Volume 8, Issue 9 - October 2007

Under One Roof 
Delaminating the Facts About In-House Laminated Glass Production
by Ellen Giard Rogers

We all know the saying, “If you want something done, you do it yourself.” You might even be too familiar with it, but often, it’s just easier that way. There’s no waiting around and you know that whenever that task is done, whatever it is, it’s going to be done right.

That’s how a few window manufacturers felt not too long ago when the laminated glass market began to boom. They needed the glass to make their hurricane- and impact-resistant windows, but they were waiting through long lead times to get the glass. So what did they do? They started to produce their own laminated glass. As Tim Durham, glass plant manager with PGT Industries, puts it, “We could not get enough glass from the laminators to meet the demand for our products.” PGT has been operating a polyvinyl butyral (PVB) line at its Florida plant since 1999 and started up a second line at its Salisbury, N.C., plant in 2006.

And this is not the only company doing so. A handful of others are going that way, too, either with a PVB or liquid resin production system. Like anything else, making laminated glass has its share of pluses and minuses, but for the most part these companies are pleased with the results. 

Getting Started
Many window manufacturers that offer a laminated glass product traditionally have purchased it from a fabricator. But in the late 1990s and early 2000s the construction industry saw accelerated demand for laminated glass—especially in south Florida and other hurricane-prone regions. As a result, window companies found it difficult to deliver their products on time.

“Our glass suppliers at the time could not meet our market demands, lead times and growth,” says Durham. “Starting our own laminating line gave us the ability to deliver on time and exceed our customers’ expectations.”

David Barnes, president of ViWinco located in Morgantown, Pa., had a similar experience with his company, which started a line almost three years ago. He explains that his company had been purchasing laminated glass for its impact line and was facing increasingly tight demands. A supplier for much of the Atlantic Coast area, there was an increasing need for laminated glass, as the building code requirements were continuing to move further and further north. 

“The lead times were four to six weeks, and I can produce my own in three to four hours,” says Barnes. 

Robert Ford, commercial hurricane product manager with Solutia Inc., a PVB supplier with headquarters in St. Louis, agrees that the ability to control lead times is a prime reason some window companies are opting to make their own laminated glass.

“Lead times and the demands by builders for residential construction are much shorter than in commercial construction. Residential manufacturers who laminate are better able to control these lead times and service their customers more quickly rather than being at the mercy of their suppliers,” says Ford.

Aside from reduced lead times, there are other benefits to in-house laminated glass production, such as cost and quality control.

“Once companies grow large enough and increase their volumes, they are able to reduce costs by vertically integrating,” says Ford.

Barnes agrees. “By making my own I can control the source and the quality,” he says. “I’m also able to do custom sizes.”

Essential Investments
The perks may sound nice, but launching a PVB production line is no simple task, and it may not be right for every company. A lot of planning and research are necessary to ensure a successful start-up.

According to Ford there are several considerations a window company has to take before beginning production. “The physical space constraints within the facility; whether [the company has] enough business to justify such a large capital investment; and [exploring whether] the market growth will maintain and pay for such an investment,” says Ford.

Indeed, starting a laminated glass production line is a major capital investment.

“It’s million-dollar-plus equipment, as well as the infrastructure that’s required,” says Durham. “We had to bring in 5,000 amps of power to be able to laminate [and temper] (PGT also runs a tempering line) our own glass.”

He continues, “You have to do your homework to try and understand what your plant is going to look like five to ten years down the road.”

Barnes, whose company also runs a tempering line in addition to its laminating line, agrees. “It’s a very expensive proposition. You’ve got to have a clean room [for the PVB], you’ve got to have the space, power … we had to re-do our electric to accommodate the tempering and laminating equipment,” he says, “so it can be cost prohibitive.”

Turning to suppliers and others who have been through the process can be helpful in getting production underway.

“We contacted the manufacturers of the interlayer materials to learn about the laminating process, toured existing laminating facilities and projected our current and future capacity requirements,” says Durham about PGT’s Florida start-up, who adds that ordering the equipment and training employees were the major preparation steps.

Durham adds that suppliers also are helpful with training employees and during installation.

