Volume 28, Issue 2 - March/April 2014

Not Just a Pretty Face
Digital Printing Transforms the Architectural Glass Industry
by Ellen Rogers and Carl Levesque

Sure it’s pretty, but what else does it do? A lot, now that you mention it.

The digital printing process is bringing a new level of functionality to glass. It offers the ability to control light and can also address security and privacy concerns. Simply put, fabricators employing this equipment can print digital color images on glass quickly. And architects around the world are embracing this technology—for good reasons.

“Fabricators such as ourselves offering full solutions under one roof have the added advantage of minimizing product being damaged in transit between, say, our facility and a third party printer,” says Peter Valley, who works in strategic consulting in North America for Carey Glass International, which is headquartered in Tipperary, Ireland, and also has offices in New York. “We can also offer clients exceptionally personalized solutions and the option to create buildings, facades, or interior spaces with limitless visually appealing alternatives. For the architect, the option to explore creative concepts becomes a reality as does the potential to do so in a cost-effective manner.”

Here in the U.S. fabricators are adding digital printing lines at an accelerated pace. Jim Arnold, president of GlasSource, says he and his team have seen these machines at trade shows over the past few years.

“Although interested in the process and results, we did not see a market niche to offset the high costs at first,” says Arnold, who adds that eventually demand developed for certain products. The company began to fill orders through local UV glass printers, with the majority of those orders being for graphics or signage.

“This worked okay, but outsourcing was a hassle, and the end result was quite fragile, so it limited the applications,” says Arnold.

Then came the increase in requests for permanent designs—those that could be done through silkscreening. Yet the jobs were often too small for the economics to work, both cost- and time-wise, for that process.

Hartung also noticed the increasing trend. “Decorative glass is one of [our company’s] strategic initiatives,” says COO Kirk Johnson. “Even though [we] offer one of the widest selections of decorative glass products on the West Coast, we see this as a continually growing area.”

Both GlasSource and Hartung, along with a number of other fabricators, have responded to increasing demand and interest by purchasing digital printers. This technology provides architects and designers the ability to create a one-of-a-kind aesthetic. Take a look at the photo gallery that follows for a closer look at how companies are using this exciting new product.

Glass Gallery
Digitally printed glass projects are making their way into applications all across the country. From museums to airports, memorials and many others, this type of glass is providing architects and designers with a unique element to make their projects stand out. In this special photo gallery we’re highlighting just a few projects that have been constructed with digitally printed glass.

Taking Flight
The millions of people traveling through Chicago O’Hare International Airport can now see and experience the new digitally printed glass elements used in the renovation of terminal five. Designed by Epstein Architects, Goldray Industries was charged with digital ceramic printing of almost 4,000 square glass of glass. The detailed graphics were designed by Thirst Communication Design to convey a story of the traveler’s experience. The imagery resulted in complex design details that needed a unique solution.

The completed project features a two-story interior curtainwall that blocks entry to private areas and directs foot traffic to the security checkpoint. The color bands and geometric shapes of the designed glass were printed in a gradient to ensure the flow of natural light without diminishing its privacy function. The wall was installed using clips instead of silicon to maintain the aesthetic quality of the design, which seamlessly continues onto the printed glass wall cladding.

“We worked through all the various color and design options until one met all expectations,” says Greg Saroka, president of Goldray Industries.

A number of contract glaziers worked on this job including Architectural Glass Works in Tinley Park, Ill. and VEI Supply of Chicago. 

Fade to Light
The Palo Alto Medical Foundation Sunnyvale Center is a nonprofit healthcare organization within the San Francisco Bay area. The project features colorful glass installations fabricated by GGI in Secaucus, N.J., using its Alice direct-to-glass printing technology. According to information from the company, architect/designer Larry Kirkland worked with the technology as it provided a way to gradually fade the custom green leaf design from a full opacity at the bottom to a more translucent version of the pattern toward the top. By incorporating the fade into the pattern, the project was able to achieve more natural sunlight, which led to shadows of the pattern projected into the building when the sun shines through.

In Remembrance
The Colorado Freedom Memorial located in Aurora, Colo., is constructed of digitally printed glass that reflects Colorado’s mountains and blue skies. Designed by architect Kristoffer Kenton and fabricated by Owatonna, Minn.-based Viracon, the wall stands approximately 12-feet tall and 95-feet wide. Each of the names of the nearly 6,000 Coloradans killed or missing in action were etched in the glass panels dedicated to the specific war in which they fought. In the case of the MIAs, their names will be etched in a special panel of glass.

As the visitor looks at the glass, it will reflect back his/her own image so that the visitor actually becomes a part of the memorial. The height of the glass and the reflected surroundings will seem to loom over the visitor and then fade away—all symbolic of service men and women falling in action. J.R. Butler Inc. based in Denver, Colo., was the contract glazier.

Ellen Rogers is the editor of Architects’ Guide to Glass & Metal magazine. She can be reached at or follow her on Twitter @AGGmagazine and like AGG magazine on Facebook to receive updates.

Carl Levesque is a contributing writer for Architects’ Guide to Glass & Metal magazine.



To Each His Own?
While direct-to-glass printing is growing in popularity as a way to add an element of design to glass, it’s not the only decorative glass printing option. There is also the process of printing onto an interlayer material which is then used in a laminated glass unit.

“Each technology serves a unique purpose,” says James Thornburg, product manager for Trulite Trudeco in Columbus, Ohio. Trudeco produces a Visual HD printed interlayer in Columbus, Ohio; the company also employs a digitally printed ceramic frit technology in Freemont, Calif., and traditional ceramic silkscreen in several other locations, giving the company a unique perspective on market demand, client insight and best practices.

Robert Carlson, mechanical engineer with Tristar Glass in Tulsa, Okla., agrees that each technology has its own benefits. “I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other in terms of the overall performance of the glass,” he says. “They both have their pros and cons and it all depends on the situation.”

Thornburg explains, “Traditional silkscreen was born out of necessity to control solar heat gain, but digital ceramic frit and digitally printed interlayers were developed as a response to the rising sophistication of the client. Digital ceramic frit spoke to high-volume, exterior installations, and digitally printed interlayers were mainly reserved for aesthetically complex, medium-volume, interior installations. Compared to traditional ceramic frit, both allow for increased control and customization while utilizing the benefits of rapid prototyping. It’s safe to say all three technologies have their own merits, but we are beginning to see more and more requests for customization from the owner, designer and glazier respectively.” —Megan Headley


Architects' Guide to Glass & Metal
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