Architects today spare no expense in their designs. Beautiful curved glass is all the rage and curtain walls are the sophisticated building envelopes of choice.
Curtain walls allow a designer to use light and depth to create striking, complex structures with incredible curb appeal. A curtain wall system is the outer cover of a building with outer walls being non-structural. Utilizing glass in the curtain wall allows natural light to accentuate the interiors, as well as offer an aesthetic to the façade.
However, creating that desired curved and angled look is no easy feat. It requires a professional glazier to spend a significant amount of resources cutting thousands upon thousands of aluminum components.
For one of Canada’s top glaziers, Alberta Glass, also Western Canada’s largest full service glazing contractor, this means utilizing the right equipment to do the job quickly and accurately.
Patrick Powell, manager of fabrication materials and equipment at Alberta Glass, is responsible for making sure product gets out the door in a timely manner. His department is tasked with processing, cutting and fabricating all of the components that go into the company’s famed curtain wall designs.
And these aren’t just any designs – picture big-time architectural projects such as the skylights and canopies of the Bow Building, arguably Calgary’s most beautiful skyscraper; Borden Park Pavilion of the Calgary Zoo; and Muttart Conservatory, a leading horticultural attraction nestled in the North Saskatchewan River Valley.
With the advent of increasingly high profile jobs such as these, Alberta Glass was recently faced with a number of decisions about expansion.
“The ownership of the company basically said if we don’t get with the times and embrace technology,” Powell says, “we’re going fall behind.”
So, about three years ago, the company purchased a CNC machine to aid in its fabrication process.
“It was a real eye opener,” Powell explains.
As many manufacturers can attest, installing new technology in an operation can highlight weak spots. While the installation of the new CNC machine brought about many benefits, it also brought to light a glaring bottleneck in the shop’s production line.
“The CNC was so efficient that we needed to be able to cut material quickly enough to get it into the machine,” Powell says, adding that the aluminum material would have to be stacked up on a saw horse, manually measured and marked, then cut and drilled.
The necessary components were cut out, and the finished parts were placed on a cart, then rolled over to the CNC machine for additional processing. The manual saws and manual stops were the glaring cause of the inefficiencies, which was made evident by the CNC’s rapid fabrication.
“We would have to measure pieces and then cut a few,” Powell says, “and then move the manual stop, cut another piece, measure it, adjust the stop so it was just right and so forth. It was really easy to pinpoint exactly where in our process we were failing.”
After researching a few options, Alberta Glass decided on a TigerSaw 2000 aluminum saw system by TigerStop LLC. Since the investment, the company has seen significant time savings, but that is just one of many benefits.
“With our TigerSaw 2000,” Powell explains, “components go straight from their boxes or bundles directly to the saw. Parts are run through the saw and accurately cut using the automated push feeder. The TigerSaw then prints custom part labels for the finished parts. The parts are rolled over to the CNC machine, which completes the rest of assembly. It’s a lot faster and definitely streamlines our operations.”
Powell says that in his fabrication department, there are anywhere from five to 10 people working at any given time, which means finding ways to improve productivity really matters.
“There are about 100 employees total at Alberta Glass,” Powell says. “With such a limited number of workers, maximizing productivity in our manufacturing operations is incredibly important. Now, using our TigerSaw 2000, we just load aluminum stock in the machine and away we go.”
The average stock length of curtain wall material runs at $220 Canadian or approximately $170 U.S. When material is miscut, a fraction of that $170 goes directly into the garbage can. Even when the part can be reworked, hourly wages are wasted in fixing something that could have been cut accurately in the first place.
“It’s not easy to manually measure and mark material over and over again when completing custom jobs with thousands of components all at varied lengths,” Powell says. “And we do a lot of custom sizes at Alberta Glass. Each job is distinct and unique. Very seldom do we have jobs with multiples of the same length.”
Powell clarifies, “your tape measure is okay, but the problem becomes how long does it take you to cut that part accurately using it? You have to spend additional time making sure the material is prepped perfectly and multiply that by thousands of parts. So, one of our old cold saws up against the TigerSaw 2000 is no competition.”
In Alberta Glass’ business, more than 90 percent of the material it uses is aluminum. With increased pressure from material costs, and possible trade wars and tariffs to consider, it’s more pertinent than ever for businesses to utilize the full extent of the material. Like most metal fabricators, these issues hit close to home for Powell and Alberta Glass.
“Using the TigerSaw 2000,” Powell says, “the yield is definitely higher than using manual saws and stops. All of our aluminum comes in a stock length, and using our TigerSaw helps get all the material out of the stock length.”
TigerSaw 2000’s proprietary optimizing algorithm is able to determine the most efficient cutting orders based on Alberta Glass’ cut lists. The end result is little to no scrap.
“With the manual saw, we’d figure out how to optimize it, cut a bunch of pieces and use the cutoffs last,” Powell explains. “But it took a lot of work to figure that out. Now, when the TigerSaw 2000 optimizes, there’s barely anything left..”
As anyone can see from looking at an Alberta Glass curtain wall, they strive for absolute top quality workmanship.
“We try and do things differently,” Powell explains. “In the construction industry, it tends to be all about the bottom line price. A lot of building owners get a deal and years down the road find out there are all sorts of problems. In life, you get what you pay for. And Alberta Glass’ quality is second to none.
“There are a lot of curtain wall companies out there that try do to what we do,” Powell continues, “but the quality is never as great. That’s why we tend to get more of the complicated jobs and projects with notoriety – because architects and builders trust us. We have the knowledge and the equipment to take on the complex assignments.”
Alberta Glass’ high-quality approach has paid off. The company recently moved into a 42,000-sq.-ft. facility in Calgary and an additional 10,000-sq.-ft. facility in Edmonton.
“These facilities allow us to advance our fabrication and material handling capacities through CNC machinery, ACAD and 3-D modeling, product testing and engineering,” says Paul Heyens, CEO at Alberta Glass.
Next up on the company’s docket? Fabricating the newest Edmonton Police Station, which will showcase the latest trends in curtain wall design. The frames are all beautifully curved and mitered – and best of all, guaranteed to be perfectly accurate.