Efficient innovation: Elton Manufacturing finds new ways to get better.
By Patrick Flannery
Elton Manufacturing was started in 1981 by Tom Boer, a Dutch immigrant who got fed up with farming. He is still majority owner of the company today, though Beavan and third partner Pigliarolo take care of most of the day-to-day oversight. There are two manufacturing plants: an extrusion plant, an injection molding plant, plus a warehouse and a tool and die shop. Elton started out extruding weather stripping for garage doors, and to this day its weather stripping remains a market leader and revenue bedrock for the company. But things have grown and diversified over the years. Today, Elton also produces entry door window frames, garage door windows, extruded profiles for windows and doors, laminated products for windows and doors and extrusions for the furniture industry.
Elton’s injection moulding shop consists of 14 injection moulding machines producing moulded plastic window frames for residential and commercial garage and entry doors. The machines work by melting solid plastic pellets into a liquid, then “injecting” the plastic into huge steel moulds where the plastic sets into its final shape. The moulds then separate, releasing the part inside to a waiting robot arm that places it lovingly on a table to be trimmed and packed by a worker. It is the same process that makes bumpers and side panels for cars. Elton’s injection moulders range from 80 to 1,000-ton models, capable of accepting up to 10,000 pound moulds, which can produce a plastic part up to 24 by 66 inches. Injection moulding makes very solid, internally homogeneous parts with no joins or seams. It has the advantage of producing the parts quickly without any need for fasteners or assembly. Designs are limited only by what can be cut by CNC machine tools into the mould, which in this day of CAD/CAM design software is almost anything the designer can imagine. Elton has produced plastic decorative pieces with a finish that resembles wrought iron and crescent-shaped frames that would be nightmares to duplicate with extrusions and cost much more if fabricated with iron. Beavan says his typical window frame contains up to 50 per cent more material than industry standard.
As large and impressive as the injection moulding facility is, it still represents only part of what the company does. Elton paints its products in-house in a large paint room, but Beavan says they need more capacity and will be adding on soon. Garage door window frames are molded with through colour or fully painted; entry door frames are usually only primed as customers almost always want custom looks matched to existing exterior colours. Elton also runs a lamination line to wrap wood, vinyl and aluminum profiles at 40 feet per minute. The fully automated process wraps and glues the vinyl coating to the profile, then shapes and presses it with rollers. The original Elton Manufacturing business is still going strong with 12 extrusion lines running 24 hours staffed by 20 workers producing garage door weatherstripping and other profiles including window and door accessories, sweeps and furniture products on these lines. The vinyl extrusion is pulled as it exits the cooling bath, fitted into the aluminum, steel or plastic retainer and cut to length by the workers.
|You do not want this job. The strip-pulling team walks from Toronto to Vancouver and back to Edmonton every year pulling weatherstripping on the extrusion line.
When Boer had had enough of farming (after, he told Canadian Plastics, “three straight years of no rain”) he went to work for a door plant in Moosejaw, Sask., then moved to Ontario and began installing garage doors and aluminum storm doors which he purchased from Frank Bruno, founder of Alumitex in Toronto, Ont. Boer discovered that no one was producing weather stripping for garage doors, so he bought an extrusion line and started making aluminum strip, selling it to Canadian Tire and Stanley in 1985). It wasn’t long before this product was doing well enough for him to close down the renovation business to concentrate entirely on manufacturing.
In the mid-’90s, Boer spotted another opportunity. Garage door windows were becoming more popular in Europe, but North American builders were only starting to offer them. He jumped into that market, creating the 1224 window, which is still one of Elton’s best sellers for commercial garage doors. The frame of the garage door window was easier to make and assemble as a one-piece, injection-moulded part than as an extrusion, so Boer began designing tooling and buying it from the former Global Tooling in Waterloo, Ont. He also had the frames moulded by third parties at first, often sending the same job to more than one moulding shop in order to keep quality and prices in check. Elton would get the moulded frames back and assemble them with glass to make the finished product. The commercial garage door window product evolved into five different sizes, then windows for residential garage doors began to gain popularity. So Boer began to manufacture windows and weather stripping for that market.
In 2004, Elton made the jump to doing its own injection moulding. Not a move to be taken lightly, and the learning curve was steep. To cover the cost of the machinery, which was considerable, Boer had to find ways to keep it working constantly. This drove the search for new products and markets, which took Elton into plastic window frames for entry doors. Not content to put just a toe in this market, Boer started making moves to expand what Elton does in the window and door market. He bought into Ace Extrusions in Mississauga, Ont. – a company with a very high degree of technical proficiency in vinyl extrusion. Ace was already doing a lot of work for a variety of fenestration and furniture companies, so Elton gained access to that list. Before long Boer had bought the rest of Ace and absorbed it into Elton’s operations.
Beavan came to Elton from a transportation company called Quik X in Mississauga, Ont. He studied business at the University of Windsor, had a wife-to-be and was looking around for better opportunities when he got talking to one of Elton’s drivers. The driver told him what a great place Elton was to work, and took him to meet Boer. Two days later, he was working for the company.
