the old-school approach translates to many of its processes. “I use the philosophy, ‘Keep it Simple Stupid,’” Herman said. “Usually, if you just go to the heart of the problem, it becomes pretty easy to fix. I am not afraid to take anything apart. I figure, it’s already broken. I can’t break it more. But maybe I can fix it.”
Herman is responsible for everything from the maintenance of sophisticated equipment to building cabinets to driving the truck to make customer deliveries. He even built the lunchroom at the Niwot facility.
“My first priority is keeping all the machines running,” he said. “Downtime means no money. In my spare time, I help with field work, maybe I need to re-wire one of our ovens, or I’ll run the cut room. I help with anything that needs to get done.”
This approach makes a difference. There are only 38 employees at the Niwot facility and seven at the Denver plant. Still, the company manages to produce about 40 completed window units every day, while an average of 55 to 75 IGUs are delivered daily from the Denver facility.
Alpen’s preventive-maintenance program is robust. It includes regular lubrication of all machines, including gears and motors; calibration of the fiberglass-cutting saws; and constant attention to all equipment.
“Because everything we do here is custom, everything that goes through the machines is a different size, so they are constantly having to be adjusted and checked,” Herman stated. “Every window is cut to a different size so the saw parameters are moving constantly. Saw blades need to be changed every six months. The drilling CNC machines that cut holes for the hardware latches need constant attention.”
For bigger projects, Herman solicits help from Robert Bush, the facilities manager who maintains the equipment at the Denver facility. That equipment includes glass cutters, bending machines, an edge-deletion machine, grinding wheels, washers, presses, and a polyurethane pump.
Herman and Bush work closely with operations manager Tom Hassell. Each day begins with a production meeting. Issues that need attention are reported to Herman and Hassell and placed on a schedule. While Alpen uses an MRP system, a tried-and-true scheduling board is used to track each maintenance project.
“With each issue we address whether we train someone to fix the issue or if David takes care of it,” Hassell said. “We are still a bit old school, but this board is a great tool for us. We use it to track demand and lead time. One big improvement we’ve made is we started having some of the day-to-day maintenance items shifted to the operators for regularly scheduled PM items. We outsource maintenance occasionally, particularly on software issues. Regardless of how big or small, David is in constant communication with everyone involved all day. Our approach is very hands on.”
Because of the custom nature of Alpen’s business, work sequencing on the production floor is important. “We are not a cookie-cutter manufacturer,” Hassell explained. “We deal with many shapes, sizes, different types of hardware, and various functionalities of each unit. We have a lot of outside vendors we rely on to complete a project. The sequencing of those items is a very big deal to us. We do as much planning on the front side as possible and try to hold our vendors accountable to the delivery dates. For example, everything we produce must have a paint coating applied. This is done at a factory in Denver. We work extremely closely with those guys because that is the very first part of the process. If they fall behind, naturally, we fall behind.”
The Alpen manufacturing process consists of two parts, according to Craig Maierhofer, vice president of business development.
The first part is manufacturing the insulated-glass units in Denver. “Our secret sauce is the heat mirror technology that goes into our IGUs,” Maierhofer said. “We typically take two panes of low-e coated glass and suspend one or two coated films in between the panes of glass. This creates either two or three chambers. Metal spacers go around the outside of the glass. Film is laid in between the spacers and then the other pane of glass goes on. Everything is sealed and then placed into an oven to be baked. This stretches out the film and tightens it.”
The second part is making the fiberglass frames in Niwot. “Fiberglass is among the most insulating framing materials you can use to manufacture a window,” Maierhofer said. “We are all about high-performance, super-insulating windows, and everything we make is unique.”
Alpen works closely with many architects and sustainable builders on three energy-saving movements:
Passive House is a design approach that takes advantage of material performance characteristics to create a building structure that needs very little supplemental heating or cooling to provide year-round occupant comfort, dramatically reducing a home’s annual energy consumption.
Living Building Challenge is a group that is manufacturing building products that do not have any unhealthy ingredients. They use no off-gasing and no red-listed items or sealants.
