Since March, our industry has been grappling with the changes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most significant changes has been the necessary implementation of unprecedented safety measures in working environments to minimize viral spread, helping to keep employees safe while we maintain our commitments to customers.
As autumn approaches, I’ve been seeing a trend among customers I’ve spoken with recently. While safety measures remain in place, the industry is as busy as ever. Orders are up—manufacturers are navigating new operational challenges associated with social distancing and other strict protocols, while commercial construction jobsites face some of their own constraints.
The fenestration industry always rises to a challenge. How can glass and glazing professionals keep pace while working differently than they ever have? Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about recently:
New shop floor safety concerns. Shop floor safety now comes with a new wrinkle, with social distancing measures requiring workers to remain 6 feet apart from one another while assembling finished units.
This can be somewhat of a challenge. Perhaps it’s solvable with automation. For example, a high-speed IG line does away with several touchpoints needed to assemble a finished unit and keeps line workers the appropriate distance from each other. Any manual processes that can be automated have the same benefit, with fewer touchpoints and different steps required for final assembly. This not only helps from an efficiency standpoint, but reduces situations where workers need to come into direct contact with each other.
To be sure, this is likely to be our new “reality” for a while. And while the need to keep your shop floor socially distanced might not be reason enough to make this kind of capital expenditure in and of itself, an investment in automation might pay off sooner than you think. Consider a scenario where one worker in one of your critical areas of production gets sick; proper protocols will require any workers who interacted or worked closely with that person to stay home and quarantine for at least a few days. This could be a major hit to your productivity and could keep you from fulfilling an important order.
Keeping your workers safe and socially distanced can help prevent this scenario from playing out in the first place—but if it does happen, it’s important to be able to adapt if you suddenly find yourself down a few employees. Automating key parts of your production can be helpful from both perspectives.
Simplifying the jobsite. Installers and construction professionals have a slightly different set of challenges.
Social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention measures still apply here, often limiting the number of people who can be working on a jobsite at once. So, what happens today when a job runs behind? In the past, it was possible to catch up by adding more workers to complete construction—but today, exceeding a maximum allowed number of people on a given jobsite could increase the likelihood of sickness and, depending on the municipality, can lead to a fine or other consequences. Contractors are already feeling some ripple effects. Construction Dive recently reported that “implementing COVID-19 safety preparations and protocols at jobsites has led to a decline in productivity, which is eating into [contractor] profits.”
One solution to some of these new hurdles might be eliminating some of the work that necessarily has to happen on-site. For example, prefabricated or unitized glass and curtainwalls, which can be assembled off-site in a more controlled manufacturing environment, might begin to gain more popularity. Once on the jobsite, installation can be performed more quickly and with fewer required people.
I’ll be keeping my eye on these trends in the coming months. Our industry has the opportunity to explore new solutions like these in the face of unprecedented challenges, and it could bring significant change to how we achieve high-quality glass and glazing.
Joe Erb is commercial sales specialist for Quanex Building Products.