While I’ve written about the glass industry for more than ten years, Monday was my first visit to a float glass plant. To all of you who have heard about the process and viewed the videos, let me tell you that nothing compares to seeing this intricate process up close.

I, along with four other editors from our parent company, Key Communications Inc., traveled to Carlisle, Pa., to tour one of PPG’s glass plants. Our tour guide, Mike Henry, along with Robert Struble, PPG’s business communications manager performance glazings, did a great job of filling us in on all of the details as we toured the facility. While the whole experience of seeing how glass is made is an awesome one, there were a few things in particular that really struck me:

1. The plant wasn’t full of people.

As the editor of Door and Window Manufacturer magazine, I visit door and window manufacturing plants frequently, so I am used to seeing several employees working at a particular station—whether it’s to install the glass or another component of the window. Yes, many fenestration plants do focus on automated machines, but you still see many employees on the plant floor. This wasn’t the case here, and it was one of the things that really surprised me when I entered. While people are important to the glass-making process, machines do play a crucial role down to the most finite of details—including determining the thickness of the glass in the bath (I found that truly fascinating). And, in some cases, PPG is working to remove employees out of the process, one area being glass handling.

“We’re taking people out of the handling process as that’s where most accidents occur,” said Struble.

This made me think back to past columns written in DWM magazine by Mike Burk of Edgetech IG, who always reminds door and window manufacturers of the importance of glass handling.

2. The sound of breaking glass. At first the frequent sounds of breaking glass is a little alarming (and loud). We learned that machines are able to check for even the smallest defect on the glass as it runs down the line. If one is found, the floor drops out and the defective glass shatters and is turned into cullet, which is recycled eventually into newer glass pieces.

3. A line only comes down for a repair every 10-12 years. “It’s a rare opportunity to see a plant with one of its lines down,” said Struble. It’s one that our group was able to take advantage of first-hand. PPG runs two lines simultaneously, but one of those lines is currently down for repair. We learned that during the repair process, some upgrades are also made to make the line more efficient. We were lucky to be at PPG at this time as we were able to get up close to what would normally be “an “Olympic-sized swimming pool of molten sand” in Struble’s words. Of course, on the other side, the working line still provided us with enough heat to get the picture of what a working line is like as well—and the two together painted a great picture.

4. Even the smallest hiccup can affect glass production greatly due to demand. A few days before our visit, PPG issued a press release with the news that one of its float lines was down at its Wichita Falls, Texas, facility due to severe flooding of the area. Click here for that story.

“This has the potential to impact all PPG glass customers in all segments nationwide, [and] our logistics groups and sales groups are working with our customers to minimize the disruption nationwide,” said Struble.

I read that release before my visit, but seeing glass production up close made me realize how truly dangerous a situation this is, and one that requires time to rectify.

And, in an industry where there is talk of glass shortages, this truly does affect glass customers. (For an in-depth article on glass shortages see the upcoming September issue of DWM’s sister publication, USGlass.)

5. The glass and window industries have other noticeable differences. Another comment made by Struble also made me realize some differences between the fenestration and glass industries. In the beginning of the tour, Struble said that architects often ask him why glass companies don’t offer an array of colors. He answered that it’s just not feasible do to this without a great amount of demand for those products. This is very different from the door and window industry, where customized products are becoming the norm and most manufacturers offers literally thousands of product variations.

But, after seeing the process I understand how difficult it is for glass manufacturers to bring on new products. It is definitely an intensive process, and in the end the glass isn’t sold for all that much.

“All that work for something that sells for pennies a square foot,” said Struble.

I definitely have a better appreciation now for all the work that goes into this intensive process, and I hope if you buy glass, and haven’t had a chance to tour a plant, this gives you a better view as well.

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