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June-July  2004

Fiberglass Composites
The Holy Grail of Fenestration Materials
by Phil Wake

I’ve got one word for you, Ben…
just one word…
Are you listening?
Yes, Sir….

In the 1967 film classic The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman, as newly minted grad Benjamin Braddock, gets wise career advice from family friend Mr. McGuire. Ben unfortunately is fixated on his torrid fling with the sultry Mrs. Robinson and does not drop everything and immediately enter the window business.

Had Ben heeded McGuire’s advice he would have become one rich dude indeed.

The window industry at the time was a two-player game: wood and aluminum.

There was not a plastic window made in America. 

That was soon to change as we witnessed the phenomenal success of PVC, which revolutionized and transformed the residential window, in the space of 20 years becoming the dominant material today with a share approaching 60 percent. 

My hypothesis here is that the phenomenal change we witnessed with PVC is about to happen again.
This time composites, of which pultruded fiberglass (FRP) is one, will lead the structural transformation of the window industry. 

FRP is also a plastic but it is a thermal setting, not a thermoplastic material.

To use a medical analogy, we now know that there is good cholesterol HDL as well as LDL. Think 
of fiberglass, the plastic, as good cholesterol.

Classic S curve theory suggests the time frame for a new material or technology to move from introduction to a market share of 10 percent is the same as the time to go from 10- percent to 90-percent market acceptance. Consider the tire analogy. First introduced in 1965, the radial tire took seven years to capture 10-percent share. It then burst into the mainstream and by 1979 had virtually replaced bias-ply tires. 

The chart on page 54 plots residential window data from the study performed recently by Ducker Research—not in terms of absolute size of the materials component—but the rate of change over the five-year period 2000-2005. These are then superimposed on a product life cycle chart adapted from classic S curve theory. Traditional materials—aluminum, wood and even PVC—are seen to be in various stages of maturity. The other category includes composites—cellulosic composites like Fibrex® by Andersen, Mikronwood®, cellular PVC, ABS, and of course pultrusion or fiberglass. 

This alternative materials category is set to experience explosive growth as it moves from the innovative stage to the growth phase conjuring up the image of a big train gathering steam for the climb up growth mountain.
The next PVC will come from this group.

Why Fiberglass Composites?
The window and door of the future will not be of monolithic composition—be it wood, metal or plastic. Rather, tomorrow’s designs will incorporate a variety of materials based on their physical, aesthetic and economic properties, availability and, increasingly, on the consumer’s perception of their environmental impact.
Pultruded fiberglass is well-positioned and increasingly being incorporated in those cutting-edge designs.

Called “The Lumber of the Future” by some, “The Holy Grail” by a zealous few and the “ideal window frame” by others, pultruded fiberglass offers advantages that appeal to innovative window and door designers:

• Dimensionally stable over the temperature spectrum. It does not expand, twist and soften in the desert heat or shrink and turn brittle in extreme cold. Windows retain their original air infiltration ratings indefinitely and can be painted any color including black in SW exposures;
• High flexural modulus and low thermal conductivity. It needs no reinforcement and is well-suited for door and window applications requiring structural strength in combination with insulating properties such as hurricane and high-rise commercial designs as an option to aluminum. Narrower profiles and sightlines are possible as are larger windows. It expands and contracts at virtually the same rate as the vision glass itself.
• Moisture resistance. Virtually impervious to moisture, it does not warp or rot and provides a stable substrate for the application of paints and coatings that require virtually no maintenance; and
• Chemically inert. It will not corrode in coastal applications or when exposed to acid rain.

The Road Ahead
The 2004 Ducker report breaks out fiberglass windows separately for the first time as requested 
by the American Architectural Manufacturers Association and the Window.

While this will give a better understanding of the growth of FRP it will still underestimate the consumption of fiberglass in the window industry because it will neglect the use of fiberglass as a component as designers combine different materials in a single project application.

For example, a PVC sliding door with a fiberglass threshold is still a PVC patio door—but arguably a better one.

Double-hung sills of fiberglass are also good examples of pultrusion as a component in a wood window to offer solutions to problems encountered with traditional materials in specific applications.

And it’s not just the millwork industry that is using pultrusion in new designs.

Leading PVC manufacturers use pultrusion as a reinforcement in meeting rails of PVC windows in a growing example of using the material that best fits the need—and solves a problem—rather than strict adherence to monolithic designs.

As well as its growth as a component, pultrusion is also gaining acceptance as an all fiberglass window, principally, so far, at the high end of the price/value continuum with the technically sophisticated buyer.

Milgard has rolled out Ultra®, an all fiberglass version of its successful WoodClad® in response to cutting-edge buyers who understand the benefits of pultrusion in window applications.

Marvin, a pioneer in pultrusion, has recently announced construction of a second plant in Virginia to expand production of its highly successful Integrity® wood and fiberglass combination.

Supply and Demand
Although pultrusion has been around since the 1950s there are only a few who have the technology needed to do the complex thin wall shapes and pristine surfaces required in the fenestration industry.

Companies such as ours are sometimes referred to as architectural pultruders as opposed to industrial pultruders whose technical competence is in heavy shapes such as structural beams for bridges and buildings.

As demand for window and door applications accelerates, capacity in the architectural pultrusion industry will soon become an issue. Some forward thinking window manufacturers are forming alliances with qualified pultruders now to become familiar with the material, adopting a just-in-case philosophy and ensuring a source of supply.

As fast as growth in fenestration applications is expected to be, demand in the industry is still small compared to industrial applications such as ladder rails, offshore oil rigs and marine construction. Pultruders of those heavy, simple shapes are unlikely to be attracted to the fenestration market and the sophisticated demands of its participants.

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