“You have to rely on their [suppliers] knowledge and experience, and that’s no different than with any buying process,” says Barnes.

Other Choices
Since starting up a PVB line is an expensive, demanding investment, it’s not always an ideal process for every window company. For those companies that still want to enter the market there are alternatives, specifically liquid resin production. Roger Warwick, president of Ultimate Door of Palm Beach in Florida, has been involved with different types of liquid resin since 1996. He says the reason his company started producing laminated glass was code-driven. “There was not enough outsourcing of the laminators to keep up with the production demand,” says Warwick. “The liquid resin process was the quickest solution at the time. The PVB line is much more costly and takes up a lot more space,” he continues. “At the time, what we tested provided our company with a very strong product that produced the design pressures I needed.”

Michael Burriss, Uvekol® market development specialist with Cytec Industries in Smyrna, Ga., a liquid resin supplier, says the process is ideal for companies with minimal laminated glass needs.

“Companies with a plant that has laminated glass needs of ten to 300 units per shift are the best fit for the system,” says Burriss, who adds that resin lines also can be expanded to accommodate a company’s production growth. “Today there may be a need for only 20 units, but that could easily grow to five times that in under a month.”

For Warwick, one of the nice things about the liquid resin process is that the material is readily available, meaning it’s not used for laminated glass only, but for other industries and markets, too. Another advantage, according to Warwick, is the ability to produce the glass quickly.

“If something happens to the glass—such as a scratch or a chip—we can immediately re-build it,” Warwick says. “We have that serviceability … and it’s helped increase our business.” In addition, Warwick says being able to respond to customers’ needs in 24 hours is another plus.

Steve Howes, president of Glasslam NGI Inc. in Pompano Beach, Fla., agrees that the main reason more window manufacturers are making their own laminated glass is the cost and the ability to service customers quickly.

“It’s half the cost to make your laminated glass [as it is to buy it]”, says Howes, who adds that for companies making their own glass they can quickly service customers if glass is broken or damaged in shipping.

Another big advantage, Burriss says, is the energy savings.

“The PVB process uses more energy per day than the UV curable process uses in one year,” he says.

Howes agrees. “Window companies can’t buy glass alone without energy and fuel surcharges … there are also massive energy costs associated with PVB production. There [are] almost zero energy costs with our system as it can cure at room temperature or under infrared lights.”

Plant space and equipment costs still have to be considered, just as they are with a PVB line.

“The process is not difficult; the difficulty comes in the space you have to have,” says Warwick. “You still need the space for the equipment, racking, etc.”

“The biggest concern we see is the equipment cost,” says Burriss. The production equipment, however, is up to 90 percent less than a PVB line. Even though a return on investment of under two years for a production line capacity of 2,000 square feet per shift seems attractive, many customers are still hesitant to invest in equipment during the current, tough market climate.”

On the other hand, Howes says even with new residential construction down, window companies are looking at alternative business ventures, including laminated glass production.

“Some companies are doing commercial work, others are getting into replacement and others are laying employees off,” says Howes. “Instead of laying people off other companies are focusing on laminated glass … the window companies are finding other work to do.” 

The Next Big Thing?
With the laminated market growing, some may wonder if in-house production could one day become as common as window companies making their own insulating glass. According to Howes the number is definitely poised to grow.

“Window companies significantly involved in the market will struggle to compete if they don’t make their own laminated glass,” Howes says.

But others don’t think in-house production is likely to become commonplace with manufacturers. 

WinDoor Inc. in Orlando, Fla., is a window manufacturer that has seen a great deal of growth since starting up in 2001. And, while laminated impact products are a major part of the company, its vice president/co-owner, Russ Traficante, says they have no plans at all to start producing their own glass.

“It’s not feasible for us to do our own at this time. We buy at a competitive enough price right now that we’d rather spend more time and energy on building windows than on laminated glass,” says Traficante.

So what would it take for him to consider a laminating line?“

The first thing is there would have to be a situation where we could not get the supply that we needed,” says Traficante. Another consideration would be cost. “That’s not the most important thing to us because we buy so much competitively, but if we could not get the quality when we needed [it, that could be a consideration].” 

