Under the Glass
By Colleen Cross & Patrick Flannery
Quantity and quality co-exist at Starline Windows.
By Colleen Cross & Patrick Flannery
Growing into a healthy business is a fine thing, but no one ever said it was easy.
Growing into a healthy business is a fine thing, but no one ever said it was easy.
|High volume is the name of the game at Starline. The vinyl plant pushes through 1,500 windows per day and the aluminum operation 80 floors of wall modules per month. |
Starline Windows of Langley, B.C., has successfully made the transition from a contracting/fabricating type of process, established in 1972, to a highly automated, mass production process that is held in check by tight inventory control and rigorous quality-assurance programs. It’s a matter of very deliberately controlling its growth.
Starline has the volumes. It is the largest manufacturer and installer of glazing products in British Columbia and one of the largest in Canada, says Paul Arnold, general manager of preconstruction services, who has been with the company for eight years and was formerly with Allied Windows.
It has the size. Two production plants within half a mile of each other in Langley – one that does vinyl products and one that does aluminum – employ approximately 600 at a ratio of roughly 50:50 between the two plants, with slightly more employees on the vinyl side.
“Vinyl does single family . . . so we might do a hundred projects a year in the vinyl side of things, we might deliver to a hundred houses a week,” says Arnold.
Incorporated in 1972, Starline is owned by Ron Martini, who bought the company in the 1980s.
It has grown from a completely residential window company to a hybrid of commercial and residential.
“In fact, we pretty much are residential now,” says Arnold. “Even our our highrise projects are 99 per cent residential buildings. The way I would define it is we have vinyl that does single-family homes and some wood-frame multi-family projects.
“And then we have our aluminum architectural company that does multi-family projects and highrise residential towers.”
The company did aluminum in the beginning, he adds: “Until the early 1990s, this market was primarily aluminum and when the 1992 building code came out, it referenced CSA A440-M90, which basically made any metal window had to have a thermal break, and that paved the way for vinyl in that the aluminum windows got more expensive and vinyl was kind of new and was so expensive. So basically the market price came up on the aluminum and then vinyl sort of became competitive and then took off, and now vinyl is way cheaper than aluminum actually as a completed product.”
Arnold describes the company’s slow ramp-up from a contracting/fabricating type of process to a mass production, high-volume process: “In the 1990s, Starline was a competitor of Allied’s and when we got towards the end of the ’90s, Starline just kind of took off and automated their plant. Until then, most of the aluminum products that were in the marketplace were fabricated . . . . Starline took the approach to automate and increase their volume and grow and they certainly did in the early 2000s.
|Location: Langley, B.C. (head office), distribution offices in Kelowna, Kamloops, Nanaimo, Lantzville and Victoria, B.C., and Calgary|
No. of staff: Approximately 600
Plant: Two plants in Langley, B.C. (vinyl and aluminum)
Products: Punched windows, window wall, balcony doors and curtain wall.
Starline Windows is one of Canada’s largest manufacturers and installers of high-performance glazing systems for residential and commercial projects, including new developments, renovations and restorations. It has done glazing contracts for projects in Western Canada and the United States.
“Up until that point, they had been growing quite steadily and then took a bit of a dip and then now it’s been growing again,” he says, adding that there have been huge investments in equipment and automation with an eye to providing a very high-quality product. Among these are supplier companies that support Starline with extrusions (Apex Aluminum Extrusions), glass fabrications (Vitrum Industries), and an automated powder coating system.
“A very expensive and elaborate line was put in for that,” he says, the result being a sophisticated one-stop shop. “The inventory system’s automated, production system is all digital from shop lines, and the end result is that when we get a project and we draw it in our PC shop drawings, it actually provides instructions for purchasing of materials, forecasting, and digital instructions even for the equipment that does the picking of extrusion and the milling and cutting and powder coating and everything.”
At current aluminum production levels that include both window wall and curtain wall of about 80 floors a month, Starline is the highest-volume producer of architectural glazing in British Columbia.