Net-Zero Energy tries to build sustainably and create a building envelope that uses little or no energy for a comfortable environment.
“Everything we do is geared toward super insulation,” Maierhofer said. “Insulation is measured in terms of R value. Typical builder-grade windows have an R value of 2 or 3. Our windows start at an R value of closer to 6, and top out at an R value of 10. These products are well suited for cold-weather conditions. It’s all about keeping the cold out. Some climates have intense heat, and we need to keep the cold in and keep the heat out. When people want super energy-efficient technology, that’s when they approach us.”
A focus on safety
Every day, Alpen works with glass and glass breaks.
“Sometimes this causes a problem, but it is just part of what we prepare for,” Herman said. “However, it is not as fragile as you think, and there are tricks to handling it. I can’t remember the last time we had a cut injury.”
Alpen created custom-built pallets to transport the IGUs from Denver to Niwot. In the packaging process, wood crates with handles are built for each unit, corner protectors are added, and the entire assembly is heavily shrink-wrapped.
“It’s all about the way you handle it and an attention to safety,” Maierhofer said. “We have racks and carts with padding. We handle with care and move slowly.”
The flat glass used to manufacture the IGUs is delivered to the Denver facility in 72 x 96-in. sheets, where it is scored and cut to size. Hassell said the company experiences very little breakage.
“We keep track of the waste due to breakage, and it’s extremely minimal,” Hassell said. “One thing that helps us minimize that is we have a core group of people who have been in this industry for 10-plus years. The experience and expertise of our people makes a big difference. Also, we have a simplified way of cutting glass. Some of it is predicated on the volume. We have a glass cutter who cuts the sheets on a table using a T-cutter. He scores the glass and then breaks the score. It’s then racked and goes to the line.”
A different kind of cutting takes place in Niwot, where the long pieces of fiberglass must be cut to size at various lengths and angles. This presents another safety issue that must be addressed. “We are cutting fiberglass. It looks like wood, but this is glass,” Hassell said. “Cutting it creates a lot of dust and this is not stuff you want to breathe. We use ventilation masks and all the saws are connected to a dust-collection system that channels the dust and other particles through pipes and into a storage tank. That room is very clean, safe, and dust-free because we mastered the ability to control the dust.”
A safety program was initiated several years ago that involves a committee with participants from each department. According to Hassell, “We focus on things like keeping the aisles clean, checking and certifying the fire extinguishers once a month, ensuring nothing is in front of the electrical panels, and other worker-safety issues are addressed.”
Princeton- and Stanford-educated engineer Robert Clark started Alpen High Performance Products in 1981. As a founding member of Southwall Technologies, he was instrumental in the commercialization of suspended coated-film technology, which was originally developed by scientists at MIT.
“They were manufacturing just the glass for various projects,” Maierhofer said. “It was a unique technology focused on getting more R value. They recognized that it’s through the windows and doors where you lose the most energy in a building. He operated the company from 1981 to 2007. There was a short stint where the company tried creating a window division using vinyl frames in the 1990s, but the focus was more on the glass.”
Brad Begin bought the company in 2007 and immediately began looking at fiberglass frames to enhance efforts to create the most energy-efficient insulated windows and doors.
“Our company has been continuously operating through a series of different legal entities for almost three decades now,” Begin noted. “The current structure of the company is something we have been operating with for 4 1/2 years. The company developed around a high-performance glass, and has evolved into windows, doors, and ultra-efficient products in commercial and residential applications.”
Innovation and maintenance costs are critical components of buying decisions, Begin said. Schools have traditionally used aluminum frames because they are available and relatively low maintenance. “Fiberglass has been able to penetrate the market in schools because it has tremendous longevity, low maintenance and cost, and high durability that is very similar to aluminum.”
Fiberglass frames are designed to last 50-plus years. Most glass has a useful life of 20 to 30 years, according to Begin. “The difference is the energy performance and payback, which gives our products an extraordinary benefit. Our company is growing fast and the integration of the technologies continues to improve. We have a spectacular group of people here. Some have been here for decades and know the customer-centric ideas of what people want.”