Volume 37, Issue 3, March 2002
Eyes Wide Open
Interpane Works to Spread the Message of Coated Glass Possibilities
-by Ellen Giard
Aside from the fact that you’ve probably never heard of either Deerfield, Wis., or Clinton, N.C., guess what else the two have in common? One is located in the heart of dairy country and has a population of about 1,700. The other is located on “tobacco row” with a population of roughly 10,000. Not too many similarities, right? Well, there is one aspect the two towns share: they are both home to North American operations of Interpane Glass Co. which has been in the United States since 1986.
The Germany-based company, which manufacturers high-performance glass coatings for custom architectural applications, has had operations in the United States for more than 15 years.
Back to the Beginning
Interpane’s plant in Clinton, N.C., has capabilities to produce laminated glass.
So how and where did this company all begin? The company’s vision came from Georg F. Hesselbach who founded Interpane in 1971. “The reason for getting into the glass business stems from [our commitment to] service,” said Joern Hesselbach, managing director of Interpane. “At the time, lead times for normal or regular uncoated or insulating units was between 12 and 16 weeks. So our approach was to be the service leader, meaning that when an order is placed our commitment is to ship it to the customer within two weeks instead of what was the industry standard.”
By the late 1970s, however, Interpane had expanded into the coatings market, and in 1986 stepped into the U.S. market. “Initially, we went to the United States to service our customers there that primarily were residential window companies,” said Hesselbach. “In the early 1980s we had been servicing them from Europe by exporting … and then we decided to enter into the United States with a direct investment.” In May, 1986, Interpane opened its plant in Deerfield.
In 1993 Interpane acquired the assets of Spectrum/LOF, which had filed chapter 11 in early 1993. “We combined the two facilities, and one of the main reasons for that acquisition was that we got a very broad range of coatings,” said Hesselbach.
Today, the company utilizes both Leybold and AIRCO coaters, and offers a broad range of coatings.
Spandrel glass is available in the Clinton location.
Europe vs. North America
As a Germany-based company, Interpane gets many of its influences from European roots. One area in which the company has been influenced is its environmentally friendly focus. “Europe is much more energy-conscious and probably several years ahead of the United States in terms of building codes and how to protect the environment and lower energy costs and emissions,” said Hesselbach. “That message is not really developed in the United States. I sometimes see developers who just want to finish the project, rent it out and move on to the next one. Many could care less about thermal performance, energy, running costs, etc. They just want to build it and move on.”
“We need to stress to the government all that glass can do to cut costs,” said Thomas Koehler, also a managing director with Interpane. “It’s going to be organizations such as the National Fenestration Rating Council and the ENERGY STAR® program that will help the United States see what Europe is already seeing. There, they are already driven by regulations, and you see a much higher application of high-performance coatings.”
Another difference in operating in the United States compared with operating in Europe is the rate at which changes occur. “Changes happen much faster in the United States, and the response time is more aggressive. Everything happens faster,” said Hesselbach. “In Europe they are more conservative and trends take a little bit longer to develop.”
While Interpane’s primary task is servicing the commercial glass market, its abilities do not stop there. Both the Deerfield and Clinton locations have the capability to create heat-treated/tempered, insulating and opaque glass. In Clinton, the company also has lines for frit, silk-screened and laminated glass, and both have cutting and boxing abilities.
It is the coating process, though, that is the company’s signature. Hesselbach explained that while manufacturing IG units is high-volume work, which is done by many in the industry, and tempering is a little more complex and sophisticated than insulating glass, it is the coating process that is their “French restaurant.” “You need to have the good silver wear—the good coating equipment, and you need to have the chef—the person with the experience and know-how to run the operation,” he said. “Combining these things can be quite a challenge, and I think that is what makes our products unique compared to others. Clear glass, IG units, everyone can do. But all the [coatings] components, I think, that’s what really differentiates us.”
Mini-Med in Northridge, Calif., features Interpane’s Antique Silver on Evergreen.
The Next Wave
As in any industry, Interpane also works to keep up with trends and changes within the industry. Probably the biggest trend Hesselbach sees is the industry’s move toward energy-saving products. For example, the company offers a variety of low-E products, which it calls Iplus and Iplus INE (Interpane neutral emissivity). Another step the company has taken to keep up with offering energy-efficient products is using stainless steel spacers that can enhance thermal conductivity. “We are very active in giving our partners or customers solutions that can enhance the overall structure,” said Hesselbach.
The quest toward increased “transparency” is another trend in the architectural community. “They [architects] want a transparent-looking building, with a neutral or clear appearance,” said Hesselbach. However, whether or not this trend catches on depends on a project’s location. In the South, for instance, where the intensity of the sun’s heat is strong, chances are slim that all buildings one day will be clear glass. “There is a need for substrates that have lower shading co-efficiency and that block out the [harmful] sunlight. Also reflective coatings that block out harmful UV light is another trend,” added Hesselbach.
