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Volume 38, Issue 4, April 2003

Science Reliance

A Focus on Science and Innovation Takes DuPont to New Levels

by Ellen Giard Chilcoat


Call it ironic or even a twist of fate, but a company that got its start more than 200 years ago as an explosives manufacturer, specifically gunpowder, is today manufacturing products to mitigate the effects of explosives. The company is known for Teflon®, Nylon® and Lycra®. As the hurricane codes in the United States continue to evolve, an increasing number of people have come to know this company for its work with safety glass. This company is DuPont.

Founded in 1802, DuPont has grown from seeing first-year sales of $15,116 to $24 billion in 2002. With science at its core, the company delves into numerous industries, including glass, to find ways to improve its products. The vast majority of these efforts take place at its primary research and development facility, the DuPont Experimental Station (which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year) located in Wilmington, Del.

A Quick History

To truly understand what makes DuPont unique, you have to look at its history. In 1802 Eleuthere Irenee du Pont founded E.I. de Nemours & Co. in Wilmington, Del., to build gunpowder mills. The mills were built on the same land as du Pont’s home, so the need for safety was evident. Today, the company is still extremely safety-conscious, and it is that awareness which allows it to do complex chemistry research and projects safely.

The early years proved to be quite successful. By World War I the company was supplying 1.5 billion pounds of military explosives to Allied forces and had found ways to branch out into new industries.

1938 was an important year on the DuPont timeline. In that year, the company heralded the inventions of Teflon, a fluoropolymer resin, Lucite®, an acrylic resin and Butacite®, a PVB interlayer for automotive glass. Each was invented at the Experimental Station. It is the evolution of Butacite that has made DuPont a major player in the laminated glass market.

“For more than the first 30 years [Butacite] was used almost solely in the automotive industry,” said Jeff Granato, architectural marketing director, glass laminated products. “We were led to the architectural industry when the safety codes and the corresponding requirement for safety glass in buildings came along. Two alternatives were explored: tempered glass and laminated glass. So it was with the advent of building codes calling for safety glass in buildings that was the true kick-off for laminated glass.”

Growth in Numbers

With nearly 70 years in glass-industry-related work, DuPont’s efforts with laminated glass have continued to evolve, and the hub of that evolution has been the Experimental Station. This research center is impressive. Situated on 152 acres, it is made up of 54 buildings totaling more than 2,600,000 square feet; 4,500 employees, including 1,000 PhDs, are employed on site.

Due to the size of the Experimental Station, defining precisely how much of that effort is devoted to laminated glass is difficult. According to Granato, a few years ago little research was geared in that direction, but advancement is definitely occurring.

“PVB is a product that we’ve had for a long time, and we’ve done a lot with it … we’ve done a lot of fine-tuning over the years,” he said. “But looking back, the strength of the interlayer business has not been a long-term focus on developing new products and expanding beyond traditional PVB. I think what you’ve seen [from DuPont] in the last couple of years … and what you’re going to be seeing a lot more of, is our utilizing our core our competencies and taking advantage of the assets this company has to offer. [We’re] utilizing facilities like the Experimental Station and our exceptional personnel resources and tying them to key projects aimed directly at the glass industry.”

And the Experimental Station’s concentration on laminated glass continues to increase.

“There are a lot of good projects going on under the next generation of interlayers, be it new polymers or different functions that you can put in interlayers; that wasn’t happening a couple of years ago, and that’s where we have to be,” said Granato. “Just making the same thing everybody else does is not who we are; DuPont excels at bringing new science and innovation to an industry.”

Setting Goals

Aside from technology and innovation, another of DuPont’s goals is forming closer partnerships and relationships, which have traditionally been with its direct customers. Forming these same relationships with not just the fabricators, but also the framing companies and window companies, is becoming an important factor.

“The thing we have learned in the hurricane market is that glass is really a system product—it’s not a single element that stands by itself,” said Granato. “So when people ask, ‘do you have a hurricane glass?’ the technical answer will always be no. Because no matter how great the glass, if it’s not put in the right system it doesn’t do the function.”

International Outlook

Although its corporate headquarters are located in Wilmington, DuPont has a strong international presence, with approximately half of its operations outside of the United States. More than 60 percent of its PVB business is derived from operations in Europe.

“That’s because the European market is the biggest market in the world for PVB. There’s a huge architectural marketplace plus a good automotive marketplace,” said Granato. “Both Asia and the Americas have very strong automotive markets, but relatively weak architectural markets. Europe has two strong engines and the other two have only one.”

