Volume 49, Issue 4 - April 2014

Not Just a Pretty Face

Digital Printing Transforms the Fabricated Glass Industry
by Ellen Rogers and Carl Levesque

Sure it’s pretty, but what else does it do? A lot, now that you mention it.

The digital printing process is bringing a new level of functionality to glass. It offers the ability to control light and can also address security and privacy concerns. Simply put, fabricators employing this equipment can print digital color images on glass quickly.

“Fabricators such as ourselves offering full solutions under one roof have the added advantage of minimizing product being damaged in transit between, say, our facility and a third party printer,” says Peter Valley, who works in strategic consulting in North America for Carey Glass International, which is headquartered in Tipperary, Ireland, and also has offices in New York.

Carey Glass spent five years and thousands of dollars in research and development before choosing a digital solution. “[Our CEO] believed there was a viable market in digital printing and, as it ended up, he came upon the device at a trade show and purchased the only machine presently in the British Isles,” says Valley.

Here in the U.S. fabricators are adding digital printing lines at an accelerated pace. Companies such as GlasSource in Grand Haven, Mich., Hartung Glass Industries based in Seattle, and Standard Bent Glass in Butler, Pa., are among those that have all added this process to their decorative glass offerings.

Jim Arnold, president of GlasSource, says he and his team have seen these machines at trade shows over the past few years.

“Although interested in the process and results, we did not see a market niche to offset the high costs at first,” says Arnold, who adds that eventually demand developed for certain products. The company began to fill orders through local UV glass printers, with the majority of those orders being for graphics or signage.

“This worked okay, but outsourcing was a hassle, and the end result was quite fragile, so it limited the applications,” says Arnold.

Then came the increase in requests for permanent designs—those that could be done through silkscreening. Yet the jobs were often too small for the economics to work, both cost- and time-wise, for that process.

Hartung also noticed the increasing trend. “Decorative glass is one of [our company’s] strategic initiatives,” says COO Kirk Johnson. “Even though [we] offer one of the widest selections of decorative glass products on the West Coast, we see this as a continually growing area.”

Both companies responded by purchasing a digital printer. GlasSource’s machine was installed in late January, and now the team is experimenting with production techniques, running samples, doing advanced training with representatives from their machinery supplier, and fielding inquiries from interested customers. While samples have already been put to use, the company plans to start officially generating product from the machine in May, after a previously planned move to another facility.

The move may have dictated, but allotting time to learn the machine has turned out to be an important step. “For companies like ours without strong prior graphics or print backgrounds, there is a good learning curve to the process,” Arnold explains, “but with the time we have had … we have been able to really develop our processes [and] to develop a top-quality product that we feel will be a growing segment for us over the next year.”

Hartung’s machine is scheduled to arrive in mid-2014 at the company’s Wilsonville, Ore., facility. Johnson’s company made the purchase after considering not only market demand but what other functions the machine could effectively take on.

“After researching demand and reviewing our screenprinting capacity and tracking what portion of screen printing could be converted to digital printing to make it cost effective for us, the machine ROI’s out fairly well,” Johnson says.

While such an addition can be lucrative in the end, there are still a number of considerations for which a fabricator must account.

“One of the main challenges is pricing,” says Valley. “For example, we did several runs for a perspective client wishing to replace a marble installation with a marble effect glass. On one run we used the highest definition possible taking roughly one hour to process. On the second run we reduced the definition marginally yet achieved a similar coverage in 16 minutes, only the keenest most particular eye would be able to notice the differences in output. Yet as you can imagine, the pricing for the second job would theoretically come in at a quarter of the first. Every job is unique and offering per square foot estimates or pricing can be a challenge for us and the client.”

Unique indeed. Digitally printed glass provides architects and designers the ability to create a one-of-a-kind aesthetic. Take a look at the photo gallery that follows for a closer look at how companies are using this exciting new product.

Points to Ponder
If your company has been considering the addition of a digital glass printing line you’ll want to be sure and do your research before making any final decisions. Here are a few points to keep in mind before making your final selection.

• Is it capable of printing reliably and consistently what you hope or need to print?

• Where do you get consumables, such as ink, and what are the costs and lead times?

• How long has the machinery supplier or technology been deployed (i.e. experience)?

• Do you already have staff with graphic arts and design software background?

• What about support equipment and the related expense; a high quality glass washer, a clean room and a dryer may be required. For ceramic ink you must also temper in house. Most of these are far more expensive than the printer itself.

In Remembrance
The Colorado Freedom Memorial located in Aurora, Colo., is constructed of digitally printed glass that reflects Colorado’s mountains and blue skies. Designed by architect Kristoffer Kenton and fabricated by Owatonna, Minn.-based Viracon, the wall stands approximately 12-feet tall and 95-feet wide. Each of the names of the nearly 6,000 Coloradans killed or missing in action were etched in the glass panels dedicated to the specific war in which they fought. In the case of the MIAs, their names will be etched in a special panel of glass.

As the visitor looks at the glass, it will reflect back his/her own image so that the visitor actually becomes a part of the memorial. The height of the glass and the reflected surroundings will seem to loom over the visitor and then fade away—all symbolic of service men and women falling in action. J.R. Butler Inc. based in Denver, Colo., was the contract glazier.

Fade to Light
The Palo Alto Medical Foundation Sunnyvale Center is a nonprofit healthcare organization within the San Francisco Bay area. The project features colorful glass installations fabricated by GGI in Secaucus, N.J., using its Alice direct-to-glass printing technology. According to information from the company, architect/designer Larry Kirkland worked with the technology as it provided a way to gradually fade the custom green leaf design from a full opacity at the bottom to a more translucent version of the pattern toward the top. By incorporating the fade into the pattern, the project was able to achieve more natural sunlight, which led to shadows of the pattern projected into the building when the sun shines through.

Taking Flight
The millions of people traveling through Chicago O’Hare International Airport can now see and experience the new digitally printed glass elements used in the renovation of terminal five. Designed by Epstein Architects, Goldray Industries was charged with digital ceramic printing of almost 4,000 square feet of glass. The detailed graphics were designed by Thirst Communication Design to convey a story of the traveler’s experience. The imagery resulted in complex design details that needed a unique solution.

The completed project features a two-story interior curtainwall that blocks entry to private areas and directs foot traffic to the security checkpoint. The color bands and geometric shapes of the designed glass were printed in a gradient to ensure the flow of natural light without diminishing its privacy function. The wall was installed using clips instead of silicon to maintain the aesthetic quality of the design, which seamlessly continues onto the printed glass wall cladding.

“We worked through all the various color and design options until one met all expectations,” says Greg Saroka, president of Goldray Industries.

A number of contract glaziers worked on this job including Architectural Glass Works in Tinley Park, Ill. and VEI Supply of Chicago.

Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates. Carl Levesque is a contributing writer for USGlass magazine.

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