“It’s kind of neat for multiple projects and it just all flows through. We do have a pretty good forecasting system, so we don’t overcommit and we also use that to make sure we don’t have any holes as well. So the company has a really good steady backlog for the next, 16 months, which is a great position to be in, but it’s not by accident. We’re by design.”
On the vinyl side, Starline can build 1,500 windows in a day.
The company, which since its beginning has focused on residential business, has not actively sought the commercial business, says Arnold. “What’s happening on a lot of residential towers that are high end is they do a mixture of the two products, so what they’ll want to do is create a feature wall because curtain wall looks different. . . . and so in order to supply the entire job, we started doing curtain wall.”
Vinyl work is challenging; they like to do work that involves more design, such as highrises. “We’re not building that many at this point. The market’s just not that strong and there’s so many people in it. The windows are a commodity and it’s a challenge to make money at it. You have to be really good at it.”
The vinyl industry is a challenge, he notes, in part because you have to do your own glass fabrication and extrusion; work to tight delivery schedules; handle complex house packages that include sliding windows, casement windows, awning windows, curved windows, sloped windows and patio doors; and accommodate custom orders.
“Compare that to someone who’s building a 35-storey highrise,” he says. “There’s much more design work to the engineering, bigger lead times – and you’re customer generally is much more sophisticated.”
“When I used to have Allied, we did all three. We did vinyl windows for single families and for wood frame multis and we did high rises, but when I was at Allied, we didn’t do a lot of high rises. . . . The vinyl was sort of the steady line to keep the doors open and then when the aluminum kicked in, was when we did well.”
But Starline does enough aluminum highrise to sustain a consistent workload. The forecast, or the forward load, as he puts it, is very consistent and long.
“For next month, it looks like we’ve got to do 100 floors, but what’s going to happen is the work’s going to spread out and we’re probably going to do 80. So the work just keeps spreading out in front of the knife. It looks a bit bigger in the near future, but it never really is that big because there’s always delays.”
Starline has some very able partners to help meet the heavy workload.
|Automation is key to success with big volumes. Three |
Remmert automated storage
systems organize more than 450 different aluminum extrusions.
Akzo Nobel, the largest powder supplier in the world, supplies the automated powder coating equipment, and Remmert the automated inventory systems.
Arnold says the powder coating creates very minimal waste because the system is all downdraft, so operators can change colour in a heartbeat recover every bit of excess spray.
The company has several automated saws, which not only cut profiles, but do all of the punching and milling for drainage and t-bars.
Starline’s inventory control equipment consists of a Remmert system. “It’s like a wall of bins and the extrusions,” he says. Each bin is defined by what’s in it and, he adds, and when the extrusion comes in raw, you load it into the appropriate bins. “As you do orders,” he says, “basically there’s a couple operators there and what happens is the order starts and extrusions just start to come down automatically in these bins and they basically pick them and put them into racks and then they go over to the paint line and get put on the line and come out the other line painted and they get rolled together with thermal break and run through the saw and the process goes on.
“We have several hundred dyes, so you can imagine if you were trying to do 15 jobs that were 15 different colours, how many bundles of extrusion do you think you have? Thousands.
“So you would end up with this massive inventory. We just literally could not do it any other way with, like I was saying, we have over a hundred jobs in the pipeline in various stages and at any given time we’re delivering to 30 to 40 sites with maybe 15 different colours, but we’re only inventorying one set of dyes to mill finish the powder, so it’s crucial to do that when you’re doing the volume we’re doing.”
MINDING ITS QA and QC
Starline puts a high priority on quality-assurance and quality-control programs developed with Total Quality Management, Six Sigma and Kaizen principles.
“We consider ourselves a mass producer, or manufacturer as opposed to basically a fabricator, so when you’re building a product in large volumes, you need proper systems to ensure consistency of quality, and even appearance, and the way the product comes out at the end of the plant,” says Arnold. Starline has a QC program that includes is sequential inspection.
“What that means is that everybody’s responsible for quality and if you find a quality defect from the worker ahead of you in the production line, you get your name put into a hat and at the end of the month they do a draw for a prize,” he says. “There’s a real interest in everybody to make sure everything’s done right.”