“We’re seeing a demand for something mid-way between low-E and reflective,” said Peter J. Tausch, Ph.D., coating technology and development manager. “We’ve developed a middle-ground product that from the outside has reflective properties and also has low-E properties.” The product is called IMF—Interpane Multi-Function coating, and is a blend of both low-E and reflective coatings.
“One challenge we face is the increasing competition from fabricators who now have access to so-called high-performance coatings. [You now have more than] just a handful of competitors,” said Hesselbach. “I think that’s a real challenge for us, convincing our customers and the architectural community that [with the fabricator] it’s not the same ball game.” Examples to consider, Hesselbach explained, include knowing by whom the coating is warrantied, and also whether or not the fabricator has the expertise to handle and package coated glass.
Educating architects and designers is another common challenge. “We have to educate the architectural community about the capabilities of glass, and give them a better feeling of what’s available,” said Hesselbach. “And then, once you have an architect to that level, you need to educate him on the limitations of glass.”
“Sometimes architects want coatings just for them, something they are not going to see anywhere else, and that’s not going to happen,” added Tausch. One of the most challenging architectural requests Tausch recalls involved an architect who wanted the same glass, but with three different reflections. “We couldn’t get that appearance, and that’s something nobody can match.”
Scheduling is also a challenging aspect for the company, and requires very close communication with the customer. According to Walt Hodges, plant manager at the Clinton facility, Interpane schedules by square foot on a per-order basis, and monitoring the process is of the highest importance. “Of all the processes available here an order may go through five. Different processes are scheduled different ways,” said Hodges. “We look at what we are doing now, to see if we can accommodate the customer’s needs.” If, for instance, one customer has more than one order in the works at Interpane, and the most recent is more important than the one received previously, the customer may want to put the first order on hold so the most recent order receives a higher priority. “Scheduling allows you to manipulate the lead times based on real-time situations,” added Hodges.
“Communication with the customer is the most important thing,” added Koehler. “If we know an order is not going to get done on time, sometimes the customer can adjust his schedule if he has advance notice. When we know there is going to be a delay we call the customer right away.”
The Bottom Line
Perhaps it is the company’s strong focus on value-added products that has kept it competitive in the crowded architectural marketplace. According to Hesselbach one area that sets Interpane apart from similar companies is the fact that they have so many operations taking place under one roof. “We consider ourselves a one-stop-shopping operation. We don’t source the heat-treated glass from one location and then have it coated in another and insulated in another. Everything is in our own hands. We control those things.”
Koehler added that the company’s commitment to value-added products sets it apart. “We produce high-performance coatings that can be associated with comfort, more natural light, aesthetics and value, with respect to lower utility costs and the environment.”
Interpane also remains competitive by keeping up with the market, and staying aware of the direction in which the market is headed. For example, as more and more coatings are introduced, and some fade out, Interpane removes those from its offerings. “We try to do at least one-third of our business with products that weren’t around three or four years ago,” said Hesselbach.
Making it Happen
But what’s most important to Interpane is not how much they are able to do in a given period of time, but rather the people who make being a successful company possible.
Over the past year, Interpane recognized this and made a number of staff changes and adjustments, and has seen the improvements. They have also instigated new procedures, putting more responsibility into the hands of employees.
In Deerfield, for example, Dale Zuelsdorf, a production manager responsible for insulating, shipping and packaging operations, has begun a system of hourly quality checks. “The independent operator at each station is responsible for doing the equipment checks rather than the supervisors,” he said. “Checking each hour gives us better control over the process, whereas before we just did random checks. This [new] way gets people involved, and gets them learning more about the materials and processes.”
Hodges agrees. “We are allowing employees responsibility for their actions. We get their input constantly and allow them to take risks,” he said. “This is a more conducive [way of operating], and it makes the employees feel important and lets them know they matter.”
Eyes Wide Open
Employees are responsive to the changes, and enjoy what they are doing as well. Pat Vann, an inside sales manager who has been with Interpane for 17 years, is one such employee. “Everyday is different,” she said. “Ultimately, what you are doing is the same, but it’s different every day. I enjoy talking with the customers and it’s fun to me.”
With Interpane for just more than one year, Jennifer Casey, who works in inside sales and estimating, agreed. “The people here are wonderful and it’s a very close-knit working relationship. It’s very comfortable. Working in [the glass industry] was a totally new environment for me,” she added. “It was very eye-opening.”
Ellen Giard is contributing editor for USGlass magazine.
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