INDIANAPOLIS-Homeowners and builders can't get enough big windows with graceful arches or curves. That means the curve that counts - the sales curve - points upward at companies specializing in custom bending of vinyl windows. Now, larger window fabricators are starting their own bending operations, but the new competition does not scare custom benders. The reason: Bending plastic is much harder than it looks.
In fact, it is an unnatural act, turning a rigid, straight PVC profile into a specialty shape, sometimes called an architectural window. Special care must be given to the bending, and the cooling, to avoid adding new stress to the window.
``It's not only the fabrication, which is a time-consuming and difficult process. It's also the glass,'' said Ralph Weiss, vice president of Ventana Plastics Co. of Export, Pa.
The glass must fit exactly into the frame to prevent leaking. Ventana uses special tools to cut glass precisely into geometric shapes.
Ventana, believed to be the largest specialty bender, with sales of about $5 million and 75 employees, expanded westward by opening a small plant in Hayward, Calif., last fall. That followed the 1993 relocation of its headquarters plant from Murrysville, Pa., to a larger, 30,000-square-foot plant that it built in nearby Export.
Ventana and two other specialty benders, Fen-Tech Inc. and New Morning Windows Inc., exhibited at the National Association of the Remodeling Industryshow, held Feb. 23-25 in Indianapolis.
Fen-Tech was born three years ago when window extruder Spectus Systems moved from Superior, Wis., to Rockford, Ill. R. Michael Mirau, who was vice president and general manager at Spectus, decided to stay in Superior. He founded Fen-Tech after studying the growth of vinyl windows in new construction and consumer interest in specialty-shaped windows.
Fen-Tech employs 48 and has sales of about $2.5 million, Mirau said.
Fen-Tech salesman John Kelly said the firm's best seller is the half-round shape, designed to fit above a conventional rectangular window, followed by the ellipse, which fits over a door. New construction accounts for most sales, he said.
Architectural window benders sell to window manufacturers. Mirau said a company has to make 5,000 specialty shapes a year to break even. That rules out many fabricators, a group of mostly smaller, regional companies that make windows from extruded profiles they purchase.
Bending is difficult to master, NARI exhibitors said. Customers demand quick delivery - a delay in one specialty window can hold up an order for windows for an entire house.
Weiss, at Ventana Plastics, attributes the growth in architectural vinyl shapes to the growth of vinyl windows in general. Ventana's sales of $5 million are evenly split between new construction and remodeling, he said. During the peak summer months, Ventana makes between 300 and 350 windows a day. Later this year, the company will begin bar coding its windows for easier tracking.
``The most important thing in making these products is precision manufacturing,'' Weiss said.
Technical expertise is critical, Weiss said. Every profile has its own unique characteristics, depending on the speed at which it was extruded and the compound used. Profiles even vary from the same supplier, lot to lot, he said. On a window with straight profile lengths, those variables would not affect the product. But bending changes the rules.
New Morning Windows of Burnsville, Minn., occupied a small booth near Ventana's at the NARI show. After supplying specialty wood windows for 15 years, the company got into vinyl six years ago. Now vinyl is its fastest-growing category, said Debby Anderson, customer service supervisor.
Anderson said the specialty window firms have introduced value-added products to stay ahead of window fabricators and other new competitors. For example, New Morning offers a jamb extension that provides a wood interior for a curved vinyl window, and a snap-on aluminum grille that divides the window into smaller panes.
One NARI exhibitor is hoping more fabricators do try bending. Show attendees bunched around the Witte North American Ltd. booth for demonstrations of its Arch-Drawing Variomat. The German-made machine submerges a profile in a hot fluid, then quickly draws it through a die shaped like an arch.
``In new construction, within two years, every house will have a round-top'' window, said President Lothar Colberg.
He said round-top windows are growing about 20 percent a year, mostly in new construction. Historical building renovation offers another big market.
Witte North American, based in Brampton, Ontario, is a unit of Maschinen Witte GmbH + Co. KG of Germany.
Another NARI exhibitor, Pierce Plastics Inc. of Elkhart, Ind., also is cashing in on the curved window trend. From a small booth, John Calloway, a manufacturers' representative, showed a single product: an extruded flexible vinyl J channel that bends around windows. Siding fits into the channel. Installers hated bending the old, rigid J channels around round windows, he said, as he passed out samples.
Pierce Plastics, a unit of Miami-based Atlantis Plastics Inc., offers the product in white, beige, tan and pewter.
Calloway said sales of the product could approach $750,000 this year.