If the recent addition of a new 6,500 m² PVC windows factory in Brugg to the existing production site at Veltheim makes one thing clear, it is that the company is growing. Its focus is on the provision of single-source design, production and installation solutions to meet enhanced quality standards. We talk to Marcel Beglinger and Samuel Lüscher, Chief Executives of BL Fenster AG, a company with one of the highest growth rates among aluplast partners.
While some of your competitors are shifting production abroad, you are expanding in Switzerland. How have you managed that?
Marcel Beglinger: We reckon that a strategy of highly automated production by a skilled, committed workforce and within easy reach of our customers will pay dividends in the long run. Many in the industry see the growth in cheap imports from abroad as potentially damaging.
Samuel Lüscher: In Switzerland, for example, a prefabricated single-family house can be erected on site within 48 hours. That's not feasible if you're working from abroad.
How has your company managed to grow despite the proximity to the German border?
Lüscher: I think that enough people will always want to live, work and earn money here in Switzerland. With imports, things don't always run smoothly.
Beglinger: Our local presence close to customers allows us to respond promptly. Production, which accounts for 21 of our 85 employees, is only one part of our start-to-finish services. We cover everything from initial measurement to on-site assembly. Some companies just specialize in fabrication and let other providers handle installation and support. Our mission is to provide a full-range service for customers. If you include the import logistics costs in the equation, then our locally based approach is barely more expensive.
Lüscher: Price comparisons should always be based on the cost of a fully installed window. You can't simply compare a punched window product with an installed, full-height unit complete with structural connections and extension profiles. A further factor is the Ordinance on the Supervision of Private Insurance Companies (AVO), which is mandatory in Switzerland.
What ultimately matters is the finished product with warranty. Our best argument, as a Swiss company, is to deliver a quality product with professional support. If we achieve that, then we will more than make up for any small percentage difference in costs. We succeed simply by outperforming the importers.
Your customers have obviously rewarded you for the quality standards you have upheld over the years. What sets your windows apart?
Beglinger: The consistently high quality of our products is largely due to the method of bonding the insulating glass in the sash frame – what we call the 'bonding inside' technology. We have applied this process, with products supplied by Sika, for nearly seven years and have so far bonded some 70,000 units.
Lüscher: A bonded window is not just a cheaper window, it's also a better window.
This has been and remains our message. We can deliver consistent quality without steel reinforcement. Our products are no more expensive than steel-reinforced products while offering superior performance.
What features underscore the superior quality of your windows?
Lüscher: Bonded windows offer greater structural stability. That explains the almost complete lack of damage during transportation and assembly. At the same time, the use of more robust components has also enabled us to expand our range of products. Recent orders, for example, have included some 85 large-format, bonded-sash assemblies of a kind we have never produced before and which would have been unfeasible without this technology. For us, bonding has opened up new markets for this type of product."
How did you implement this technology in your company?
Beglinger: We started off with manual fabrication. In September 2014, after a contract for which we used a semi-automatic system, we proceeded to launch our fully automated production line. This has enabled us to boost production at the new plant by 50% since 2013. We recorded 43% growth in 2014 and expect around 25% this year. We still have ample spare capacity and expect to achieve double the 2013 output in 2017. That is our phased growth model.
You mentioned that bonding technology has significantly reduced the support effort.
Lüscher: We now keep sashes and frames strictly separate in terms of both manufacture and delivery, even on refurbishment projects. That's one of the benefits of our highly automated production system, which allows us to work to the finest of tolerances. This vastly reduces the need for post-installation works, such as fine adjustment.
I always cite the '1-10-100' formula: if something is not working properly during production, the effort needed for rectification is of the order of 1. If a problem is identified during a post-production inspection, this effort is of the order of 10. And if the flaw is detected on site, then the effort is of the order of 100.
Remedial works, such as the tightening of a screw, that take a matter of minutes at the plant may easily require one hundred times as long as a support service. A good window should work immediately after installation and one adjustment, and shouldn't need any later fine adjustment. That is the bar we set ourselves. As I see it, the need for fine adjustment is merely a symptom of prior imprecision and is therefore something we can eliminate.
Beglinger: The segregation of sashes and window frames ensures trouble-free production while also facilitating transportation and on-site assembly. It also gives us greater freedom during manufacture, the sashes and frames being produced by separate teams whose work requires no coordination. This minimizes redundancy. It is also possible to manufacture the window frames prior to glass delivery. The glazed sashes are then produced at a later point in time.
Lüscher: The PVC windows of some of our competitors are glazed on site, with all the attendant risks: not just glass breakages, but also when shimming with setting and edge blocks. We don't face those problems.
What are the advantages during manufacture?
Lüscher: Use of the Lemuth gluing station and bonding without hanging the sashes allows cycle times of 70 seconds to be achieved. That includes feeding, bonding and forwarding. The new high-temperature welding system on our sash production line further speeds up operations. The average 1.5 sashes per window needed in Switzerland make it important to minimize cycle times.
Beglinger: Practically all big-name window manufacturers in Switzerland capitalize on the benefits of bonding technology. Bonding also allows us to dispense with steel reinforcement, which is both costly and structurally redundant. Aside from that, all windows made from sections developed for shimming cannot be handled by glazing robots. And we plan to use these robots on our production line from 2016 onwards. Even today, our plant enables us to achieve industry-grade glazing standards.
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