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Architectural Materials Manufacturer Boosts Productivity Through Investment in Vacuum Technology

Products such as drinking glasses and eye glasses even take their names from their material of construction. And while an old adage advises against throwing stones if one lives in a glass house, glass has wide-ranging applications in architecture.

No man-made material has so many practical and decorative uses as glass. In its various forms, glass can be transparent, translucent or opaque. It can be molded into any shape, cut, etched or polished, bonded to other materials, and more. Products such as drinking glasses and eye glasses even take their names from their material of construction. And while an old adage advises against throwing stones if one lives in a glass house, glass has wide-ranging applications in architecture.

Inspired designs in architecture also include creative uses of surfaces made of stainless steel, woven metal, bonded metal and fused metal. Architectural products that combine aesthetic beauty with long-lived durability blur the line between indoor and outdoor applications to create appealing, efficient environments where people work and relax.

Using glass and metal as design elements in buildings is fundamental to the work of Forms+Surfaces. The company designs and manufactures architectural products that appear in walls, columns, building interiors and elevator interiors, as well as outdoor lighting systems and site furniture, all used in a wide range of public spaces around the world. Products are made using a sophisticated array of manufacturing methods, including casting, extrusion and bonding.

“Everything we sell we actually manufacture,” according to Joe Gatterdam, Managing Director of VividGlass, a division of Forms+Surfaces in Phoenix, Arizona. “Our customers are mostly architectural firms designing interiors for corporate campuses, airports, city centers, universities, hospitals, restaurants and hotels. All of these entities want the functionality and high quality of the products that Forms+Surfaces can provide. They look great and their durability is fantastic.”

Forms+Surfaces has corporate headquarters and its main 350,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, although much of the company’s recent growth has focused on the operation in Phoenix. “Four years ago we purchased two buildings, side-by-side, in Phoenix,” says Gatterdam. “Building One was for the relocation and expansion of the VividGlass division. Building Two was slated for the future growth of VividGlass and for Forms+Surfaces operations. Within a couple years we were already running out of room and purchased the third building in that row. Including Building Three, we’re now up to about 155,000 square feet and still growing. Forms+Surfaces has a significant manufacturing presence in Phoenix and we will continue to expand here.”

To support the company’s continuing growth in production, Forms+Surfaces made a capital investment in new Variable Speed Drive vacuum technology from Atlas Copco. Forms+Surfaces utilizes vacuum pumps in three production areas: Bonded Metal manufacturing, systems applications manufacturing, and CNC milling operations.

“Bonded Metal is a product we make by mixing a proprietary resin with a specialized metal and then forming the product we’re making using a vacuum casting process,” Gatterdam explains. “You can think of our process along the lines of injection molding. We start with the mold, vacuum pressure holds down a blanket, and then we inject the metal material into the mold. The formed materials are adhered together using structural tape. Once the tape is applied, two components are married together and subjected to a vacuum blanket that applies uniform pressure on the components to ensure a consistent bond. A reliable supply of vacuum pressure is critical.”

For systems applications such as those installed on interior walls or in elevators, Forms+Surfaces utilizes vacuum tables in a specialized lamination process. “We start with a backer material and spray on an adhesive that works much like contact cement,” says Gatterdam. “A piece of stainless steel is married to the backer and the two are laminated together. To create even pressure across those products, a vacuum blanket is placed over them and vacuum pressure applied to set the adhesive.”

CNC routers are used in milling operations at Forms+Surfaces. “Basically, vacuum pressure holds the workpiece in place while it’s being processed,” says Gatterdam.

As Gatterdam explains, each of these manufacturing systems—Bonded Metal, systems applications and CNC milling—used to have separate vacuum pumps. For example, in the Bonded Metal operation, there was an individual vacuum pump for each of six tables and three separate vacuum pumps on the CNC router alone. These manufacturing systems were spread throughout different buildings.

“Atlas Copco helped us create a central vacuum system to serve all our buildings and processes,” Gatterdam recalls, “then helped us design a piping network to distribute vacuum to drops for the router and each table. It’s the kind of setup you see for a central compressed air system, but we did it for vacuum instead.”

