Volume 49, Issue 2 - February 2014

Clouded Market?

Are Competitors Clouding the Privacy Glass Market or Just Crowding It?
By Megan Headley

Privacy glass has been around for several decades, but it’s not yet exploded onto the marketplace or erupted in popularity. It has a comfortable niche in conference room partitions and certain other applications as it can take a room from open to private with the flick of a switch.

The glass is composed of a liquid crystal film laminated between two or more lites, and their various configurations of interlayers. It’s not to be confused with the emerging dynamic glass product, which is designed with solar control in mind and generally offers a range of gradation in between “on” and “off.” Privacy glass offers visual opaqueness as its sole mission; it’s either clear (on) or clouded (off).

Some fabricators, though, say that the new crop of suppliers springing up today are looking to cloud more than glass; they’re looking to confuse customers with poor products, bad data or both.

Quality Control
As Bernard Lax, president of fabricator Pulp Studio Inc. in Los Angeles, explains it, the market for privacy began nearly 20 years ago when only a handful of companies with licenses to the liquid crystal technology were manufacturing privacy glass.

“We all produced it under the same type of product specifications but admittedly no one really had the ability to verify a lot of the data that supported claims on the glass,” he says. “There were things like haze readings and certain types of quality control issues and the product really didn’t have UL standards. There were only three of us making it so no one really questioned it very much, and the quality of what we produced was fairly consistent among the three companies.”

In time, the patent ran out and new companies began to jump into the production ring. “When the patent ran out, a lot of foreign countries saw this as this growth market,” Lax says. “It really isn’t a growth market; people see this as an added-value sale … A lot of people wanted to jump into this business thinking this market was going to take off … It’s a pie but it’s a pie that never grows, it just gets divvied up a little differently every year.”

The problem as Lax sees it is that many of the newer distributors of this PLCD film oversimplify the production process. “They [say] ‘oh you just take the film and you put it in a glass and that’s it.’” On top of that, “Almost all of these [newer] companies are producing old liquid crystal technology from the old patent. The liquid crystal technology that we use has evolved tremendously and we use a much higher quality product than what these people are selling. The problem is the market doesn’t differentiate that because the market doesn’t do anything to really put that information out there … and the people who have really jumped in with both feet to make this stuff don’t really understand the nuances. They don’t really understand the product. More importantly … nobody has any ability to test the claims that they’re making.”

A Market Divided
Ralph Gallizi, vice president of sales and marketing for Polytronix Inc. in Richardson, Texas, first points out, “In the United States, Polytronix is the only manufacturer of the ‘switchable privacy film’ used in making [polymer-dispersed liquid crystal] PDLC switchable privacy glass.” Then he acknowledges, “Yes, more companies seem to spring up as popularity grows, mostly in the adhesive film, which we do not recommend. Quality varies greatly among companies.”

According to Thomas Lee, CEO of Glass Apps, a supplier of switchable glass and film based in Culver City, Calif., “To our knowledge there are no new companies manufacturing switchable film on a meaningful level.” He notes that the growth is simply among companies fabricating the switchable glass itself. But as far as the film itself, Lee says, “It’s true, the quality greatly varies among the four or five relevant [film] manufacturers worldwide.”

There are theories as to why the films’ quality varies.

Gallizi says, “Polytronix believes the privacy glass should be private and not all companies look at this the same way. Polytronix has the best privacy in the world and other companies find it difficult to create the same scattering as us because they do not have the chemists, engineers or patents as we do. We are constantly perfecting our formula, whereas most other companies are using outdated formulas using ‘high voltage.’”

 

“A lot of the competition is just springing up. Before the recession there were very few players. A lot of the players are just coming in with slick marketing and fancy websites.” – Glen Greenberg, Elmont Glass Co.


Lax is a bit more blunt: “[Newer companies] have more or less lived off of plagiarizing data and brochure information from other companies while having no real knowledge of the material’s technical aspects, nor the ability to get their products to comply with UL standards for the purpose of consumer safety.”

Whatever the cause, the result has the potential to shrink markets as customers are scared away by bad product.

