Bending to Needs

September 7th, 2021 by Nathan Hobbs

From Automation to Aesthetics, Insulating Glass is Advancing to Meet Evolving Demands

By Ellen Rogers

Evolution in products, technologies and insulating glass units (IGUs) has opened many doors of possibilities. Such developments have advanced the purpose of IGUs from energy efficiency solely to also address aesthetics. IGUs can today be used to create unique and complex appearances.

Joe Erb, commercial sales specialist with Quanex Building Products in Cambridge, Ohio, says in the early days of IG and flexible spacers, the focus was almost entirely related to thermal performance. But, “Today we’ve transitioned from being a product that’s been well known for great thermal performance to one that also addresses many other pressing criteria set by the market,” says Erb. “Our flexible spacer lends itself to being a part of the high-performance system [the codes require], while also providing maximum daylighting; it can be a part of a biophilic design that creates that connection to the outside.”

Also speaking of flexible spacers, Michael Schmidt, vice president of sales and marketing, North America, with Finnish machinery supplier Glaston, says thermoplastic spacers (TPS) have gained increased interest over the past few years.

“What we see as the biggest IG development has been the ongoing interest in TPS. From a product standpoint, we see the improved durability, reliability and consistency of IG,” says Schmidt. “TPS has been on the market for about 20 years, but the momentum has taken off in the last five years as customers realize the formula change for this reactive material.”

Automate the Process

While TPS is a flexible spacer, it is sold as a sealant that’s delivered directly on the line in the size required. Paul McHale, director of glass in the Americas with H.B. Fuller in St. Paul, Minn., explains that TPS is extruded directly onto the glass. “You have the spacer in the drum so you can easily adapt it to the needed dimension … it’s really lean manufacturing and an efficient use of time.”

Another important detail of flexible spacer IG production includes production processes that, these days, are nearly completely automated. That’s something garnering a lot of attention, especially given the ongoing labor challenges, as many fabricators struggle to have enough people to do the work on product lines.

“The flexible spacer … really automates the process and reduces touch points. Everything is getting automated, and that’s one of the biggest changes in spacer technology,” says Erb. “Not only do we now have products with a proven track record, [but] we’re opening doors for fabricators to address [other issues]. We can reduce the overall footprint, the number of steps in the process, the potential for error; we’re addressing the labor demand and increasing consistency for higher quality because fewer people are touching the glass.”

H.B. Fuller’s Jason Douglas, vice president, global window sealants and adhesives, agrees that automation is a plus.

“There are a lot of steps involved and one thing about the Glaston lines, for example, is that they are fully automated, and that’s a huge factor in today’s labor market,” he says.

Developments in spacer products have also made it possible to incorporate unique and complex geometries into glass.

“Architects are expanding their creativity with unique shapes and bent glass forms,” says Erb. “We now have a global portfolio of projects using flexible spacers that form to glass easily. It’s been around for a while now and that’s increased confidence, allowing architects to design even more creative buildings [combined with] the added thermal benefit of warm edge.”

Erb adds that the use of flexible spacers has also helped create more opportunities to construct extremely large units.

“Robotics and flexible spacers have opened up the possibility of producing these much more accurately, minimizing concerns of quality and durability,” says Erb.

Likewise, Michael Speicher, H.B. Fuller’s marketing manager, agrees that one of the most significant developments in IG has been the ability to fabricate larger sizes and alternative shapes of glass. “We’re seeing more interest in curved glass and bent glass, and TPS lends itself to that,” he says.

Looking Ahead

As far as what’s next for the future of IG, there are a couple of areas that could soon be expanding. Erb says, near term, concepts such as thin glass triples could see more growth and demand.

“The extra weight [of triple glazing] has been a challenge, so one thing to watch will be thin glass triples, including single spacer triples, which have the thin glass for the center lite,” he says. Those developments apply primarily to residential, he says. “Beyond that, we’re looking at the development of next generation polymer spacers. As performance requirements evolve you will see additional development in that area to drive down U-factors and other aspects the market is asking for.”

Schmidt agrees that on the residential side, in particular, the move toward thin glass triples is something to watch.

“TPS is finding its way more and more to residential applications and is highly suited to IGU configurations with laminated glass and triple units due to the ability to uniformly deliver a consistent overall thickness,” says Schmidt. “The ability of TPS to adapt instantaneously to other material variations [glass and laminate thickness] allows for tighter tolerances and less variation in production in addition to the performance benefits of TPS in respect to durability and superior gas retention.”

Douglas expects to see increasing focus on durability and automation, as well.

“In the past, maybe companies just wanted to make sure [their products] met the energy standards when leaving the factory, but they are realizing the cost of replacing units [is expensive],” he says. “Durability is becoming a big issue in the window and architectural industry because of the downstream cost of replacing units.”

Ellen Rogers is a contributing editor for [DWM] magazine

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