Opening up to innovation

Not many manufacturers can claim to have doubled their revenues per person and reduced their production cycle from four weeks to 24 hours, their order lead time from around six weeks to 10 days, and the time required to launch a new product from more than a year to just a few weeks.

Gienow Building Products Ltd. is a remarkable example of a company applying technology to boost productivity, slash inventory, shrink its production cycle, give better value to its customers and grow its business. The Calgary-based manufacturer of custom windows and doors fulfills about 1,500 custom orders per day. In 2002, it generated more than $70 million, 10 times its 1988 revenue.

Since being established in 1947 by local home builder Bernard Gienow, the company had earned a reputation for quality products. In 1983, the company was purchased by Dave Munro, the current president and CEO, who since then has worked with Paul Dean, now director of information technology, to transform the small, almost craft-like operation with 35 employees to a major business with 600 employees in peak production months. The company has branch offices in Edmonton and, in B.C., in Kelowna and Prince George, with sales people across the country. It exports to the U.S., Japan, China, Chile, Germany, Poland, and Saudi Arabia. Its international division currently has English, French, Japanese and Chinese language capabilities.

The company’s head office and manufacturing facility in the Foothills Industrial Park in southeast Calgary is a surprise to visitors such as those on tour through the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters’ Innovations Insights/Technology Visits Program. They typically marvel at how immaculate Gienow keeps the 270,000 sq. ft. it uses of its 350,000 sq. ft. facility. Guests are further impressed at the integrated automation of the manufacturing process from sales to shipping.

Just in (the customer’s) time

“Our process is such that we don’t make any windows at all until the customer is ready to receive it so we have no warehouse space, we have absolutely no finished product [lying around] at all,” explains Dean. Gienow only produces its doors and windows when customers are ready to receive them. As soon as the order is finished, the products are taken from the end of the line, put in a truck and delivered. “In that way we attempt to be customer-focused and to meet our customer’s required delivery date,” Dean adds.

Delivery and customer focus were the drivers of the company’s use of technology, Dean stresses. The majority of customers today are in the new-home construction and want the supplies to come to their sites at the appropriate time. About five days before the original shipping date indicated when the order was placed, Gienow contacts the customer to confirm they will be ready to receive the order. If there has been a delay, Gienow can re-schedule the order.

“In the past, the way that a lot of companies and a lot of window companies would do it is that they would forecast their sales and then they would say, ‘ok, we need to make a whole pile of windows and store them in a warehouse so that when the customers are ready for them, we’ll just pull them off the shelf,'” Dean explains. “First of all, of course, you’re carrying inventory for that, you’re taking up a lot of warehouse space. And, of course, the products are handled multiple times. They can get damaged. They can be old.”

The original vision to apply technology to this extent made Gienow awkwardly ahead of its time. Any company that starts off today has a wealth of resources or skills within the computer business whereas years ago, that wasn’t readily available, especially in the building industry.

Today, when you employ people in any environment and even in a manufacturing environment, there’s an expectation that they have a knowledge of computers,” says Dean.

“Twenty years ago, it was very rare or certainly it was limited. One of the things we deliberately did within the organization was to change the culture and have a skill set of the people in relationship to computers. So we sent as many people as we could on computer courses and we encouraged them to take courses on their own time – paid for them and also ran courses in-house. At any one time we would have had upwards of 70 to 100 people taking night courses or further information.”

Gienow was also so innovative that they had to wait for the technology to catch up to their vision, at least when they couldn’t build what they needed themselves.

Seeking integration “crazy”

“We set ourselves up to develop what people talk today about an integrated system, so trying to avoid what people refer to as islands of technology,” Dean explains. “As an organization, you come across a particular machine tool or a particular process and you can justify adopting that or purchasing the equipment. But so often what happens is that it’s put in and it stands alone and it becomes that island of technology. It may in itself be very efficient, but unless you look at the process around it, all you end up doing is creating buffers of work-in-progress stock that are either waiting to be processed by this new equipment or this equipment produces so much more than the rest of the process so you’ve got a whole pile of working inventory sitting around it.”

However, avoiding that standalone difficulty that hinders a manufacturing process was a problem because the window equipment was not being manufactured with computer interfaces.