“The reason we’re significantly concerned about this is that when we hear about jobs going bad and we start seeing big jobs going bad and we hear about problems … we’re going to see a downturn again where people who get burned by [privacy glass] don’t realize the reason they got burned is because they bought it from the wrong person, not because they bought the glass,” Lax says.

Glen Greenberg, president of Elmont Glass Co. in Garden City, N.Y., agrees. He points out that his glass fabrication and installation company has been creating custom privacy glass products for more than a decade now.

“Some, not all, of the competition out there … are using imported materials, primarily from China and Korea, that are of a lesser quality. What we’re finding is they have less longevity and that’s why we’re actually picking up some work,” Greenberg says.

Glass Apps sources some of the components for its product from overseas, but, according to Lee, “The composition of materials used in our products are ‘best of breed.’ The core materials (i.e. liquid crystals for one) are highly refined and seconded from Japan and Germany; we are very unique in this regard. It’s tempting to use lower cost materials from other countries. We understand why our competitors do this. But it’s not glass, it’s switchable glass: substituting very sensitive compositions will cause substantial quality issues.”

Component Failure?
Greenberg says that he’s hearing regular reports from customers who have bought inexpensive privacy glass only to find it’s failing six months to a year later.

“Some of the things that happen with the switchable glass is [over time] it either doesn’t go as clear or it doesn’t go as private; that’s how the failure starts to manifest itself. In addition, there are two other conditions that happen on the edges … sometimes it starts to delaminate and the delamination either turns permanently clear or it turns permanently private,” Greenberg says.

He adds, “I can’t speak for longevity but with these kinds of failures showing up in the early stages, I would say there are going to be big issues with longevity.” For his part, Elmont Glass has installations more than ten years old that still are switching fine, so a six-months shelf life is hardly standard.

“A lot of the competition is just springing up,” Greenberg explains. “Before the recession there were very few players. A lot of the players are just coming in with slick marketing and fancy websites. I’ve checked them out myself because they wanted me to sell their product.”

David Nichols, project director with glazing contractor Lakeview Glass & Mirror Inc. in Houston, has been installing privacy glass for about 25 years now but similarly has been approached more recently by several companies about new versions of this product.

“We’ve been approached by several other companies,” Nichols says. “We haven’t ventured out and tried them yet; we’re going to stick with [our current supplier] for now.”

A Standard Process
Because this product is used infrequently, there has been little interest in creating a standard outlining consistent requirements for quality control, testing or other guidance. This means there’s little differentiation in the marketplace (or the courtroom) between the products that will last for decades and the products that will fail six months out.

Lax believes the industry needs some sort of guidance to point to when privacy glass questions arise. “We’re [Pulp] going to write a generic (i.e. we’re not going to have our name in it) specification that [outlines] certain standards that [we believe] should be required for this product,” he says.

What would be included? “Technically this product is supposed to be UL-listed,” explains Lax. He admits that in the early days, Pulp didn’t seek UL listing for its privacy glass product, instead insisting that because the electronic components were all UL listed independently and the glass was “not really a system it’s really three independent parts.” Over many years of paying hefty fees to have UL inspectors come take a look at the installation themselves, the company began seeking a UL label for its products and has since found that is the responsible way to go.

“What we’re trying to do is say if the product is going in it should be UL-listed and it should also have a Safety Glazing Certification Council listing. The way that glass is produced, for it to perform as a laminate, it really should be tested that it holds together because the glass can easily separate from the internal substrate; [In addition] the testing requirements of every piece of glass before it leaves the facility should be going through a certain quality control process. These are standard things you should be doing to every piece of glass,” Lax says.

“There are many companies claiming they can produce—not resell—a UL-listed product. We believe it’s important that customers absolutely request the UL certification with the provider’s name on it,” Lee agrees, “By having a UL-listed product that is line voltage, it really takes away the need for complex installation guides and practices.”

Still, Lax isn’t alone in his desire for self-regulation. “We’re developing certified switchable glass installers,” Greenberg says. “Then we expand upon it with some of the specific requirements for the switchable glass. It’s primarily about the connections: the wires are the key.

“We see that people don’t respect or care for the wires when they’re unpacking or handling or installing switchable glass. … That’s where a lot of the problems happen, during the installation.”