Like any other type of business operating internationally, operational differences can vary from country to country. Domestically, for example, the majority of DuPont’s customers are glass fabricators; in Europe customers tend to be glass manufacturers who are also fabricators.

“Here in the Americas, you tend to see more float manufacturers who do not fabricate their own glass (speaking architecturally). Traditionally, the big glass manufacturers are not big producers of architectural laminated glass in the Americas versus the way they are in Europe,” said Granato.

Europe’s expansive market for laminated glass stems from a number of reasons. For one, glass manufacturers are more likely to fabricate their own laminated glass. Another is that European safety codes require only a 15-mil laminate, whereas in the states 30-mil is required to be considered safety glazing. So, speaking in terms of raw material costs, laminated glass is less expensive to make in Europe. A third possible reason could be that due to high energy costs in Europe, manufacturing tempered glass is a bit more expensive.

“It’s going to be very hard to project laminated glass having that same kind of market share [in North America] that it does in Europe,” said Granato. “The current infrastructure for tempered glass here makes such a shift seemingly impractical.” He continued, “So, what you do is take the attributes the product does have and really concentrate on them. And that’s why we got so involved in the hurricane market in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, and, more recently, the blast market.”

According to Granato, the growth of laminated glass in the United States is a result of its niche-market attributes—safety, security, sound attenuation, etc.

“Concentrating on a couple of niche markets has, first, started to build a bit of a marketplace for laminated glass in North America, and, second, it’s done a nice job of bringing attention to its unique attributes to the engineering and architectural community that would not have been possible otherwise,” he said.

Tough Markets

Even though the majority of its laminated glass business comes from Europe, international competition is still an obstacle for DuPont. To survive, Granato says it’s all about maintaining focus on the long-term and innovation.

“Corporate America is driven by the short-term … and it’s hard to maintain focus on the long-term breakthroughs that really do set a company apart. We have to meet our targets quarter-to-quarter just like everyone else, but we still have to put [emphasis] into research and into technology, because that’s what’s gotten us here and we can never forget that. As a product goes through a life cycle and starts to move toward more of a commodity-type product, you have to bring something unique to the marketplace that’s not just what everyone else is doing,” said Granato.

In the Works

When it comes to new products and developments, DuPont focuses on ways to take its PVB interlayers and design them with added benefits or uses.

“It’s our goal and our vision to bring a lot more function into the interlayers versus being just a product that takes an impact or holds glass together,” said Granato. “We are going to try and take more of our corporate, core competency and bring it to the glazing industry, which, admittedly, we haven’t concentrated on in the past. We have a very good product in PVB and it continues to serve a vital function in the industry, but the time is right to bring new, innovative ideas.”

One effort making its way into much of what DuPont does involves finding ways for different divisions to work together to provide total-solution products. A prime example of such synergy is the recently launched, patent-pending SentryGlas® Expressions™, a decorative, laminated safety glass.

SentryGlas Expressions is a result of the marriage of two DuPont technologies: proprietary inks/ink-jet printing and glass laminates. By combining the two technologies, the company has found a way to print images onto the interlayer. And because of those technologies, developmental stages for Expressions was just more than a year.

As with any new product launch, challenges and obstacles, equations to solve and problems to resolve are likely to arise. Expressions’ development was no different. You might think something to the effect of ‘it’s printing on plastics, no problem.’ But there’s more to consider than just that.

“The challenge was getting both the image quality and structural properties [such as good adhesion] of architectural safety glass,” said David Cordrey, SentryGlas Expressions business manager. “DuPont was able to bring a design element that other companies could not, because we have both technologies [PVB and inks] in-house. We were able to bring the scientists together to develop and optimize both sides of the equation to get the image quality and adhesion for architectural safety glass in a reduced time frame compared to other companies.”

Having and using the proper materials was one element DuPont faced during the developmental stages. The inks, for instance, had to be adapted for the product.

“Standard inks, even the inks that DuPont makes, are great for printing on paper, but we’re designing for the entire laminate to stick together. There’s a specific chemistry that we use to make sure [the interlayer] sticks to glass, even after you apply ink all over its surface,” said Granato.

To ensure the printed laminate adhered to glass, the inks were adapted so they did not affect the chemistry.

“In developing this technology, DuPont was able to uniquely bring together our extensive technology positions in both PVB interlayer and ink,” said David Matz, a technical consultant who worked on the ink development. “We were able to leverage our state-of-the-art pigment technology that is used in DuPont automotive paints and in DuPont ink jet inks for commercial graphics printing to improve light fastness and achieve vivid colors.”

