Volume 50, Issue 5 - May 2015

Are You In?

Direct-to-Glass Printing Continues to
Advance, Bringing Growth and Opportunity

By Ellen Rogers

The Jaime Escalante Auditorium and Memorial Plaza at James A. Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, made famous in the film “Stand and Deliver,” features three facades fabricated in HD Graphic glass by GlasPro.

Just like hairstyles and hemlines, technology can change in a decade—or less. Take decorative glass, for example. Technological advancements have made it possible to print imagery, designs, even photographs directly onto glass. The industry ooo’d and ahh’d in amazement when these developments began showing up in the North American marketplace less than ten years ago. Now, just a few years later, the market has seen direct-to-glass printing evolve from a niche to a product line offered by a growing number of fabricators.

Likewise, companies are also finding more choices in terms of decorative glass fabrication equipment. So, factoring in more fabricators, more suppliers and growing architectural interest, you’ll find this is an in-demand decorative glass option.

With direct-to-glass printing, photographs and artwork can be applied to the surface, even mimicking the look of natural materials such as wood, among others.

Initial Investment

Located in City of Industry, Calif., TriView Glass got into direct-to-glass printing approximately six years ago. The company uses a UV ink printer, which director of sales and marketing Joe Carlos says has brought them successful work in a variety of applications.

“We also do frit, but through silkscreening,” he says. “We feel like we have a good combination [with both products].”

He adds, “Originally we thought we’d just do small, one-off projects, and now we’ve been involved with ones that involve quite a bit of square footage.”

Carlos says the company decided to get into the printing market as it provided them an opportunity to do more custom work. He says it’s a small part of their overall product line, around 5 percent, but it’s growing quickly.

“The advancements in digitally printed glass have allowed many companies to get into the arena with a turnkey operation,” he says. “And with more machinery companies coming to market, it will continue to raise the level of awareness in the market.”

GlasPro, based in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., has also been in the direct-to-glass printing market for about six years.

“We’ve been watching the technology develop and learning with it,” says Steve Sudeth, creative director. “The technology is driving the capabilities and firing creativity in how to use it.”

Speaking of new capabilities, he adds, “Trying new things is part of who we are. We see a lot of clients wanting more control over design, especially in decorative glass, particularly in corporate remodels and projects where branding is paramount.”

He says when GlasPro first started the process they, too, thought it would be a niche technology, “but once we had the capability and it became known in the marketplace … [we found] there hasn’t been one specific market asking for it. It’s widespread, and there’s a breadth of interest.”

Based in Suwannee, Ga., it’s also been six years since FGD Glass Solutions started its direct-to-glass printing operations. John Rose, marketing director, says FGD decided to go this route as it would help the company expand its capabilities and services.

Derek Lindeborg, partner and CEO, adds that they saw it as an up-and-coming technology.

“It was just beginning to come on, and we felt it was the next wave of technology.”

Today the product line represents 20-30 percent of its projects and, like others, is growing.

Rose attributes much of the company’s success in this area with how they approach the market.

“We try to market in an educational way rather than a sales perspective,” he says. “There are a lot of people who still don’t understand direct-to-glass printing. We try to show them all the different ways it can be used.”

Bathroom walls are just one possibility for direct-to glass-printed applications.

Changing Interest

One of the greatest benefits digitally printed glass offers is its huge number of design options. As awareness has increased, so have the number of applications.

“When I first got involved [in the industry], back when silkscreen frit was the only way to add graphics, you typically saw decorative products in high-end homes, hospitality projects, special artistic applications, etc.,” says Carlos. “Now we’re seeing large architectural products that have frit or other applications on the inside of the building, as well as more creativity on the facade.”

Sudeth says customization is the key driver. For example, clients can choose not just a pattern, but color and scalability.

“Designers know they can pick an option [image] and select the color, scale, etc.,” he says. “Their interest is growing as they understand the capabilities, and a lot of our job is communicating that message. There is an unlimited combination of options.”

Lindeborg says they’ve seen the sophistication of understanding increase in what can be done, such as colors, textures, and even light-filtering properties.

“[People are] starting to understand those benefits for daylight and envelop management,” he says.

Changing interest, combined with architectural trends, also has led to advances in machinery and equipment. One change Carlos points to is the architectural trend toward increasingly larger glass.

“Machines today can print on bigger lites of glass, but you still have to keep up with how and where that glass will be used,” he says. Speaking of façades, for example, he points to considerations such as energy performance and deflection with large lites of glass. In other words, just because it’s possible to print on large glass lites, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s appropriate for certain applications.

“Interior applications aren’t as demanding, but with the exterior [the glass] has to perform and last. So that can be a challenge,” says Carlos. “Architects and designers have to vet what the glass is expected to do and plan for that from the very beginning.”

Sudeth points to several changes in technology he’s seen: software and how quickly the machines can now process and render files, as well as the speed of machines to maximize productivity.

“Machines are becoming more sophisticated in their capabilities and ink offerings, so the quality of color is better,” he says, pointing out there are now capabilities to match pantones in art work, for example.

Machine capabilities are evolving to be bigger, faster and more colorful, but the bottom line is they are not cheap. Purchasing a direct-to-glass printing line can be a significant investment. And with technology changing quickly, at what point does a fabricator decide it’s time to re-invest or add on?

While much is market-dictated, as Sudeth puts it, “It would have to be a massive technology breakthrough.”

