December 17, 2005
“The burner is named Earlene and she’s got a temper,” explained Mike Mobley, second shift manager at Cardinal IG in Odell.
I was fascinated to watch the huge furnace in action. It glowed inside with heat of about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. And the small pieces of glass that tumbled to the floor truly did appear as though they were being spit out by an angry piece of high-tech equipment.
The furnace turned raw, or annealed, glass into tempered safety panes – in a pressurized process that broke any pieces with a flaw. When a shift was in full swing, glass of all sizes filled the 84 inch wide by 144 inches long bed of the furnace. Mobley said about three percent of every 1,000 pieces of glass passing through the furnace would crack.
Even at 10 p.m. on Thursday night, Jeremy Hiler and Gary Ward were kept busy removing the finished product. Outfitted in their standard-issue Kevlar jackets and wristbands, and wearing protective gloves, they were involved in the first phase of the window manufacturing process. On a busy night, they handled between 500-1,000 differing-sized panes. Mobley informed me that this was the slower season for the business, although everyone around me appeared to be plenty busy.
Mobley said tempered glass was stronger and would crumble into small pieces if jarred instead of breaking into shards. He said about one-third of Cardinal’s production involves tempered glass that is commonly used in high-wind zones and public areas.
I was hesitant to leave the toasty furnace room – especially after braving the bitter cold outside just minutes earlier. But Mobley lured me into the state-of-the art factory with promises of other wonders in the glass world.
I found myself growing jumpy in the cutting gallery for standard glass panes. A huge gantry crane selected the closest size to match a computerized order. And then another machine merrily scored the glass with a carbide wheel so that, with a little pressure, it broke into the proper size. The wicked looking leftovers from that process slid into a recycling bin.
Neither Jose Flores nor Cliff Robinson, supervisor of the cutting operation, seemed fazed by the tinkling sounds around them. Perhaps they hadn’t been jaded by my experience of raising two boys who liked to play catch with a baseball in their bedrooms. The two men manning this department just calmly swept up any glass that escaped the recycling container.
“We train our workers every day in handling techniques so they don’t become complacent. We’ve had a few cuts but no serious injury,” said Mobley.
Echo Crawforth tried to reassure me that breaking glass was just a natural part of the manufacturing operation.
“I consider a piece of glass that breaks as a little rainstorm, that’s all it is,” she said.
She and Deanna Roberts had one of the higher-stress jobs in the Cardinal operation. They attached tacky strips of Butyl to the edges of metal spacer. It was at this point in the process that the window units were pieced together.
If the two women didn’t properly fill the channels for the window to sit in, the double panes would not seal properly. And that would prevent the Argon gas inserted inside from insulating the unit for greater energy efficiency — and render it worthless.
“Basically, anything that isn’t perfect is a reject,” said Mobley.
Crawforth said the camaraderie between the personnel at Cardinal made even the most stressful position fun to work at.
“There just an awesome work family out here,” she said.
The plant did almost seem festive to me with its sparkling white walls and touches of primary paint colors. Certainly, the squeaky-clean facility didn’t resemble in any way the stereotypical gray metal and drab concrete structure.
Walking into the shapes department was like entering an artists’ conclave in the midst of a technical society. These workers tackled the challenge of creating unusual spacer shapes for custom windows. One of their larger projects had been a $250,000 massive piece for the front window of a home.
Terry Crist attempted to describe an unusual order that involved an “oval inside of an oval with bars” but I just couldn’t visualize that concept. He finally told me to just to think of an Easter egg with a “lot of stuff inside” and I would have a general idea of the project.
“Pretty much anything a customer can think of we can build,” he said.
Mobley said the pressure is on the inspectors at the end of the assembly line. They have to look over every piece to ensure that it has no flaws before approving it for shipping. Mobley said Cardinal handles single orders but also supplies up to 1,200 units for one customer. And every window that comes out of the plant needs to reflect its high-quality reputation.
“These guys are a really important line of defense for quality control,” he said.
At 11 p.m., Mobley watches the computer readout to learn what the breakage rate had been for the swing shift. And is pleased to see that only one unit was flawed out of the 256 produced just from one assembly line.
“They guys are all good, they know their jobs and everything just keeps flowing,” he said.
Mobley said because of its quality product, Cardinal is steadily increasing production. And that could eventually increase the ranks of the 170 existing employees.
Later that night, as the wind whipped up outside, I wondered if my bedroom windows were made of regular or tempered glass.
I certainly will never look through my panes the same way again. And, if the truth were to be known, my windows seem a little square now that I know about all of the available possibilities in design.