Richard Wines, president of Southland Windows in Santa Ana, Calif., has offered a laminated window product for 15 years, mainly for sound control applications and protection from UV rays. While it’s a good market for him, he says Southland will never laminate its own glass.

“The investment in equipment and space along with the liability of the glass warranties makes the decision to not do our own glass easy,” says Wines.

Durham says laminated glass production also is much more complex than IG production and not as easy to get started.

“There’s more of a science to running a laminating line than there is with IG and the skills are different,” Durham says. “And if you mess up with IG you’re only running one piece at a time. With laminated glass in the autoclave you could have 5,000 to 8,000 square feet of glass. If you mess up that cycle you could ruin a lot of glass.”

Another reason that some may be deterred from starting their own production lines is the fact that laminated glass is more readily available from fabricators today than it was five or ten years ago.

“I have eight to ten people in that [laminated glass] department and it takes up about 3,500 square feet, which could be used for window production,” says Warwick. “I could offset that by buying laminated glass from a glass company. The manufacturers have caught up with the demand and I have to weigh that in.”

Warwick continues, “As the [laminated glass] producers increase the amount [of what they are manufacturing] and the dollar costs go down, I am not sure smaller operators, such as myself, can continue.”

But, what if the number of window companies taking on laminated glass operations does continue to grow? How might that affect the glass fabricators who currently dominate the market?

“It will likely increase competition between fabricators,” says one supplier who chose to not be identified. “With fewer large customers available [assuming it is the large window manufacturers installing the lines] there will be greater efforts put into securing and maintaining glass sales.” (Note: several glass manufacturers and fabricators were contacted for comment, but either declined to comment or did not respond to DWM’s calls/inquiries.) 

Forward Thinking
Whether for hurricane and other impact applications, sound control or protection from ultraviolet (UV) rays, the laminated glass industry continues to thrive. Companies are finding ways to expand their reach in the market, too.

Durham says that as the building codes continue to move further and further north along the Atlantic Coast and into the Gulf states, his company is looking to expand its reach to those areas.

Barnes agrees, saying they, too, are positioned to grow their laminated business.

Whether window companies want to do it themselves or outsource the production, either way, the experts say, laminated glass is here to stay. 

What’s the Difference? PVB vs. Cured Resin
Laminated glass, generally speaking, consists of at least two glass lites and some type of interlayer material. When it’s been broken, the interlayer is designed to hold the fragmented glass into the frame so the risk of injury or damages caused by flying or falling glass is minimal. While there are several types of interlayer material available, two of the most common types are polyvinyl butyral (PVB) sheet and cured resin. Both meet standards and requirements for impact glazing applications and both are being used by window companies making their own laminated glass. So just how are the two products different? 

Plasticized PVB sheet is made from polyvinyl butyral resin, plasticizer and proprietary chemical additives that give the interlayer unique impact and retention properties when used to laminate glass and some plastic glazings together. The raw materials typically are combined and extruded as sheet under stringent conditions and supplied in roll form to fabricators. The fabricators then use a sheet laminating process with properly selected interlayer and glazing to assemble the unit. When this type of interlayer is part of the laminate, it is placed between one or more plies of glass and plastics. The “glazing sandwich” then is exposed to heat and pressure, which bonds the components into an integral unit.

Cured resin interlayers are made from liquid formulations that react to form solid interlayers after the formulations have been introduced between two lites of glass. The compositions are usually comprised of one or more reactive polymers dissolved in reactive diluents along with other proprietary chemical additives. The polymers, which may be polyester-, urethane-, or acrylic-based, are primarily responsible for the bulk properties of the interlayer, such as tensile strength or percent elongation, while the reactive diluents serve to reduce the viscosity of the composition so that it can be easily pumped [or poured] into the gap between the two pieces of glass. The chemical additives are present to help improve interlayer properties, such as adhesion to the glass.

Source: GANA Laminated Glazing Reference Manual, 2006 edition.


Ellen Giard Rogers is a contributing editor to DWM magazine.



© Copyright 2007 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.