See the featured image above? That is what the supply chain feels like to me right now. The UK fenestration sector is in a mess. Not through lack of demand. The exact opposite.
With stress levels going beyond acceptable, lead times being measures in months and not weeks, prices going up constantly, how did we end up in this position?
Normally, phrases like that wind me up. They’re used far too often by all sorts of portions of society to spell doom and disaster. However, in the case of UK fenestration, we really have been hit by a perfect storm of conditions which are all contributing to the extreme trading conditions we have all been facing since Q2 of 2020.
So let’s try and pick apart the various calamities that have led to where we are right now. First, let’s start with a positive reason. Demand. As the sector woke back up in May 2020, many were predicting a short, sharp boost as we all returned to the work that was on pause, coupled with some pent up demand that was thought to last a couple of months, maybe three, then settle back down to normal levels. How wildly wrong we all were. We find ourselves in September 2021, riding a wave of record demand from consumers that shows absolutely zero signs of slowing down.
This is a remarkable and very fortunate position for UK fenestration to be in. You only need to look at other sectors which have been in a prolonged state of stasis for much longer than we have to see how lucky we are. That being said, it is clear that the supply chain from top to bottom was not ready for this amount of spending to be unleashed. As a result, we were all caught on the back foot. Our sector has been used to a certain amount of business being done each year. It meant that when demand suddenly rose by a significant degree, we were unable to scale up to cope. We now find ourselves running very low on certain products, delivery schedules that are as fluid as water and lead times for installers that are now comfortably beyond Christmas, and that was back in August.
Demand shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, unlike last year, there are signs that the regular seasonal push at the start of September is back. So if anything, we’re all about to get a whole lot busier!
Lack of glass
One of the very acute issues right now is glass. There is a shortage of it and it’s affecting our industry as well as many others. For example, car manufacturers, as well as lacking semiconductor chips, are also lacking glass for things like windscreens and sunroofs. No glass equals no cars. In UK fenestration, we are really starting to feel the bite of very severe shortages of glass.
In particular, we are running low on laminated glass products, as well as toughened glass and other non-float glass options. We had one email last week from a supplier of glass conservatory roofs that have had to suspend indefinitely seven lines of product, choosing to focus on the few products they can get a regular supply of.
We are two plants down. One at Guardian and one at Saint-Gobain. We’re down to Pilkington. Both plants that are down at the same time are undergoing upgrades and maintenance. The last conversation I had with people with knowledge say that these are running behind. At a time of insane demand, this could not have come at a worse time. As soon as these plants come back online we should start to see some relief in this area, but it won’t be immediate and it will take some time to build back stock levels.
I can see glass shortages lasting into the start of 2022.
This one is not a new one. We are desperately short of talent and skilled workers in all areas of the sector. The installation side of things is well known and has been for over a decade. New fitters are needed and in big numbers. Installers are being held back and growth is being stifled because we cannot access the talent pool we need to make it happen.
But it’s not just installers. Fabricators and systems companies are looking for people in all sorts of roles, including on the factory floor, in production, transport, loading, quality control and much more.
If we can start to fill the huge number of vacancies in this sector then it would go some way to spreading the workload better. As it is, like most other sectors, we’re struggling to recruit workers, which is leading to increasing rates of pay to make our sector look more attractive to job seekers.
We have to solve this problem. Once we move past the supply chain problems, which may not be resolved until the end of next year, the skills gap is going to remain. This is a problem not borne out of the pandemic or Brexit. This is one we have known about for a long time and we have to turn it around.
I have to be honest, of all the issues our sector is talking about right now, I’m not hearing this one come up often. That’s not to say it’s not affecting us either. I am sure systems companies, major glass suppliers etc are in the same boat as many other sectors and are struggling to get hold of lorry drivers.
In the last few weeks, we have seen what this shortage of drivers has affected. No milkshakes or bottled drinks at McDonald’s. Nandos ran out of chicken. Ikea is 1000 product lines short. That is to name the most famous examples. The construction sector is facing problems too with transport.
Brexit and the pandemic are being blamed for this. However, this may not be the full truth. I was listening to a radio interview with a lorry driver last week on BBC Radio 5 Live and he was explaining that whilst these were acute instances that manifested accelerated change in the sector, the trucking industry has been warning of shortages for a lot longer than the pandemic and Brexit has existing for. Poor pay and working conditions, according to this driver, has been pushing people away from the sector for the last decade, and Government has been warned about shortages of drivers for a while.
Where to start with this one. With commercial air freight still nothing like what it used to be, global sea shipping and demand for containers continue to go through the roof. The problem is, there are only so many ships, so many containers, and they’re all in the wrong places in the world to service the areas of demand that really needs them. As a result, shipping costs have increased ten to fifteen-fold in the space of a year. That has trickled down into price increases throughout the supply chain, with the homeowner being the one to pay the higher costs. Luckily, the public seems able to swallow the higher costs for now. How long that situation will continue remains to be seen, as inflation spikes quickly higher.
Then there was the Suez canal blockage. One enormous cargo ship called the Evergreen ran aground in the canal and held up traffic both ways for weeks. They also held up ships with products destined for the UK fenestration sector. Not great timing.
We’re not done there. The recent spike in COVID cases in China lead to a partial shutdown of ports in Ningbo, one of the largest ports in the world. And yes, you guessed it, products that UK fenestration uses come out of that port, and yes, some suppliers are already warning of disruption to supplies later on in the year.
It doesn’t feel like big news anymore, but since May of last year prices in UK fenestration have risen by the week. Remember the days when you’d get one price increase per year? I think those days are gone for a while.
Product shortages, labour shortages, rising shipping costs and intense demand have all come together at the same time to force prices upwards, in some areas by the week. This has lead to inflation-busting rates of increases in our sector.
Now, arguably, prices in the window and door industry have needed to rise for a while. But the idea was to raise them slowly and sustainably. I don’t think anyone expected to be selling windows and doors 20-30% higher than they were at the start of 2020. This is the situation, however, and at the moment the public finances do seem to be able to cope with these higher prices. There will be a ceiling at some point and we have to be mindful that prices can only go up so far before it starts to put people off from buying.
Last but certainly not least is the pandemic itself. The lockdowns used all over the world to keep the virus in check has forced a perhaps permanent change in people’s spending habits, especially towards big-ticket items like home improvements.
I do sense that people’s priorities have been refocused on homes, with owners wanting their own four walls and gardens to be as nice as possible. This is great if you’re in the world of windows and doors. But as we have seen, the sudden jump in demand is not something our sector has been able to cope with very well, and we have not had the capacity to scale up quickly enough to meet that demand.
Some predict that we’re in a four-year cycle of higher levels of home improvements. I think that is pretty optimistic to be fair. I think we could be in this current situation for much of next year, then see a levelling off a slight fall thereafter. But even so, we are going to need to find ways to either work smarter or increase output because the public will only stomach extending lead times for so long. Many installers are at four months right now. I suspect though that at five or six month waits it will start to put some people off and make them think again about where they spend their cash.
I think we’re headed for a pre-Christmas rush towards the end of the year, with lead time extending further. 2022 looks set to be another year of high demand. It does look like the conditions we have been operating in since May of 2020 will persist for some time yet.
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