Volume 16, Issue 7 - October 2015


A New Material World
Will Pultruded Fiberglass Melt Vinyl’s Market Share?
by Geoffrey Card

We live in an era of rapid technical advancement, particularly in the field of material science.

Twenty-five years ago, if you were asked “what industry are you working in?,” you probably would have responded by saying “I am employed in the millwork, door and window industry, and I design and fabricate products from wood.” Others from our industry would have answered that question by saying “aluminum” or even “vinyl.” Today, this would be inaccurate—with very few exceptions, we are no longer in a material-specific industry.

Some market-leading millwork manufacturers still promote their image as being wood products fabricators when they increasingly use non-wood modern hybrid materials. Industry forecasters still tend to define market statistics and market share in terms of material types such as wood, aluminum, vinyl or fiberglass. This can be misleading.

This fundamental advancement in material usage is not confined to the millwork industry. Automobiles used to be almost exclusively constructed from steel; today, composite plastics, ABS, aluminum and other advanced materials are used in large volumes. Some of the most dramatic advancements have been in the aircraft industry. The airframes of commercial aircraft historically have been fabricated from aluminum, but Boeing is now leading the way forward by constructing the fuselage of the new 787 Dreamliner from high-tech plastic composites. In the immediate future, you will be traveling in a “plastic” tube rather than an aluminum one!

Efficiency, Take the Wheel

What has driven this fundamental change in material use? In transportation, the driving factor (apologies for the pun) has been the need to save energy by making significant savings in the weight of both automobiles and aircraft. The millwork, door and window industry has been influenced by many factors, including energy-saving regulations. These come from federally inspired organizations such as the National Fenestration Research Council (NFRC), and specifically from consumers who increasingly demand products that do not rot and that eliminate the need for regular maintenance such as painting and staining. As structural codes are revised, products are required to withstand the worst that nature can impose.

Compliance with all this demands the adoption of high-performance modern materials with superior structural strength capabilities. Modern efficient methods of manufacturing have also demanded the adoption of more consistent materials.

The U.S. residential door and window market divides into two principal sectors – new construction and remodeling/replacement. As big as the new-construction sector is, it is important to realize that the replacement sector has, for many years, been larger in terms of both product unit volume and sales value. Homeowners are motivated to spend more on their window replacements than the builder could justify at the time of original construction. Homeowners are motivated by energy savings, cost and the inconvenience of regular maintenance (pride of ownership). They are also motivated by the desire for sound reduction and by comfortable living conditions, not to mention the value of their property. They are prepared to spend more for high-performing products that meet their requirements. These drivers have been the impetus behind many of the industry changes to modern materials.

Today’s industry does not generally design and manufacture all the multiplicity of components used in its products. All industries, including the millwork and the window industry, work closely with component designers, manufacturers and suppliers. Component suppliers have introduced many of the modern hybrid materials such as vinyl/aluminum door threshold, vinyl tray panels, fiberglass pultruded pre-assembled French door astragals, fiberglass reinforcing members, weather proofing systems, extruded cellular door frame and window profiles and many others.

Demands from consumers for maintenance-free, thermally im-proved door and window systems drove the dramatic development of the vinyl (Upvc) markets in both Europe and North America. Vinyl doors and windows were not generally designed and developed by specific window fabrication companies, but as an outgrowth of the vinyl-extrusion industry, which realized a market-driven opportunity, em-ployed door and window systems designers and licensed regional manufacturers to fabricate and market their products. Systems support was given in the form of lineal vinyl extruded material supply, technical training, technical manuals, product testing and national marketing.

Residential vinyl windows in the U.K. and Europe grew through the 1980s to exceed 70 percent of the market; by the mid-1990s, they rapidly came to dominate the residential markets in the U.S. as well. This growth was reinforced by a great deal of industry investment in the development of both material and performance standards for vinyl products principally by the industry members of American Architectural Manufacturers association (AAMA) and by similar organizations in other countries.

A World Beyond Vinyl

Vinyl doors and windows have their disadvantages, however. Vinyl needs profile reinforcement for the construction of larger unit sizes. It also has a fairly high degree of expansion in hot climates. That’s why the vast majority of extruded vinyl doors and windows are marketed in white-colored finishes. Solutions to these challenges are becoming available as a result of major advancements in the processing and pultrusion of fiberglass.

Pultruded fiberglass profiles have advantages similar to vinyl with two additional ones with respect to the construction of doors and windows. First, they have a section modulus (rigidity) on average eight times greater than equivalent vinyl profiles. Second, they are reinforced with thousands of glass strands, which have no measurable expansion or contraction when subjected to extreme temperature variation. The advantage of all this is that the door and window designer can eliminate the use of profile reinforcement and use very dark color finishes in even the hottest southern climates.

The use of modern synthetic materials will continue to increase in our industry to everyone’s advantage. My forecast is that the adoption of pultruded fiberglass profiles and complete fiberglass product systems will gain market share dramatically over the next few years.

Geoffrey Card
has worked for 50 years in both the U.K. and U.S. window industries as a technical marketer and product designer. He now assists GPI Millworks, a division of Global Products International Group, as a consultant with their design and development of advanced components for the millwork industry.


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