Companies Refocus, Adapt and Innovate in the Age of COVID-19

The entire USGlass editorial team contributed to this article

At a time when the world is separated more than ever, glass has an important role to play. Families and friends have found that they don’t have to be 6 feet apart when there’s a couple inches of glass between them. While glass has allowed special moments and celebrations to keep from being lost, its benefits and usefulness extend well beyond that. Many industry companies are adapting to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by developing materials and supplies that can protect both consumers and healthcare workers.

Protective Barriers

For many companies, dedication to safety and health extends beyond that of their own employees. They’re following social distancing guidelines and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), while also producing protective barriers for customers, consumers and those working on healthcare frontlines. Glass shields and guards are examples of how glass companies have shifted their production focus. These products can be placed in front of checkout areas in retail locations, reception areas, pharmacies and more.

According to Louie Cantal, creative art director, with Frameless Hardware Co. (FHC) based in South Gate, Calif., his company wanted to expand its commitment to the
health and safety of its staff, customers and community across the entire glass industry. This led to the development of its Corona Guard, designed to screen and protect people from contamination.

“Developing this product is our part in providing essential businesses the right gear they need to safely conduct business during these challenging times,” says Cantal, explaining that the guards are mainly used on existing countertops where business transactions happen between the customer and employees.

“It is free-standing and completely movable,” he says.

Binswanger Glass also developed similar types of protection, reporting an increase in requests for retail checkout shields. While most of the shields only will be up temporarily until the crisis has subsided, they also can be installed permanently.

“This is an extra step companies can take to supplement the use of masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves among their employees to keep employees and the public safe,” says Charles Witherington, director of purchasing and pricing. “Our goal is to provide extra protection for checkout line associates while providing an essential service during this time of need.”

The shields are made with high strength acrylic or polycarbonate, rather than glass. Jason Tomlinson, branch manager for the company’s Topeka, Kan., branch, says polycarbonate can be manipulated in the shop quickly to fit the needs of its customers.

“Here in Topeka, Kan., we responded to the feedback from other branches across the country and came up with a solution that we can produce quickly,” he explains. “… Everything is very fluid right now, but we are all adapting to the best of our ability.”

Jacques Navant is the technical director with Don’s Mobile Glass in Modesto, Calif., a full service glass shop. Don’s has been making sneeze guards and personal protection barriers for decades.

“COVID-19 has ramped up the demand for these and we are handling requests, from simple to fully custom, using a variety of materials and designs—all under ‘as soon as possible’ time lines,” says Navant.  “We have also seen an increase in emergency service requests for repair and in some cases, preventative board up service for businesses that have been ordered to close.”

Navant adds that their sister company WBS, which is a manufacturer and wholesaler of shower doors, has also gotten involved with the effort. “They have developed a kit with all of the metal and hardware necessary to do a barrier. The glass shop just adds whatever glass the customer requests.”

MY Shower Door based in Naples, Fla., has also developed a similar product that it’s calling My Health Guards.

“We came up with the Health Guards because of what I noticed in some of the retail establishments around Naples and Ft. Myers,” explains Bill Daubmann, a co-owner of the company. “Most of these stores were placing Plexiglas dividers that were hastily installed. We felt that we could, easily and quickly, make customized panels that look and fit better than what they installed as temporary barriers. We fabricate notches where the credit card machine would be and notches for wires or money pass through areas.”

HMI Cardinal has introduced a similar product called Cardinal Shield. These glass barriers can be used for applications such as retail check-in stations, point of purchase, office spaces, hotel reception desks and more. The panels are made with 3/8-inch tempered clear glass that’s coated with Cardinal C-10 Surface Protectant for an easy-to-clean, non-stick surface. Specialty cutouts and custom configurations are available and panels can be anchored horizontally or vertically. In addition, the panels can be custom branded with the company’s Satori digital in-glass printing.

Keeping Clean

While the pandemic is spurring the development and evolution of new products, others have been around for years, but are now finding increased interest. Switchable privacy glass is one of those products seeing a lot of opportunity in hospital applications. President Steve Abadi says Innovative Glass Corp. in Plainview, N.Y., is seeing increased interest in privacy glass products from healthcare systems.

“[The glass] provides an antibacterial barrier because it can be wiped down with alcohol or other disinfectants to prevent the spread of bacteria and build up,” he says, explaining that in hospitals, curtains aren’t ideal because infections can build up on them.

“By having privacy glass in lieu of curtains the doctor can go in the room, flip a switch and have complete privacy with a patient,” he says, adding that when the doctor is
finished and the glass is returned to clear, nurses can easily see the patients as well.

“If you have 10 different rooms facing a nursing station, the nurses can keep an eye on all patients who are all completely isolated from one another so they are not passing any germs or contagions …,” he says. “Then, when the patient leaves the room, you just wipe down the glass with alcohol [to clean and disinfect].”

Antimicrobial coatings are also attracting increased interest. Antimicrobial Corning Gorilla Glass is one of those options. According to the company, this consists of an alkali-aluminosilicate thin sheet glass formulated with an antimicrobial agent to help keep the glass surface clean of bacteria. It can be used as a protective screen cover for a variety of applications including window, door and wall surfaces in healthcare settings, as well as many other high-touch surfaces, such as mobile devices and laptops.