Beavan’s introduction to the weather stripping extrusion industry was an eye opener. He was initially put on the production line pulling strip with Kevin McTrach, a veteran worker with an apparently supernatural store of energy. Pulling weatherstripping involves pulling the hot strip of vinyl as it leaves the extruder down a long table as fast as you can, using just the right amount of force to seat it properly in the aluminum or steel retainer, then cutting it to length. Essentially, you are running up and down beside a 20-foot long table all day – the extrusion pullers cover up to 18 thousand feet per day and cover a distance from Toronto to Vancouver and back to Edmonton each year. Beavan lasted two days. “I broke him,” McTrach says. Boer took pity on him and tasked him with learning plant operations. Beavan spent some time in shipping, then worked on plant layout and inventory, eventually becoming “kind of a production coordinator.” Contact with customers quickly led to sales. “People trusted me because I was the guy getting product for them,” Beavan remembers. A year after being hired, he was managing the business.
One of Elton’s key innovations is injection moulded window frames. As with many new initiatives, Elton started looking into doing the work themselves when vendors’ quality and reliability started to slide. Elton was using a local tool and die shop to produce tooling whenever they changed or updated their design, but that shop also had two moulding machines so they could prove out the moulds before shipping. Beavan was asking his tool and die maker to do longer and longer production runs instead of just prototyping because the product he was getting there was better than what he was getting from his contract shop. Eventually, Elton simply bought the injection moulding side of the tool and die shop’s business and took his knowledgeable, trained staff with it. As garage windows in single family homes became more popular, Elton began to add other moulded products. Beavan grew his staff by having Toronto’s Humber College come in and train unskilled workers to hang tools and work the machines. Beavan took one of the courses himself.
Elton has benefitted from some government help on research and development, Beavan says. Elton has been relatively successful with the SRED program even though standards have tightened lately. “You know what? They are fair,” Beavan says. “Talking about China – these are the types of programs Canadian manufacturers need to be able to survive and export.” Elton’s commitment to R&D has paid off in the form of a constant flow of new products and ideas. Beavan estimates in the last year the company has launched 20 new products on the injection moulding side, eight products on the vacuum-forming side and around two dozen in the extrusion division.
“Once we had started setting up our own equipment and actually running everything in-house, we were much more confident to attack the market,” Beavan says. He started travelling widely in the U.S., advertising the moulded window frames and the fact that Elton keeps extensive stock of everything it produces. Not a fan of just-in-time manufacturing, Beavan believes in having ample product on hand before taking orders. And the orders did flow, because Elton’s moulded frame addressed all the major issues with the corner-welded frames that were out there. “The corners can break if not handled properly and they can be very difficult to assemble,” Beavan says. “So we came out with this injection moulded frame which they had seen but had not been readily available. So now it is available and they start using it and all of a sudden they see their sales go through the roof. The stability of the product enabled the sales guys to focus on selling.”
Beavan says while just-in-time inventory management might work in automotive and some other industries, it is not a good strategy for the fenestration world. “There is just not enough reliable data coming from the customer and from their customers to make just-in-time possible,” he asserts. Elton’s strategy, instead, is to maintain a massive, 100,000-square-foot warehouse stacked to the rafters with inventory. Beavan says he can fill most orders in a week, even without advance notice. The advantage in service is worth the impact at tax time, he feels, though even that is relatively minor as Elton turns over its inventory quickly and ends up maintaining very little obsolete product.
When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Beavan started casting around for new areas in fenestration to apply his injection moulding expertise. Door vents popped up as another opportunity. The market was undergoing a major shift at the time away from extruded, welded vents that were time-consuming to manufacture. Beavan actually found that once the tooling was developed, he could make a moulded vent system that was faster to produce than an extruded system because the assembly practically snaps together. Then they went farther when customers gave feedback indicating the handles on the vents were too hard to operate. This was not unique to Elton’s vents – door vents have been notoriously hard to operate since the dawn of fenestration. So Elton developed a new, larger handle and tested it on their receptionist and various other people around the plant. Beavan likes this kind of focus group, because his staff understands what the company is trying to accomplish. “They are going to tell you what they think honestly rather than a customer being nervous to tell you ‘No,’” he opines.
Beavan says a benefit of injection moulding is being able to make heavier parts with more material in them without sacrificing production speed. He has always found that installers and end-users alike prefer the more robust frames. But the injection moulding machines are not cheap and at first it was a struggle to keep them busy enough to justify themselves. Now, however, there is a steady flow of business. “We have a nice consistent pattern. Entry door starts getting busy around March, slows down around October or November,” Beavan explains. “Garage doors start getting busy in the summer and go incredibly strong right into December with some overflow into January.”
Beavan is quick to credit the whole team at Elton for the company’s remarkable success. “It is a cliche but it must be said again,” he says. “None of this would be possible without the dedication and hard work our team. No matter what we develop, it is the team that carries it through to completion.” Pigliarolo was a managing owner of Ace Extrusions before Elton purchased it. He brings extensive technical and mechanical knowledge that has enabled us to sharpen our processes by removing a lot of the uncertainty around what is possible with plastics extrusion. Damian Sunter is plant manager of the injection moulding division. His strength is problem solving the plastic injection moulding process. Sunter has overseen much of the growth of Elton’s plastic injection moulding business including the integration of eight fully automated injection moulding machines with related expansions to the plant and auxiliary equipment.
Elton’s entry door products are now being shipped everywhere in North America and its garage door products are shipped globally. Elton is living proof that Canadians can still be competitive serving a global market through mass production. It just takes intelligence and a lot of willingness to try new things.