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November/December  2004

INDUSTRY VETERAN REFLECTS ON
EVOLUTION OF LAMINATED GLASS;
Many Opportunities are now Available 
to Fenestration Manufacturers
 
By Steve Howes

Twenty years ago, after building and subsequently selling a successful window and door business in the United Kingdom, I took a year off and went to Spain. At the young age of 30, I soon realized I needed another challenge. It was around that time I had the idea (maybe a dumb one) of moving to the United States to start another business in what was then a small niche market of which I knew very little—laminated glass.

Although around for more than 40 years, laminated glass was in a stagnant mode and was being used mainly for windshields which were well-suited to the existing established product of polyvinylbuteral. Resin laminating could not put the color-defusing band at the top of the windshield and was not going to compete in that industry. Glass shops kept some stock sizes for emergency safety glazing bullet-resistant glass was being produced, but apart from the odd commercial skylights there wasn’t much laminated glass being used.

Creating Interest
My concept was to sell the process and materials for what is known as “pour-in-place” or liquid resin laminating. In the first few years, my company sold the system to glass shops to enable them to make the odd piece of laminated glass that they might need in a hurry. This turned out to be a slow and time consuming way to build a worthwhile business and I wondered many times if I had chosen the wrong industry. 

But having never given up on anything, I decided the best way to succeed in the business was to develop new products and create markets for the resin laminating system. I needed to grow the laminated glass industry and create an interest by going to all the glass conventions, showing new products and being aggressive. In the mid-1980s I realized that the companies established in the laminated glass business were more interested in protecting their slice of the pie rather than growing it. I have always believed that the more companies there are in an industry, the larger the market will grow. Don’t take my word for it—just open any yellow pages and check out how many lawyers are listed; so the more fabricators of laminated glass that exist the bigger the industry will grow. If you have a lot of good competition then an abundance of new products and ideas will flow. 

One of the first products to be developed and marketed with resin pour-in-place was colored laminated mirror. This was created by laminating a piece of clear glass to the front of a mirror with a colored or tinted resin interlayer. It opened a nice market in interior design and many installations such as casino walls and ceilings have been decorated this way. 

Textured and patterned laminated glass is another huge market that has developed over the last 20 years. This continues to grow, especially with the introduction of the new kiln slumped patterned glass that has become popular. Kiln slumped glass can now be laminated easily with the new types of interlayers that have been developed over the last few years.

An Evolving Market
One product to come out of the laminated glass industry is Bevelpane®. This is a reproduction of beveled doorlites manufactured in a similar way to resin pour-in-place laminates, but instead of laminating two pieces of glass together one of the lites is a decorative design rubber mold. When the laminate is cured, the rubber mold is removed leaving an exact copy of that design. It is then insulated to protect the resin design and manufactured for a fraction of the cost of the original. Door and doorlite manufacturers have realized you don’t have to go to China for low priced decorative glass. All you have to do is invent new ways of producing them. The addition of Breakthrough® resistant glass being put on the outside of the insulating glass as a burglar deterrent has also increased business. Nobody wants a bad guy to break through their doors or windows. 

I don’t need to remind anyone of Hurricane Andrew and all the new codes that have been introduced since that time. I am sure everyone has read the many articles written about that storm, which changed the laminated glass business forever. Almost all window and door companies that sell their products from Texas to New York offer some kind of laminated glass in their products. How has it changed the industry? Apart from the tremendous growth in this market, it has opened the door for window and door companies to manufacture their own laminates. This allows them to keep their costs down and to be self-sufficient. It has also been the incentive for companies like my own and the other interlayer suppliers to develop much better products than were available before the code changes. This part of the laminated glass industry will continue to grow at an amazing pace, and the prices of impact glass are plummeting. As more window companies laminate their own glass it will become a commodity like other products, such as insulating glass, leaving companies who don’t control their own production uncompetitive.

If, in 1999, I could have forecast the stock market to collapse, the Enron fiasco, the World Trade Center disaster, the War in Iraq, or terrorism, I would have been accused of being crazy (that’s normal). This shows that you have to be open minded and be prepared in business, as you do in life, because you never know what is around the next corner. Since these tragedies around the world other products such as bomb-blast glazing and all types of high performing protection products, such as laminated polycarbonates, glass, acrylics and PET films are starting to emerge in the laminating industry. It would seem that with almost every event that happens in the world it opens yet another market for laminating. 

So maybe my idea all those years ago was not so dumb after all.

Steve Howes is president of Glasslam Inc. based in Pompano Beach, Fla. 


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