Emerging Electrification

Bringing the heat in the glass industry

June 23, 2022

Breanna Raile is one of the newer teammates at Fargo’s Cardinal Insulating Glass (IG) plant. She’s still referring to the duration of her time there in months, not years. But to hear plant manager Mike Arntson speak about her journey – she’s packed a lot of growth into fewer than 365 days.

“This is Breanna and Ben, team leaders on Line Six and Line Five,” Arntson said of the duo hard at work on the production floor. “Soon after Breanna started, Ben recognized that she had leadership potential. So he started preparing her to be a team leader.”

“We call ourselves the Dream Team,” Raile said with a nudge to her mentor, Ben.

The Dream Team is two of 360 teammates at the Fargo glass manufacturer, which nested in the community in 1998 through a partnership agreement with Marvin Windows. The Fargo site is one of 10 Cardinal IG plants in the country, which collectively sold 22.6 million IG units in 2021 (2.2 million from Fargo alone).

A sheet of glass travels through the process of being meticulously scored, cut and tempered at Fargo's Cardinal IG Plant. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

Although the Fargo plant sells 80% of its product directly to Marvin Windows next door, Arntson says Cardinal Glass Industries, as a whole, supplies 95% of the branded window business in America. Cardinal’s five subsidiaries (Float Glass, Custom Tempered Glass, Laminated Glass, Coated Glass and Insulating Glass) span 21 states to produce glass for Andersen Windows, Pella Windows and several other prominent window and door companies.

That amount of glass takes companywide investment in the best – leaders like Brianna, expanded facilities, and top-of-the-market robotics and equipment.

Panels of glass await packaging and shipping to regional window manufacturers. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

“Our philosophy is longevity, performance, aesthetics. We want to have the longest-lasting, best performing, best-looking glass in the industry, and in that order,” Arntson said. “We believe in innovation. Wherever you live, we have a product that will help keep your heat in better, keep the sunlight out better, and a mix in between.”

A clear difference

In 2020, it was time to expand production with more space and a new glass-tempering furnace. Cardinal IG Plant Engineer Mark Buisker traveled with teammates to another Cardinal site to get a look at its electric furnace. Arntson was skeptical to make a switch from natural gas to kilowatts. But not for long.

“They came back and they said, ‘Mike, if we bought the latest-and-greatest gas furnace, we’d be replacing a 1998 Toyota Corolla with a 2020 Toyota Corolla. But if we go with an electric furnace, it’s like going from a Toyota Corolla to a Tesla. The quality of glass that we can produce on this electric furnace is far and beyond the quality we’re capable of seeing with a gas furnace,’” Arntson recalled. “That’s all I really needed to know.”

Before sealing the deal on the $4.6 million furnace with manufacturer Glaston, Buisker contacted Cardinal’s power provider, Cass County Electric Cooperative (CCEC), to talk through the economics of the investment. In 2020, natural gas prices were low, but the plant wanted the electric benefits of control and glass quality.

CCEC accounts executive Chad Brousseau knew the cooperative family could help.

When ready, glass rolls into Cardinal's new electric Glaston tempering furnace, an investment that is already producing higher-quality sheets. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

“We worked with Cardinal Glass, our wholesale provider Minnkota Power Cooperative and our board of directors, and we came up with a temporary economic development rate to help offset the operating costs of their expansion project for the first few years,” Brousseau said.

“Yes, and that was a game changer. When Mark came back and said that we would be getting a better initial rate,” Arntson punctuated the point with a snap, “that was it. And thank goodness. The difference is evident.”

In 2021 and 2022, natural gas prices rose dramatically as the co-op’s electric rate remained stable, which saved the company even more, combined with the thermal efficiency of the modern unit. The savings were essential as the plant invested more than $50 million into enhancing the facility over the past five years. Recent upgrades include eight 140-ton air rotation systems that filter nuisance dust and viruses and control the climate of the entire plant. Add that to a facility already using electricity for eight robots, six production lines and countless other equipment – and there’s a lot of power on the line.

Cardinal Glass Plant Engineer Mark Buisker explains the size and power of the facility's massive air rotation systems. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

“Cass County Electric and Minnkota had to make similar investments to our infrastructure out here, too, to serve that growing load and make sure we maintain that reliability,” Brousseau said. “We know that’s crucial for Cardinal Glass.”

“I’m glad we built here in the industrial park on Cass County’s system,” Arntson replied. “Even a small outage or momentary blink will put us down for at least an hour.”

Taking flight

The nation’s hunger for high-quality tempered glass innovations isn’t fading. Cardinal Glass Industries has tripled annual sales from $1 billion in 2012 to more than $3 billion today. As demand increases, so does the likelihood the Fargo site will continue to grow.

“We’ve expanded the plant a number of times, most recently in 2020. That expansion is almost done, and we’re just putting some finishing touches on it,” Arntson explained. “I’m sure we will expand to the fullest extent of our property.”

As it builds upon its production, Cardinal IG Fargo will continue to elevate its focus on the glass handlers themselves. The Fargo plant is one of only 11 eligible facilities in North Dakota that is recognized as an OSHA Voluntary Protection Program Star Worksite, a recognition of world-class safety practices. With a workforce hailing from five of the seven continents, Cardinal IG won the first ChamberChoice Award for Diversity and Inclusion in 2021. Those 360 unique teammates are supported with annual profit sharing, internal and external leadership training and opportunities to grow with the company – as experienced by team leader Raile.

Towering robot arms and red-hot electric furnaces are important for high-quality glass, but the powers of personal connection and professional fulfillment can be stronger tools for industry success.

“We have a great team,” Arntson said from the plant floor. “We’re very fortunate.”

MAIN IMAGE: Tempering Team Leader Zobon Blackie prepares another set of glass for the furnace.


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