For Nichols, who has been installing this type of glass for decades, wired installation is “just like installing glass in a frame like you do any other time—you just have to be careful with the wires,” he says. “You don’t want to break it so you have got to be really careful. Other than that it’s just like installing regular glass.”

Still, whether through standardized production or certified installation, the goal is the same. “The end game is to protect the customer, the glazing contractor who is buying this product, so he knows he’s buying it from someone who he knows is making it properly,” Lax says. As he points out, having a set of test standards means that if there’s a quality problem in the field there’s something out there to which the general contractor and the glazing contractor can look and say “well, here are the standards.”

“Obviously I have a vested interest in this, but I’m doing it because I don’t want to see the trend reverse itself again,” Lax adds. And there’s good reason since today privacy glass seems to be on an upward trajectory.

A Niche with Room to Grow
Privacy glass suppliers are quick to admit that they offer a very niche product.

As Nichols puts it, “It’s something that you don’t see that often because of the price and a lot of times when you do see it, it’s cut because of the price. It doesn’t come along that often,” he says.

It may come along more often in the future as this niche product typically is in demand by the construction sectors that continue to see growth. Moreover, fabricators are finding creative new ways to incorporate this technology into unique end products.

“There has been a huge growth in popularity of privacy glass, primarily in the healthcare industry to control the spread of germs and replacement of curtains and blinds,” Gallizi says.

Lee adds that he, too, sees continued growth and popularity for this product. “Currently we see popular applications as corporate interior glass, such as conference rooms and offices. We have exterior products that our manufacturing is developing in conjunction with a government sponsor; this will change the demographics of where the products are used.”

Elmont Glass already has installed the product for military and government clients, as well as a number of computer and technology firms. Elmont is seeing an increase in interest in this product as the company finds new ways to incorporate the privacy film with other technologies to create complex combinations for highly specialized projects. One example is a switchable privacy glass in an insulating glass unit with a low-E coated exterior and a radiant heat glass interior for a sauna in Aspen, Colo., or a round switchable skylight with a bullet-resistant lite. In other words, the technology isn’t just for your standard conference room anymore. And because of that, the market may be getting a little more interesting, if confusing, for end users.

“The thing about the technology, it is highly specialized,” Greenberg says. He advises other installers to take care in selecting their product. “I would say make sure the product is UL-listed and in this glass man’s opinion American is the best right now,” he says.


Hazy Readings
One of the first issues that tends to come up when it comes to privacy glass is the appearance of haze. Some experts say a degree of haze is simply a part of this product.

Take for example Polytronix. In 2005, the company introduced a low-haze version of its Polyvision product. Even then, the company still points out on its product literature today that interior lighting plays a part in how apparent the haze is on these products. In the worst lighting conditions, when lights are only on the outside of a typical conference room application, an imbalance in light intensity can increase the haze. Best conditions feature lights on the inside and outside of the conference room, lights that are, “evenly balanced in intensity and sufficiently diffused at appropriate distances.” When all lights are off and the product is in its dark state, little haze is apparent.

Slight haze, but haze all the same.

“Now in the latest generation [of privacy glass], you’re seeing it at the clearest it’s ever been,” says Glen Greenberg, president of Elmont Glass Co. in Garden City, N.Y. “But there still is a little haze in there. Just like regular glass, lighting can play a component, colors in the space you’re putting it into can be a component and reflection can be a component. This goes the same with regular glass: it looks one way when it’s lying down on the table and then when you go to install it, it looks totally different because of many different factors, i.e. the color, the size, the thickness, etc.”

However, Bernard Lax, president of fabricator Pulp Studio Inc. in Los Angeles, points out that it’s important for would-be privacy glass manufacturers to understand that the haze is different in the film stage than it is in the glass stage. “There are elements that you do in the lamination [stage] that create more haze,” he points out. Lax has found that the haze readings publicized by many companies “are the film readings; they should be the actual after glass readings. The people who are buying film from these suppliers don’t know that they were given this data from somebody and somebody plagiarized that from someplace else and they’re just making claims that aren’t really accurate.”

Th auther: Megan Headley is the special projects editor for USGlass magazine. She can be reached at mheadley@glass.com.


USG
© Copyright 2014 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.