Custom shutter work has held a good profit margin in spite of its greatly increased volume. The work is inherently expensive and difficult, governing growth and thinning out competition. Many attempts have been made to make shutters less expensive with only limited success; this, too, is because of the extreme custom nature of the business. Custom shutters are hard (rigid) window coverings that must be closely fitted to window structures of infinitely varying details. In short, custom shutter work is a witch.
However, there are new developments in the industry that are making the work a little easier and much better. Technology from other industries is being applied to custom shutter work for increased accuracy, productivity and quality, while at the same time, creating new potential for the most difficult shutter designs. Future ramifications of these newly applied technologies are very encouraging.
By definition, custom shutter manufacturing involves processing them one at a time. Arch-top shutters are the classic case. On arched shutters, automation is difficult using conventional machinery. Lack of automation means high cost from manual processing, the quality suffers from handmade inaccuracies and delivery is slow due to the limited capacity of handwork.
Key technical phrases to know are computer numeric control (CNC) and parametric programming. By using numeric control, driven by computer or process logic controllers, the rules of the game have significantly changed. Using multi-axis CNC machining centers, single-item custom processing can be cost effective because the computer performs the machine "setup." Parametric programming allows custom size/configuration inputs to control shutter component geometry. The repeatability is excellent. Arch-top shutters with horizontal louvers will, in the future, be much more readily available and reasonably priced as a result of CNC machining. At least two sunburst shutters (radial louvers) now on the market are produced using this technology.
Machinery employing process logic controllers (PLC) is also bringing substantial progress in shutter manufacturing. Panel builders now commonly use the popular Tiger-Stop for cut-to-length on louvers, rails, stiles and tilt rods. The Tiger-Stop's programmable PLC makes cut-to-order processing much more efficient because the time to accurately setup the machinery is minimized.
G & L Technologies, Inc. has made extensive use of PLCs in its line of shutter manufacturing equipment to have short-run, made-to-order capability. G & L is also developing the industry's first shutter spraying machine with PLC-based parametric programming for immediate setup. Shutter manufacturing is certainly becoming high-tech.
New shutter software is being developed for in-home use, as well. Shutter-Pro Software, Inc. is one of at least three companies with a version in the field. Shutter specialists are now even carrying notebook computers into the home for shutter design and measurement input. Two-dimensional "draw-shutter" routines such as Shutter-Pro's "preview" module with "interactive graphics" are becoming effective sales tools.
So, order accuracy is greatly improved as homeowners can now see what they are buying. In the future, the shutter salesperson will employ virtual reality programming for a three-dimensional on-screen view of the window fitted with custom shutters. These new tools are greatly improving accuracy and speed. The Mess-fix line of telescoping measurement devices is becoming more common. Future measuring tools will be hardwired or otherwise linked to notebook computers to eliminate keystroke errors.
Custom shutter ordering online, although not yet common, is certainly under development. Lafayette Venetian Blind, Inc. is developing a Web site-based order entry system with substantial in-home sales help, again, to be accessed by portable computer. The industry's future ordering will be seamlessly integrated from software used in-home to the CNC machine in the shutter manufacturing plant. From the very keystrokes on a notebook computer at a residence, shutter-manufacturing machinery will be digitally controlled. This is progress.
Some may question the impact of these technological advances. There is no question that product availability will improve; however, will greater access drive prices down?
In spite of these new developments, custom shutters will continue to be a hard (rigid) treatment closely fitted . . . and so forth. The skill required to design, measure and install the shutters will maintain a substantial threshold for entry into the field. A great many shutters will still be made of wood. Even vinyl (a petrochemical) is expensive as a shutter material. Beyond a certain price point, custom color matching will still be in demand. Therefore, custom shutters will not become cheap. Instead, the impact will likely be positive.
With these greater capabilities, the most challenging window shapes will be covered with high-quality custom shutters, design options will become more diverse, lead times for extreme custom design should lessen, the custom shutter specialist will more easily communicate both with the homeowner and the manufacturer and the reduction of errors will cut waste and increase profitability. Life is good.
As one intimately involved in these efforts, I am always excited to think of the possibilities. I have a great admiration for our many industry leaders at work applying these technologies. Our not-so-little industry should look forward to a dynamic future.
T. Brant O'Hair is vice president of marketing, O'Hair shutters, Inc., Lubbuck, TX; (806) 765-5791; (800) 582-2625; fax: (888) 765-7140; www.ohair.com.