Other companies, such as hardware manufacturer INOX, are providing antimicrobial coatings for stainless steel products, including door hardware. In both the glass and hardware products, the coating incorporates silver ions that attach to the surfaces to help eliminate surface bacteria.

While products are available and being developed with existing hospitals in mind, what about those being constructed as overflow or temporary facilities? Accura Systems in Sunnyvale, Texas, is a manufacturer of aluminum and glass curtainwall systems that’s developed an innovative idea for temporary healthcare settings.

“We watched the pop-up hospitals and convention centers on the news across the U.S. and saw that they either had no partitions or fabric curtains as partitions. A lack of partitions doesn’t do much to prevent cross contamination nor does it provide much privacy. Cloth or fabric curtains also seem very difficult to properly sanitize,” says Mike Rubner, chief operating officer. “It seemed like a logical next step for a unitized curtainwall manufacturer to unitize a partition that was low cost, easily assembled and easily sanitized.”

He continues, “Accura has a culture of being extremely loyal to our employees, their families, our customers and our vendors. If any of those people need help we try to do
our best to pitch in and do what’s right. The patients may not be direct friends or family, but they are someone’s friends and family and given an opportunity to help out, it makes
little sense to do nothing.”

Rubner says after talking with Seth Madole at Viracon about their participation in building face shields (see box on page 38), he felt his company needed to do something.

“Given the similarities between the partitions and glazed unitized curtainwall it seemed the logical choice,” he says. “The extruded framing would be clear anodized and fabricated, assembled and glazed into either 6 x 8 panels, 6 x 12 panels, or a 6 x 8 panel with a door. The polymer panel seems like  it would be much easier to sanitize than a curtain and would be glazed into the partitions in our factory. The remaining connector parts, hinges, and handles would be assembled as much as possible and sent in kit form to the end user.”

So far, Rubner has been in touch with convention centers and other sites where temporary hospitals can be constructed, as well as other groups and organizations, but (at press time) had not yet received any orders.

“In a way I’m not surprised that while there has been interest there are no orders. By my way of thinking, that’s a good thing as it seems that little to none of these temporary hospitals have really been utilized,” he says. “It seems that the cancellation of any non-essential medical procedures has somewhat emptied the hospitals so that the main faculties can be used for COVID cases.”

He adds that in the future, these partitions could also be useful for homeless shelters and in natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes.

What Happens Next?

But this pandemic will eventually end, and people will return to some level of what was once considered normal. What, then, will happen to many of these products that have
been developed to aid during this time of crisis? Companies say the opportunities will continue.

“Once the pandemic ends, we will still promote the Corona Guard. One of its unique features is the bottom base plate can be removed and the channel can be permanently mounted to any counter surface,” says Cantal. “We can see the industry becoming very creative, utilizing a wide range of glass types and colors, incorporating a variety of different mounting hardware types currently available to create protective
barriers in many different business sectors.”

Navant agrees. “We believe that these types of solutions will become a permanent part of our business for applications far beyond the traditional uses.”

Speaking of privacy glass, Abadi says interest in these products will continue to grow.

“Now, all of the activity is coming in … it’s resonating with the designers and architects in the healthcare facilities.”

However the pandemic evolves, glass products and companies have the opportunity to be a part of the solution to help build and construct better, cleaner, safer buildings.

Out of the Box

In addition to architectural products, some glass companies are finding ways to use their resources to meet the personal protective needs of local healthcare facilities.

Highlands Glass Co. in Abingdon, Va., started producing intubation boxes for hospitals. These boxes, which are made from polycarbonate, are placed over the head and shoulders of a patient, providing a protective shield between the patient and medical staff. Leann Meadows, owner of Highlands Glass, says the idea came from their local hospital, Johnston Memorial Hospital.

“They had seen a prototype online and couldn’t get access to them and asked us if we could make one for them. We then made a prototype and they tweaked it to their specifications,” she says. So far, the company has made nearly 50 boxes and is expecting more orders.

“We have provided boxes for 12 different hospitals in Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee,” she says.

She also expects interest in these products to continue, even after the pandemic ends. Several companies have already told her they would like to have a couple of boxes on site for precautionary reasons.

Other glass industry companies have also gotten involved with projects to provide personal protective equipment to hospitals. Both Viracon and St. Cloud Window have been working to provide protective face shields.

Seth Madole, director of sales operations, says Viracon started working on this after receiving a request from a local organization calling for help with PPE for local medical facilities.

“After reviewing the requested items, we decided we would work to manufacture the face shields using local Owatonna-based manufacturing resources,” says Madole. “Our initial prototype used a 3-mm clear polycarbonate material that we had in stock at Viracon. However, we determined it was too thick and heavy.” He says their purchasing department then located .5-mm clear PET material from another local manufacturer that was perfect for the application. “We have now teamed up with 18 local 3D printers and three local
manufacturers to produce 125-150 per week.”

St. Cloud Window in Sauk Rapids, Minn., is another company helping the healthcare industry. The company is using its 3D printer to produce the visors/headbands used in face shields. The clear vision shields are sourced by another company, and the components then flow to a third company where they are assembled, sterilized and packaged.

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