With several hundred standard operating procedures that define how each product is made, and seven or eight projects on the go daily, the company is set up to rely more on systems than on individuals.
“They just sort of come through – they’re all built the same, and when you’re doing that, you need to have a good quality program.”
EXPANSION: GOING EAST
Although much of the company’s market is in British Columbia, there is definite growth into Alberta, including Calgary and Edmonton and Lethbridge. Starline also has done some work in the U.S. as far down as San Diego.
“We have distribution warehousing in Kelowna and we have the same thing on the island in Victoria and . . . we just set up the same thing in Calgary. So we’re doing a single-family in Calgary as well.”
The Calgary branch office officially opened on July 15 of this year. Late in 2012, Starline decided to move into the Calgary market more aggressively and support its sales efforts in the highrise sector.
“We have always had a presence in the Alberta market, albeit more low-key over the past several years and we decided to take a more significant approach to launching our products to the residential construction industry in Alberta,” says Mike Harrison, who heads sales and marketing in the Alberta region. Harrison’s role is to expand major project sales in Alberta and help raise brand awareness.
“Besides having an excellent facility for offices, showroom displays and shipping, we have a key crew of installers on all of our highrise projects and their efforts are supported by biweekly visits by our installation manager and VP of construction,” Harrison adds. “We have two full-time salespeople in the Calgary office and receive ongoing management support head office in Langley. All manufacturing remains out of the Langley plants for efficiency and quality control purposes.”
In Calgary, Starline’s main product is the 9000 Series aluminum window wall systems for highrise residential construction, and the company is now offering a full line of PVC windows and balcony doors along with colour options that were not typically available to Albertans, he says.
A TEAM EFFORT: LANGLEY’S ONE-STOP SHOP
Vitrum Industries, also of Langley, does Starline’s glass processing.
Arnold describes Vitrum’s glass fabrication plant as “an unbelievable facility. State-of-the-art tempering lines, own landlines, you know, a lot of it’s the automated cutting glass fabrication like milling, cutting, polishing, frits, it’s incredible. Just incredible, all the counting technology, the high rate, the excellent quality, state of the art and now he’s got annodizing lines in there and yeah, pretty amazing the investment these guys have made here.”
Its extruder supplier is Apex Aluminum Extrusions, also of Langley.
Vitrum offers heat-soaking capabilities, which often are a requirement.
“Well, you know, with the glass breaking and falling, there’s specs coming out now saying you have to heat soak, so they set up to do it.”
HANDLING SEISMIC DRIFT
With all of its west coast work, Starline has become adept at handling seismic drift when working on buildings that need to withstand earthquakes. In British Columbia, it is a requirement to offset interstory seismic drift.
“There’s two levels,” he explains. “There’s what’s called elastic, and that’s how much movement the system can take and still perform, and then there’s inelastic and that’s how much movement it can take without it falling out. We’ve been dealing with those types of requirements in California for years. They’ve always had higher seismic requirements in California, but essentially the challenge is this is that you basically have to design a glazing system to withstand up to and can be three inches of drift laterally between floors without the glass falling out.
“The way we deal with it is the windows are anchored at the sill and then the jams and the head are basically into a sleeved connection that can take the movement. But the tricky part about it is you’ve got to take the movement, but you still have to provide an adequate building envelope that can meet the everyday requirements, as well as water penetration resistance and wind load as well, but so the real challenge is that now you’ve got to have this window system that floats, but it’s got to withstand all the vigours that are required in the project specifications for air leakage and water penetration and thermal and all that good stuff.”
Arnold says Starline has a few triple-glass projects on the go and says it is strictly a marketing initiative for clients.
“Thermal requirements here are being tightened down on and people are going for LEED Gold and LEED Platinum for their buildings, and in order to achieve that, they usually look for improvement performance over the base ASHRAE and they usually ask for ultra low U value.”
Starline Windows has negotiated the path from contracting/fabricating to highly automated mass production by staying cutting edge – and by not losing sight of the human element that underpins its growth. •