“The central vacuum system we built for Forms+Surfaces includes three vacuum pumps,” according to Joe Gosselin, Sales Manager for Atlas Copco Compressors LLC in Phoenix. “Working with Joe at Forms+Surfaces and the vacuum engineering team from Atlas Copco, I specified one Atlas Copco GHS 350 VSD+ pump to produce high vacuum pressure and two Atlas Copco GHS 730 VSD+ pumps in series to produce very high vacuum volume for infusion applications. The high pressure pump, rated for 27” HgV, provides hold down pressure on the CNC router and for certain applications of the bonded metal product. All of these Atlas Copco vacuum pumps are Variable Speed Drive units that generate vacuum to meet flow demand in real time.”

“The availability of vacuum on demand is a big benefit for us,” says Gatterdam. “We operate two shifts, so our people and manufacturing systems are working for 16 hours a day, five days a week. The beauty of using central vacuum pumps that are all Variable Speed Drive is revealed when you look at the way our manufacturing processes work. Take the CNC routers as an example. There is a period of time, say 20 to 30 minutes, when the router is milling a material that is being held down with vacuum pressure. When that process is complete, we have to change out the material to begin the next milling process. That change-out might take 10 minutes. The old vacuum pumps ran constantly, even during the change-out period. Now, with the Atlas Copco Variable Speed Drive pumps, our workers simply close a ball valve on the vacuum line that we installed at each manufacturing station and the vacuum pumps automatically wind down with the drop in demand. Vacuum stays energized in the piping system. When our workers are ready to begin the next manufacturing process, they open the valve to pull down vacuum and the vacuum pumps automatically wind up.”

In addition to more reliable vacuum flow, Gatterdam says the new Atlas Copco pumps are providing energy savings. “Before, we had up to 12 vacuum pumps running flat out constantly at a variety of locations in our facility,” he says. “Now, we have three pumps that run together in one central location and vary production of vacuum to match the varying demand. They’re also much quieter. The noise from the old vacuum pumps at each workstation is gone so the quality of the working environment is improved for our employees. It’s definitely nice not having a lot of background noise. And one more thing, the Atlas Copco technician who services our air compressors can service our vacuum pumps, too.”

What made Gatterdam choose Atlas Copco for vacuum pumps? “The biggest reason was finding vacuum pumps that could be put into series to create a central vacuum system,” he says. “We got superb support from the technical people at Atlas Copco to make this idea work. Many people were involved to help us design the system that would accomplish what we wanted. I already had experience with Atlas Copco on the compressor side with our two GA22VSD compressors, I already had experience with the quality level of their equipment and services, and I was pleased with the process of working with Joe Gosselin who helped organize the Atlas Copco team. It was quickly apparent that this was the organization I wanted to work with for the vacuum project.”

Part of the challenge for Atlas Copco was delivering its VSD vacuum pumps—brand new technology at the time—to match the rapid buildout schedule for production buildings at Forms+Surfaces. “The order came in quickly and we had Atlas Copco’s vacuum team on the phone with Joe at Forms+Surfaces,” said Gosselin. “These were the first VSD pumps sold in the West and I can tell you it took some doing, but we delivered two pumps right away and the third pump just in time. Joe recognized that he had chosen brand new technology and worked with us on some initial fine tuning.”

Gosselin recalls that the technology was so new, the electric utility had never heard about these machines. “Their people weren’t familiar with VSD vacuum pumps so they didn’t know how to calculate a financial incentive for investing in more efficient vacuum technology,” says Gosselin. “They were accustomed to figuring cost savings with air compressors, but vacuum pumps are different, so we provided technical details to help them determine an appropriate incentive. The utility’s rebate to Forms+Surfaces ended up being about $5,400.”

Gatterdam points out that the clean, modern appearance of the Atlas Copco vacuum pumps helps make a positive impression on clients and prospects who tour the Forms+Surfaces facility. “The customers we bring in, mostly from architectural firms, are often surprised at how nice our operation looks for a manufacturing company,” he says. “That certainly helps them feel comfortable hiring us to make high quality products for their building projects, and as a result, our manufacturing business continues to grow. We’re already looking to add another vacuum pump. It will happen, it’s just a matter of when. And no question, it will be an Atlas Copco.”

North America Energy efficiency Construction