Lindeborg says capital investments are needed, as enhancements can be made to existing platforms.

“The technology has evolved so we’re looking at [what’s] out there and will start updating the equipment and expanding what we can offer in terms of size, durability and the capabilities of different inks.”

While TriView Glass offers a digitally printed product, the company also does a lot of silkscreening, which it supplied for the Castaic Aquatic Center in Los Angeles.

Need to Know

But before jumping in, it’s ideal to explore all possible options and build an understanding of what these products can or even can’t do. Fabricators say there are plenty of questions to ask.

“The main things I ask [architects, designers, etc.] are ‘what do you expect the glass to do? What is its primary function? Is it the centerpiece of a building that requires it to stand out, or is it going to be used for solar properties, such as a dot matrix pattern, or is it an overall artistic element? Also, what is the budget and what do you expect from a performance standpoint?’ A lot of times it looks good on paper, but then the size is too big or it is an IGU or it has to be combined with low-E. The question becomes, ‘what does that do to the vision of the artist?’ It’s best to start with ‘what do you want it to do?’”

Speaking of the machinery, Sudeth says, “These are Ferraris, and they require a very technical, high-scale, high-maintenance team. We have a dedicated team trained on it. We’re constantly educating and making sure they know how to use it well.”

At the same time, he says they want to know what their suppliers are doing.

“We want to be informed of their technology developments. We want them to share their discoveries [and communicate] about the procedure. Sharing ideas is how to get better and produce something that’s more than just a one-idea concept.”

Lindeborg adds, “From our suppliers and manufacturers, we’re pressing for expanded ink selections, as well as higher speeds with quality still being of utmost importance.”

Rose points out that the pipeline from art to printing is also long, and “test [printing] before [actual] printing is tedious.”

Added Precautions

s with any new product, it takes some time to know and understand what can be expected as far as performance and durability, especially in exterior applications. Consider the inks, for example. There are two primary options: UV-curable inks and ceramic frits.

Frit products essentially are baked into the glass, forming a bond. They are more highly resistant to scratching compared to an ultraviolet (UV) ink, which is cured by a UV light. They can both be used in exteriors, but some experts advise not to place the printed side on the number-one surface.

Warranties can vary from company to company.

Carlos says his company offers a five- to ten-year warranty for exterior applications when used in an insulating glass unit.

“If you have something used in a façade, that is a major consideration, so that is where frit has an advantage,” says Carlos. “There are also differences in ink colors, which are more vibrant in UV. We can print at 1200 dpi.”

FGD Glass provides a three- to five-year warranty for interior and exterior applications. John Rose, marketing director, says he typically sees more interior projects given some durability concerns that could involve fading.

“Also, the span on the exterior is far greater, and that can cause the cost to rise,” he says.”
As a precaution, whether being used inside or out, Rose says they talk to both the architect and contract glazier about which side of the glass will be the most highly trafficked.

“We want the image surface to be the opposite side of what’s highly trafficked,” he says.

Changing Hands

Digitally printed glass also poses unique considerations for the contract glazier. Good communication among the architect, artist, owner, general contractor, fabricators and glazing contractor is essential.

“It should be embraced rather than feared,” says Carlos. “We recently completed a project that was a unitized curtainwall that had both an artistic design [as well as] energy performance. It included large vision panels and small spandrels.” He says TriView had to coordinate with the artist and the contract glazier throughout the process.

Given that it was unitized, the panels had to be aligned properly. “The term ‘everyone on the same page’ takes on real meaning,” he adds.

Other considerations for installers, Sudeth notes, include understanding anything different compared to traditional glazing, such as handling issues and keeping the clients happy.

“People are still learning. Everyone is worried about deliverability and how quickly this can be turned around,” he adds.

Forward Thinking

In just a few years, digital printing has seen major changes, from the number of suppliers and fabricators, to the size and speed of equipment. Architects and designers continue to seek out these products as they search for more ways to create a unique aesthetic. Customization allows for out-of-the-box thinking, according to Sudeth, but learning opportunities and finding ways to better apply the technology are critical.

“The market is trending in that direction, and given the capabilities, it can be used in traditional glazing applications. Because of its versatility, the technology will become widespread,” he says.

FGD is working toward qualifying for LEED certification points.

“[This glass is] not just used for aesthetics, but also for functional properties, such as light filtration, UV-light-inhibiting properties, etc.,” says Lindeborg.

As architects continue to drive the glass industry toward new ideas, expect to see the market for decorative glass, digitally printed glass in particular, evolve. Are you prepared? If not, how do you get there? Here’s one tip:

“Embrace new decorative processes and get involved with the conversation whenever possible,” says Carlos. “Get involved with the design stage. Get in early to be part of it so you can have input. If you’re a glazier, don’t be afraid to voice your concerns. If you’re a fabricator, try and get involved at the design stage so you can have whatever input you feel is critical. Communication is key with these projects.”
Spanning 315 feet on the South and West sides of the auditorium and rising 16 feet in height, the two "dancer" façades of the Jaime Escalante Auditorium and Memorial Plaza at James A. Garfield High School are made up of
90 individually polished and
drilled graphic glass

the author

Ellen Rogers is the editor of USGlass magazine. Follow her on Twitter @USGlass and like USGlass on Facebook to receive updates.

Copyright 2015 Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.