Volume 41, Issue 10 - October 2006

From Point A to Point B
A Breakdown of How Glass Goes from the Furnace to Installation 
by Alan B. Goldberg

In North America, the way by which glass gets to market can be as complex as how it takes shape. From its molten form to its finished form, glass passes from the hands of manufacturers to fabricators to distributors to retailers or glazing contractors, in shapes and sizes that know few bounds. Whether it finds its way to automobiles as windshields, backlites or mirrors; to homes, residential or commercial buildings as windows and doors; to storefronts; or for use in specialty applications such as furniture, glass is everywhere. The questions is, though, how does it get there? With the help of some industry experts, we will carve a path out of a maze of channels, from the float line to the finished product. (The flow chart on page 35 provides an illustration of this process, while the map on pages 36-37 provides a look at where glass is produced throughout the United States.)

The Float Line
Developed a half-century ago by Pilkington, float glass production begins with a mixture of raw materials, including sand, silica and limestone, that are melted in a furnace at 2100ºF. According to Scott Hoover, marketing manager for Pilkington North America of Toledo, Ohio, molten glass is fed continuously onto a shallow bath of molten tin in a chemically-controlled atmosphere. Floating on tin, the glass in its molten state forms level, clear surfaces. The speed at which the solidifying glass ribbon is drawn from the tin bath determines how thick the glass will be.

Fewer than ten companies produce glass in the United States and, while their float processes may be similar, they approach the market in different ways. 

“We do not have downstream operations for our building products,” says Hoover. Pilkington glass is sold directly to fabricators. However, the company has facilities for producing automotive windshields and backlites.

AFG Industries of Kingsport, Tenn., on the other hand, follows a number of different paths.

“We serve the automotive, residential, commercial and specialty application markets in many ways,” says Mark Montgomery, director of marketing. 

He says that the products AFG supplies vary with each customer. The company sells directly to window companies and also provides glass to insulating glass (IG) manufacturers and tempering shops, as well as finished products to distributors.

Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries has a slightly different approach.

“Our PPG Certified Fabricator Program members can provide glass as IG, tempered or laminated,” says Robert Struble, manager of marketing communications. 

As a primary glass manufacturer, PPG manufactures and coats glass, and also does some tempering. It does not produce IG or laminated glass for commercial construction.

Automotive Components Holdings (formerly Visteon) of Tulsa, Okla., and Guardian Industries of Auburn Hills, Mich., manufacture and fabricate glass products, and also supply fabricators.

Cardinal Glass Industries of Minneapolis manufactures and fabricates glass products, primarily serving all types of residential window manufacturers. The company makes its own float, coated, IG, laminated and tempered glass products.

“We are not actively involved in architectural applications and we are not involved in the automotive market, OEM or aftermarket,” says Tom Kaiser, Cardinal vice president.

Fabrication and Distribution
Just as some primary manufacturers fabricate for their customers, distributors have expanded their services to include either secondary or primary fabrication operations. 

“Fabrication is what makes an operation work,” says Jack Hoey, president of Coastal Glass Distributors in Charleston, S.C. “I don’t know of any distributor that is not fabricating.”

He stresses the importance of having fabrication capabilities in order to adequately serve the market. He says stock products in his business are ancillary, accounting for only 15 percent.

“When we got our first tempering oven, there were six distributor/fabricators in our service territory that were operating without ovens. Today, only two remain. Three (of the six) are no longer in business.”

Coastal primarily supplies specialty and decorative products, although its distribution is not confined to specific channels. 
“We sell to anyone in the glass business,” says Hoey. “That includes glaziers, mirror contractors and retail glass outlets.”

He also sees new trends in the market. He says glass shops are becoming more specialized, especially with the popularity of products such as high-end shower enclosures and home spas. 

For Hoey, a key factor is the proximity of his company’s location to that of suppliers, the primary manufacturer. He says that because of the high cost of freight, the location of his supply sources can be the deciding factor when it comes to choosing manufacturers.

But the issue of freight varies from company to company. Arch Aluminum & Glass Inc. in Tamarac, Fla., benefits from the quantity of glass it purchases.

“Our unit of purchase (from the float glass manufacturer) is truckload containers and, because of our size, we are in a position to take advantage of economies of scale,” says Leon Silverstein, president. 

He explains that at the other end of the market, as a supplier, his company’s unit of sale is based on the specific job or a project.

“We’re selling service—just in time—and our internal capabilities.”

The company sells to retail glass shops, glazing contractors and OEMs. Silverstein explains one of the advantages of being a large fabricator is that they can offer an entire product line, compared to smaller distributors who must purchase from larger distributors. 

“As a fabricator of aluminum and glass products, we do everything but manufacture float glass,” adds Silverstein.

He is equally as clear about what the company does not do, saying Arch does not sell to building owners or general contractors and it does not do installation work.

As a fabricator and distributor, Hartung Glass Industries of Seattle makes shower doors, tempered and insulating glass units. The company distributes flat glass of all types from many parts of the world, and its customers include glazing contractors and retail glass shops.

