Articles
Jan 6, 2021

Semi-automatic vs. automatic fabrication: What’s right for your fenestration production line (and why)?

Residential fenestration is a highly demanded industry with a special emphasis on product performance and resiliency. The smallest details can set fabrication lines apart from the competition

Choosing the right fabrication machinery for your lines — whether semi- or fully automatic — can make a big difference in your labor requirements, product quality and output. This important decision should be based on the strengths and goals of your production line.

In this article, we’ll describe the pros and cons for each type of production line and things to keep in mind when deciding what’s best for your operation.

JMC automation at a glance

Fully automatic machines are capable of performing several fabrications — such as sawing, drilling, routing and cleaning — within a single cell. This can be very useful for operations with limited space or labor, but require regular maintenance and specialized technicians to keep the lines running.

Semi-automatic units perform one set of fabrications like drilling or sawing, requiring operations to have more units to produce a complete window and more labor to move material down the line.

Semi-automatic systems can be designed to fabricate complete windows faster than fully automatic counterparts, but a fully automatic line maintains more consistent production quality.

All of our saw machines include Zero Scrap saw designs that cut at the very edge of an extrusion. Even where cuts meet, the saws never remove more material than the width of the blade.

Semi-automatic: More labor, more output

A semi-automatic system performs a portion of the fabrication process, and operators move the materials from one machine to the next.

With a reliable workforce, semi-automatic lines are ideal for operations that value speed.

They’re generally safer, faster and more accurate than manual fabrication.

All of the blades and drills are housed within compartments that cannot be opened during operation, making it far less likely that a worker will injure themselves as compared to manual fabrication.

Production speed

Semi-automatic production lines are more productive than fully automatic systems because having more machines means more material can be on the line at a time.

Semi-automatic machine operators need to work together to keep pace, transferring lineal pieces down the line to the next machine. The more hands on each product, the greater risk of quality defects. But the effort could reward you with a faster cycle time.

Cutting cycle times

Let’s take a look at our ZDM-4590 double miter saw machine. Its operator places on the preload rack two lineal extrusions, which are guided into place by the servo-controlled infeed gripper. Extrusions are cut by two 45- to 90-degree independent horizontal-stroking miter saws. The cut extrusions are then pushed onto the outfeed rack.

The ZHVN-4545 Zero Scrap Horizontal V-Notch Saw fabrication machine has two 45-degree independent horizontal-stroking miter 16” blades. Its large cut zone makes it ideal for multiple tracks of aluminum, vinyl or fiberglass profiles.

It can produce large amounts of parts with a cut-to-cut cycle time of eight to 10 seconds.

That’s right — eight to 10 seconds. How long does it take your team to do the same work?

Software efficiencies

While semi-automatic systems rely more on skilled labor, lineal extrusion fabrication system producers like Joseph Machine work hard to make the process easier on operators. These machines, for example, are equipped with the lookahead optimization module, which determines how to efficiently cut lineal extrusions to meet multiple orders with minimal leftover material.

What’s that mean to you? Well, if a 16-foot stick is used to produce one window with a little length to spare, the module will analyze future orders and find a home for the remaining material, and then pre-process the parts for a worker to set aside.

They also include Joseph’s predictive maintenance software, designed specifically to alert the operator of needed service or maintenance. This keeps your machine and floor running free of unexpected downtime, lost production or angry customers.

Cheaper maintenance, skilled workers

Semi-automatic machines are cheaper and easier to maintain than their fully automatic counterparts. But your employees must transfer the materials down the line, which means more work-in-progress, people and machines on the floor at a time.

This makes just-in-time production difficult and increases the risk of a delay due to process failure, as well as causing more traffic and safety hazards throughout your facility.

Fully automatic: Longer cycle time, higher quality

Fully automatic machines do most of the fabrication work for you, making the cuts, drilling holes and milling within one machine. This single-piece flow means one person can do the work of many, all while practically standing in place. This drastically diminishes the amount of waste, labor and traffic in your facility.

Reducing labor requirements

Factory managers around the nation are experiencing a consistent problem: Good help is hard to find, and it’s even harder to keep.

This is what makes the move to fully automatic systems appealing for production floors. Automatic machinery doesn’t take sick days, it’s not looking for a better paycheck and it only retires when you decide to take it off the line.

Each fully automatic line can reduce your labor count by four or five people.

The labor saved on fabrication can be reallocated down your line to operations that have to be done manually, such as attaching window latches.

Smart fabrication

The fully automatic SFMC Flexline Processor uses a servo-controlled infeed to push the lineal into a multi-saw assembly. The extrusion is then cut and tooled for complete part fabrication in a series of in-line steps housed within a single cell.

The system can be fitted with lineal optimization software, which analyzes product orders and segments lineals to create multiple windows in the most efficient manner.

If any of the lineal remains, our lookahead software goes to upcoming orders to see if any parts can be made from the remaining material and set aside. The lone part will be grouped with the rest of the window once the other pieces have been made from the next lineal.

While some amount of scrap is unavoidable, automatic operations can have a material yield of 95% or more, which dramatically improves ROI over our competition.

These fully automated systems offer numerous safety systems, including sensors that look for infeed obstructions and shut the system down if, for example, an operator were to stick their arm into the infeed area. And the doors to the cell will not open while tools are in motion, for optimal safety with a minimal footprint.

Quality, service and maintenance

Manufacturers that are known for their premium quality products can rest assured their Joseph Machine system will only improve their reputation.

We install sensors that monitor temperature and blade sharpness to make it easier for technicians to identify and locate mechanical problems or maintenance issues, like a dull saw blade, before they affect product quality.

Fully automatic systems do require more service than semi-automatic systems to maintain proper functionality. Your team will receive a regular maintenance tutorial, and if you do not have someone on site who can maintain the system, our technicians can be hired to visit the facility every three months to keep things running smoothly.

Freeing floor space

Encapsulating an entire line within a 30-by-6-foot machine saves about half the floor space as compared to semi-automatic machines. You could add another fully automatic line with little additional area, which can mean the difference between housing multiple lines in one facility or having to look for more real estate to expand an operation.

That’s a big difference. Adding another machine is a far more efficient way to increase capacity than add building space. More building space means more cost per square foot, which means additional output is needed to cover the investment, putting more pressure on your team.

Ever-advancing

We are constantly working to advance our technology and improve our service offerings.

Customers will soon be able to implement our cloud dashboard system that allows our technicians to monitor your lines for issues like overheating, allowing your operators to focus on getting as much output out of your system as possible.

Find your bottom line

What does your fenestration fabrication operation need to see greater returns?

Consider the factors that have the greatest impact on your bottom line.

Ask yourself:

  • Where does your operation need to improve — speed or consistency?

    If your operation needs to produce as many windows as possible during a single shift, then semi-automatic lines could be the way to go. But if quality is more of a concern, then turn to a fully automatic solution.

  • Are you short on skilled labor and want to reallocate more of your workforce down the production line?

    Fully automated lines can be run by a single skilled operator, allowing you to reallocate your staff members down the line.

  • Do you want to free up space in a cramped facility or need to expand your operation without acquiring more real estate?

    Fully automatic systems could save you half the floor space of semi-automatic systems.

Take action

We can help audit your operation’s needs to decide what solution is best for you. Request a consultation and let us know how we can help you reach your goals.

Let’s talk about your dream project

Our mission is simple: To understand your unique requirements, and then engineer, build and install a lineal processing line that meets and exceeds them.