Weathering was another concern. How well would the inks hold up over the years? Would they last or would they fade? So again, the ink was designed to last.

Another developmental issue revolved around getting the laminate through the printer. According to Matz, since Butacite does not have a smooth surface it is difficult to print on, so the process had to be developed for that.

“You can develop some wonderful inks, but now you have to get them to run through the printers,” added Granato. “Having that technology under one roof is really what differentiates us here. Doing one thing might have been easy, but developing an entire process such that the package comes together is what makes it unique.”

Matz added, “Printing directly onto the PVB interlayer eliminates the need for other materials in the laminate, making the product durable and [easy] to use for our customers.”

He continued, “In order to accomplish this our technical team optimized the interaction between the ink, printer and substrate, thus developing a patent-pending digital print process that achieves excellent image quality and continuous tone printing at very high resolutions. Competitive spot-color printing processes cannot approach the smooth tonality and natural looking images that we can achieve.”

This latest technology, which became commercially available last month, is one way DuPont tries to meet the needs of the architectural design community. The concept is not brand-new, as there are already procedures to make decorative glass, but Granato says the unique attributes of Expressions are its speed-to-market and flexibility, which again comes from the fact that all facets of its production are completed within DuPont.

While architects already have a desire to bring decorative glass to their projects, the launch of Expressions may create new opportunities for glass.

“Be it walls, replacing marble, granite, applications along those lines … it’s going to expand the market for glass far above and beyond what people are already thinking,” said Granato.

The commercial, architectural design community may be the first and foremost marketing target, but DuPont is not close-minded to the best audience possibly being a different market, such as homeowners and consumers. Granato says that while marketing in these areas is new ground, it is definitely something they want to explore.

“Do people just think it’s a neat idea or are they really willing to pay for it? Those are the questions that have to be answered,” said Granato. “But we firmly believe that maybe the best market for [Expressions] is one we’re not thinking of today or is not in our value chain today.”

Code Conscious

When it comes to laminated glass and safety glazing DuPont is more than just an interlayer manufacturer. It is a company that has a firm hand in the code arena and is making developmental strides.

“We have people in our organization whose job is to concentrate solely on codes, watch code development, get involved where appropriate [and] try and work with building codes such that they represent the most fair and best utilization of our products,” said Granato. “And it’s a blood, sweat and tears thing. You put the time, energy and effort into it, and you get what you put into it.”

As the market gets tougher and more competitive, resources, such as a staff devoted to codes, becomes tough to justify.

“But you have to keep that vision and make sure you look at it with the long run in mind,” said Granato.

Such activity is important to DuPont for a number of reasons.

“First of all, codes drive the marketplace,” said Granato, “and if you don’t lead you’re going to follow in the dust and you’re going to have other people dictating how best to use your products. So it’s really to make sure that your products are best represented in the marketplace and they’re used for the smartest and most functional reasons.”

Understanding the direction in which the market is headed is another reason.

“From a pure research and development standpoint, having our ear in tune with the codes, codes that we’re not involved [with] directly, but that are made and driven by different entities (such as the Department of Energy) helps us know which way national standards are moving and what the future generation of products has to look like,” added Granato.

Core Values

But the backbone of DuPont, the glue that really holds the company together, lies in two core values: the company’s focus on safety and a passion for science.

“The passion for science has truly made the company innovative, going back 200 years,” said Granato. “We really try to bring in the best people in the world from that standpoint, and I think that the passion for science and that ability to excel and innovate is in the quality of the people. The ability to attract some of the best scientists in the world to execute [our goals] is definitely the company’s greatest strength.”

Its competency for safety grew from its ties to the gunpowder industry.

“It has made the company dedicate itself to an area of how to do things right, how not to make mistakes, how to do things right the first time,” said Granato. “And originally you think this is from an injury standpoint, which is obviously the most important aspect, but it also makes you strive toward making sure all the proper processes and procedures are in place so you avoid accidents. That discipline translates over into everything we do. It has made the company dedicate itself to a belief system that doing things the safe way is the only way to operate, from both a personal care standpoint as well as a business standpoint. When you do things right the first time, it is the safe and the most economical way.”

Further Commitment

After more than 200 years, DuPont has illustrated its commitment to technology and innovation in numerous ways. And, as the company continues to explore new areas of potential involvement, it’s probably a safe bet to say science will surely continue as the forefront.

Ellen Giard Chilcoat is the editor of USGlass magazine.