For Craftsman Fabricated Glass in Houston, another primary fabricator, customers include OEMs, window manufacturers and glass shops.

“We serve many segments of this market with a range of glass products, but we do not install,” says Bob Lawrence, president. 
The niche for McGrory Glass of Aston, Pa., is specialized glass for the industrial sector, which is 30 percent of its business, including small glass shops and large contract glaziers, according to John McGrory, the company president and founder. 

The company, which buys its glass directly from a primary manufacturer, is also a secondary fabricator and distributor of X-ray glass.

“Our fabrication is strictly pour- [resin] laminating and edging for original equipment,” adds McGrory who says he has no interest in adding insulating, tempering and [PVB] laminating operations, at the present time. 

The opposite is true at J.E. Berkowitz L.P. in Westville, N.J.

According to Mike Nicklas, sales and marketing manager, the company participates in the architectural glass fabrication segment of the market. He says a changing market with many new products has created opportunities for his company to expand its capabilities.

“We’re fabricating our own insulating, tempered, silk-screened and heat-soaked glass, as well as all-glass doors, point-supported systems and ceramic frit glass products,” he says.

The company sells directly to the glazing contractor, in addition to window manufactures and unitizers. Nicklas refers to changes in the distribution channels that have taken place, particularly with the fabrication of high-performance low-E coated glass. He says float manufacturers have developed new high-performance low-E coating technologies that have permitted down-stream processing by fabricators. Certified fabricator programs created by some manufacturers have also been established that provide guidelines and standards for processing the many different products.

ACI Distribution (part of Vitro America) is a full-line distributor of all glass products, including metal and auto glass.

“We temper, insulate and laminate. Actually, we do just about everything to the glass but coat it,” says Jim Charles, director of flat glass products. “The division makes every effort to supply the glass needs of anyone requiring glass products. Customers include glass shops, including Binswanger Glass (also part of Vitro), glazing contractors, window manufacturers and other fabricators of glass products.

The company, which buys its glass in bulk, also distributes and installs it. 

As a coater and fabricator, Viracon of Owatonna, Minn., applies soft coatings to glass, says Christine Shaffer, marketing manager. 

“We buy large sheets of stoce glass (from the float glass manufacturer) and customize it by adding coatings and through other fabrication [options],” says Shaffer.

The company provides design, aesthetic, budget and performance solutions that include insulating, laminated, hurricane-resistant, spandrel, acoustical, blast-resistant and high-performance coated glass products. Its distribution channel includes window companies, insulating glass manufacturers and glazing contractors, as well as glazing contractor shops that may assemble or do additional fabrication on-site.

Oldcastle Glass of Santa Monica, Calif., also sells to glazing contractors. Susan Trimble, director of corporate communications, describes the company as a supplier of building envelope solutions. The company provides custom engineered curtainwall, custom-fabricated architectural glass, operable windows, storefronts and doors. The glass fabricated by Oldcastle is supplied by a primary manufacturer. 

If distributors are supplying products to retail outlets, just where, then, does the wholesaler fit in? Answering this question is not easy. 

“The traditional wholesaler, as we know it (companies that buy quantities in bulk), no longer exists, especially in the architectural market,” says Hoey. “I haven’t seen any evidence of a wholesale business since I started this one, and that was more than 12 years ago.” 

Hoey says wholesalers had to transform their businesses as a means of survival, and today, they are most likely fabricators and distributors. He explains that this type of change is not unique to this market; it happens in industry all the time. He refers to it as a restructuring. In this instance, manufacturers have figured out a way to shorten the distribution chain. Another factor has to do with custom versus stock products. Today, stock products have little appeal. Consumers want custom products, so the need to warehouse large quantities is not what it used to be. 

“The ante has gotten higher and without a niche in the market, whether it is in fabricating or fulfilling a specific need, companies can not survive,” says Hoey.

Consumers have many options, not only in the products they buy, but also in the type of retail outlet, from small glass shops to big-box stores. One advantage of the latter is the number of choices that are available.

“Each one of our stores carries a variety of window products. In fact, there are more than 2,000 styles and sizes to choose from,” says Karen Haggerty, senior manager, publication relations-merchandising for Home Depot. “We purchase the majority (90 percent) of our windows direct from the window manufacturer,” adds Haggerty. 

Haggerty adds that when purchasing mirror products, Home Depot buys directly from manufacturers.

The Simple Path 
Among the distinct operational differences between glass manufactures and glass fabricators is the quantity of product that each produces. 

“At one end of the chain, vast quantities of float glass are made. Manufacturers want the longest possible run for production efficiency,” says Hoey.

He points out that at the fabricator and contractor level, though, specifications and codes—whether they relate to energy, climate or local regulations—dictate how the finished product will be made and installed.

From the float line to a retail line, the path is a simple one: glass is produced, fabricated in many ways and ultimately delivered as a final product to glass shops or glaziers for installation. But the thing that makes this chain of distribution so complex is the continually changing roles of the participants who must adapt in order to serve and survive in a market that offers both opportunity and risk.

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