“We went to one glass equipment developer and we said, ‘look we want to be able to integrate this into our network,'” Dean recalls. “They said, ‘well you know it’s no problem; it reads information off a floppy disk, so all you have to do is copy the information onto a floppy and then take it down to the machine.’ And we said, ‘yeah, but long-term, that doesn’t meet our goal. We want to be able to connect it so we want to be able to put network cards into the computers that you’re developing on your system.’ At first they thought we were crazy, but today they sell the equipment with computers and of course it can be networked now.”

A window comes in many different shapes and has many options – different glass, different hardware, it may or may not have a screen – there is a great variety of instructions on how to make each window. Being able to make any size and any shape of window, instead of a fixed bill of material, Gienow needed what today is called a configurator or a bill of materials generator that will look at an order and determine the lengths of the components needed to manufacture it. It then generates simple printouts of instructions such as ‘go get this piece of material and make it this length in order to make the finished product.’ Or, it downloads that information to an automated cutting machine that knows, when it comes to that particular piece, to cut it the required length.

At Gienow, when they make those 1,500 products a day, they actually generate the bills of materials for all those products and all those instructions – every day. They do not have them in a library.

Ahead of their time

Fifteen years ago, none of the manufacturing software around was capable of generating the dynamic bills of materials that Gienow required. Even today, an off-the-shelf software configurator doesn’t have the complete routing functionality Gienow needs for controlling the production flow of multiple lines.

Dean developed the initial concepts of an order entry configuration and manufacturing process to meet the just in time requirements. As the project grew in size, he used various resources including the National Research Council, Alberta Research Council and some external programming resources.

Now they use part of an ERP system from Baan to do inventory control of raw materials and also for purchasing and material planning so the purchase orders are issued and suppliers deliver the product on time.

Dean and his team developed the rest of the software themselves. This includes the front of the system which they refer to as the Gienow Digital Solution (GDS). This order configuration system for windows and doors is being rolled out to all customers via the Internet.

They also developed what they call the Gienow Production System (GPS). Each day, the next day’s orders are compiled and transmitted to the GPS which generates all pick, cut and fabrication lists for the day’s work. This entails generating the download work-list files for all the company’s computer numeric control (CNC) manufacturing equipment, ensuring that the production lines follow the computer-generated sequence. The GPS sorts all the products into the optimum sequence and balances the loads on the sub-assembly lines to match the completion of components with the production rates of the main lines. It generates bar code labels for each product, enabling the company to track each item from its completion on the production line to loading and delivery to the customer’s building site. It also synchronizes the products to the departure times of the trucks at the loading dock to make sure that all products for the same order are completed and shipped together.

Using a real-time manufacturing production control system, supervisors can monitor production rates and match the performance of each line against projected targets and detect when a line has exceeded its schedule or fallen behind.

Efficiency, consistency and quality

Obviously it is a complex undertaking to deal with thousands of custom orders and run the plant efficiently to produce a quality product.

“We’ve got all sorts of challenges in terms of us being able to balance the load through our production and we’re very focused on the quality, and the efficiency as well,” Dean admits. “That’s where automation helps us. You get consistency in your processes and that is one of the sort of round basic rules for full quality – that you have a consistent process so your tolerances are consistent and the components fit together the same way every time.”

Dean and president Munro were clearly never shy of applying technology and have been able to see its potential. The automated system that Gienow developed has contributed to a revolution in the building industry. Gienow has also produced advances in insulated glass, weather-stripping, wood milling and assembly methods.

“When I look back now, it was very much done in a number of stages,” Dean recalls. “During those stages we learned more about the situation that we were in – the business, the requirements of our customers, and also keeping in touch with technology. Being able to say ‘well, there’s a potential with this technology’ to be able to further advance.”

The company’s use of IT from sales to shipping earned it the Best of Show Solution Award, the highest honour from the 2002 Canadian Information Productivity Awards (CIPA).

In the words of Paul Nelson, chair of the CIPA National Judging Committee, “anyone who doubts the ability of Canadian companies to become 21st-century leaders through visionary management and technological know-how should have a good look at Gienow Building Products.”