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RAC's window of opportunity

PLANT HIRE

RAC AutoWindscreens is aiming to bring the car industry's standards to construction. Paul Howard spent a day with the knights of the off-road

FOR RAC AutoWindscreens plant glazier Mick Norrington, early starts are pretty much a fact of life.

A plant glazier's day nominally starts at 8.30 am and runs to 5 pm, Monday to Friday.On Saturdays they finish at 12.30 pm, but according to Mr Norrington, it is rare that this routine is followed.

'There are quiet periods but I've had three early starts this week, which is about average, ' he says.

Today, he was up at 6 am and off at 6.20 am.

'A customer in east London was desperate to have a window repaired today, and I knew it wasn't possible to fit it in with what we've got on later, so I did it first.'

Later in the day, as if to prove the point about working extra hours, Mick gets a call confirming some work on a tower crane for the weekend.After it has been dismantled, fortunately for him.

'I told them when I started that I wouldn't go up a tower crane.You've got to know your limits, ' he says.

But instead of the planned Saturday work, the crane can't be dismantled until Sunday - 'environmental reasons'sniffs Mick - meaning another extra day.

Not that he seems unduly deterred by the prospect of losing a Sunday in his new garden.

'Service is the key to this job. If you've got to go to Portsmouth to pick up some glass to get a piece of kit on the road by 8 am, you've got to do it.

You've got to be on call 24 hours a day if it's production machines.Our customers can't leave six operators in a cafe, fiddling around for a whole shift just because there's a broken window.'

Back to the day in hand, and after the early start it's a return to the depot in Dagenham to await the day's delivery of glass from RAC's central warehouse in Birmingham.

'You can't put holes through laminated glass, so glass with holes in and curved glass has to be manufactured to shape and ordered, ' he explains.

Most shapes and sizes are made up by RAC itself, but occasionally they come from the manufacturer or dealer.Glass can usually be ordered by the next day, as long as the order is placed by 4 pm, although it might take a couple of days if it's coming from the dealers.

The most expensive piece of glass Mick has ever fitted cost round £3,000 - a screen fitted on to a Liebherr 984 for John F Hunt.

'The cheapest can be as low as £30 or £40, but the average would be something from £80 to £300-400. It depends whether it's just a question of cutting some flat, laminated glass to a pattern, or having to order something with curves or holes, ' he explains.

The glass arrives and the day's work begins again in earnest.Mr Norrington's beat extends north of the river up to Tottenham, west into the centre of London then east into Romford as far as Tilbury.This territory is the equivalent of four and a half RAC car depots, or about 25 glaziers, yet he is the sole plant glazier at the site.

This sole responsibility is far from being a lonely existence, however.The lower volume of jobs and the larger area means a greater number of repeat clients.'You get to know customers personally; 90 per cent of work is return calls, ' he enthuses.

The second call of the day after replacing the front screen of a Docklands Light Railway locomotive is a case in point.

It's a visit to local hirer MAP Plant to replace a smashed roof window on a JCB 540-170.

'I've been going there once or twice a week for nearly 10 years to fix things, ' says Mr Norrington.

When we arrive we learn that the damage was caused by something being dropped on to the roof - a relatively frequent occurrence apparently.More common, however, is the inexperienced operator who leaves his cab door open.

Then there's vandalism, which Mr Norrington says happens most nights and weekends.'Sometimes you have to go back to the same kit the next day.On one job in Tilbury, I was replacing a window on a Case excavator, and kids were firing catapults at the machine - you could see them from the yard, ' he says.

The MAP job is relatively straightforward, if you don't mind wielding a large pane of glass on top of a telehandler in a crowded plant depot.As it's a flat sheet of glass, the old window is simply removed and used as a pattern for cutting a replacement.The whole procedure takes around half an hour to put in, including some assiduous cleaning of the glass.

'You've got to do this, no matter what state the rest of the vehicle's in, haven't you?' he says.

This internal work is the exception rather than the rule, but being outside most of the time is part of the job's appeal.'I've never worked in an office, I couldn't do it.You do feel like an abominable snowman in winter some times, but it's nice on days like today (a warm and sunny spring day).'

Working on live sites can present its own problems, however.'If it's a busy site people do say, 'I'll just get this done first mate'- you've got to be careful it doesn't add up to too much time spent waiting, ' he says.

This is borne out on the last job of the day, which, after a trip to Haringey to measure a smashed sliding window in a council mini-bus, deprives Mr Norrington of his chance for a lunch break.

The site is a waste transfer station just inside the M25.The job is replacing the front screen of a JCB 436HT Wastemaster.This is a more complex procedure, requiring the assistance of Ken, the plant glazier based in the Crayford depot. Between them, they have to take off the protective guard around the cab, and it then takes two of them to lift the new glass into place.

Right in the middle of doing this, they are asked if it is possible to move the machine to let a tipper turn round. Both say yes through gritted teeth, and then breath a sigh of relief as the truck finds another exit.Mick judges the moment appropriate to remind the machine's usual operator that it shouldn't be moved for a couple of hours after the glass has been put in, to allow the glue to set.

While Ken is removing the old windscreen Mick points out the quarterlight has also been damaged, as Mick had predicted back in the depot this morning.

'People often say one window's broken, but when you get there it's five.'

He checks with the operator, and in no time installs the piece he had already cut to size in anticipation.'It's all part of the service, ' he smiles.

After four jobs in the day (five, including the early start), we head for the station - 4.30 pm on a Friday evening isn't a bad time to call it a day, for me at least. For Mick, it's back to the office to complete his paper work - and to load the van for the weekend, of course.

A glass act

IT WAS the beginning of September last year that RAC AutoWindscreens created its specialist glazing arm to provide coverage across the whole of the country.This brought together its ad-hoc arrangement of plant glaziers and introduced a centralised call centre with operators trained to recognise the specific needs of plant and other specialist vehicles.

National coverage is provided by just 47 specialist fitters, in contrast to a total of 1,400 (800 mobile and 600 based at depots) car glaziers across the country.

Replacement glass can now be booked either direct through individual glaziers like Mick and Ken or centrally.

Either way, calls are logged on to the system, and progress is updated via a system of job references sent by test messages.

As its name suggests, specialist glazing covers a whole variety of unlikely vehicles - from Docklands Light Railway trains to mini-buses and coaches, via the bullet-proof glass in postal delivery vans.

London ambulances and even marine kit are on the list as well.