Volume 8, Issue 7 - July/August 2007
The opening of a modern and highly automated, 240,000-square-foot facility in Ocala, Fla., in July 2006 marked the culmination of the goals and vision of John Cwik, founder and present owner of Custom Window Systems (CWS). The path to achieving these goals began in 1986, not too far from the current facility.
With 5,000 square feet of rented space, five people and not much more than a horizontal roller, Cwik originally started making porch enclosures, according to company history. Driven to redesign in order to make a better product, he demonstrated his creativity and innovation right from the start. The company’s products, made from its own specialized tooling and dyes, feature a durable design, high-quality materials and user-friendly features.
The market responded and in the first year, the young company had sales of $150,000, an omen of its future growth. One sign of early success is the need for more space. In 1992, the company purchased an 18,000-square-foot warehouse, which was eventually expanded to 50,000 square feet.
Two years later, the company built another plant, a 40,000-square-foot building across the street. In 2002, a 12,000-square-foot facility was built nearby. CWS started using horizontal and vertical vinyl film panels for its porch enclosures in the early 1990s while developing a single-hung, double-pane window for new construction as well as for the replacement market—a product that marked a successful entry into this growing market. Cwik set up his own insulating glass operation so everything could be made under one roof. The business experienced rapid growth. By 1995, it had reached sales of $5 million. Ten years later, sales had increased eight-fold to approximately $40 million.
According to Lou Andresino, director of marketing and sales, the company has grown at an annual rate of 25 percent each year. In 2006, growth exceeded 40 percent, based on an annual volume of approximately 120,000 units with a workforce of nearly 300 on a single, five-day shift. It continues to achieve a higher level of quality and superior design, the goals of its founder, to make optimizing the standard in manufacturing, machinery and manpower.
Optimizing at Its Best
“We started small and John [Cwik] bought into it [new technology] and kept expanding the technology,” says Andresino.
The obvious attraction to automating the operation was lower operating costs, including the cost of labor, says Andresino. A key element was optimizing. Fifteen years ago, the company started with saws, which were replaced by automated computerized saws, the first phase of customization.
For example, a fabrication center made by ATI (the equipment arm of the DeMichele Group in Mesa, Ariz.) can fabricate an entire casement unit, says Rob Blasko, vice president of product automation. Blasko believes the company is more automated than most custom door and window manufacturers. Familiar with the company before he joined, Blasko serviced CWS as his customer while he was working for DeMichele.
Designed to perform multiple functions, the optimizer, referred to as a quad, will cut a frame and at two different lengths.
Running tandem with a CNC corner cleaner, a Greller fusion welder makes it possible to double stack. One side is sashes and components and the other is casements and frames.
“This combination has eliminated many steps and helped improve our efficiency,” says Andresino.
With the addition of an automated bender, the company now is able to make architectural shapes for aluminum windows, an operation that had been out-sourced. Manufactured by Wintech, the unit represents new technology that uses hot air to replace what was traditionally a messy operation involving chemicals.
“We do programmed shapes, but we’re ready to go to the next generation, which will enable us to download shapes,” says Andresino, who points out that the company’s roots are in aluminum. Aluminum sliders and single-hung windows, which are directly competitive to PVC, were some of its original products.
Although he says the future is in PVC, Andresino says there will always be a need for aluminum, especially where specifications call for a dark color or bronze. Glass handling also is an automated operation with an auto drop table made by Perfect Technology in Red Oak, Texas.
Glass drops onto a table, it is squared and it moves to a cutting table and through optimization. Andresino says there was a time when eight people were cutting glass.
After the glass is cut and placed in a numbered glass rack, it is moved to the washer, manufactured by Billco. CWS washes every piece of glass, whether it is single-glazed or insulating, which allows the company to inspect each piece of glass before it leaves its facility. After going through the washer, the glass is insulated, using Tremco’s Duraseal system to create the necessary air space.
In 2006, Cardinal Glass built a new 300,000-square-foot facility directly behind CWS, giving CWS a local supplier of laminate, LoE2 and tempered glass, which it says decreased its lead times.
Once the insulating process is complete, the glass racks are positioned near the automated frame line. Frames are placed on an automatic back-bedding machine that puts an exact bead of sealant on the window frame, Cwik says.
In addition, CWS utilizes a Mikron sash system.
“We were able to pass tests of all models using Mikron,” says Andresino. In addition, the company has developed a sash system internally that is used for windows made specifically for the Florida market, the strictest anywhere, says Andresino, referring to the Miami-Dade building code.
“We need to be proactive rather than rethink everything. We must continue to refine the process of optimization.”
The entire operation is coordinated with a fully integrated system. Everything about a product is scanned into the system, making it possible to track a particular job easily. Information is choreographed, with simplicity in mind, so the operator knows where to get material for processing and where to store remnants.
“We will become truly paperless,” says Cwik.
“Be Safety Smart Right From The Start”
“We reward employees for working safely,” says Ray Angus, the company’s safety director, who started a safety incentive program when he joined. “We have pushed safety to line responsibility,” says Andresino, “and we have seen a vast improvement since Ray came on board.”
Angus says the accident rate continues to fall each year and at this time is below the industry standard.
Andresino points to the many advantages of working under one roof. Prior to the move, there were five plants. Now, with everyone together, he says the company benefits from a structured safety program and stricter quality control, driven by advanced software. There is even a scrap department where the level of waste is checked to see what materials could have been utilized more efficiently.
Andresino says that the company’s impact windows meet, if not exceed, the current design pressures in the latest testing. Most recently, the company introduced a PVC impact-resistant sliding glass door.
He points out that the Florida market for PVC, which he says is being driven by energy efficiency and impact resistance, is 28 percent of the entire market. “We must be a part of that market,” Andresino says.
But the market for CWS goes beyond Florida. Today its products can be found in Georgia and the Carolinas, the Northeast, the Midwest, including Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, and as far west as Texas, with distributors outside of the country in Canada and Australia.
What Andresino considers unique begins with product diversification.
“I don’t believe anyone is as diverse as we are from our porch enclosures to doors and windows for new construction and the replacement market,” he says.
He also says the company’s customer service and quality of products are second to none.
“We will match anyone on quality. And as far as our customers go, we never lose sight that they got us here. If you don’t know where you have come from, you’ll never know where you need to go,” he says.
Describing the customer base, Andresino says that initially, the company sold to contractors. It has since established a distributor network although there are contractors that are still direct customers.
“We respect customer loyalty and we’re very open with our grandfathered customers,” he says.
The company’s biggest challenge is one faced by the entire industry.
“We’re all dealing with the challenge of finding good labor. If we can keep someone on board for one year, chances are we won’t lose them,” says Andresino.
He points out that one of the company’s strengths is in the longevity of its employees—which says a lot about the working environment that has been created.
Another is diversification. By providing products for new construction as well as replacement, the company is not as vulnerable to a soft housing market and has been able to maintain steady growth.
Alan B. Goldberg is a contributing writer for DWM magazine. He has 31 years of experience in the industry.