Throughout its history, Pilkington UK has built its expertise in glass through a commitment to collaboration. Whether it’s our close partnerships with customers, universities or tech start-ups, we continually strive to remain at the forefront of the industry by working closely with others to develop the latest products and processes.
At the heart of this collaborative programme is our European Technical Centre facility in Lathom, Lancashire. It’s here that we work with a variety of partners in the pursuit of technological breakthroughs, and from where we connect with other R&D projects around the world.
Dr Monica J Hughes, Lead Research Technologist, Thin Film Technology, is a great representative of this spirit of collaboration. Having begun her career at ‘Pilkington Brothers’ at the age of 16, she has worked across a wide range of roles and developed her specialism in some of our most innovative technologies.
Here, she explains how collaboration – and a continual quest for new knowledge – is driving the group’s product development forward.
Q. What does your role and specialism cover?
It’s a wide-reaching role, but in essence I work in R&D in the Thin Film Technology group. My expertise lies in PVD coatings, or physical vapour deposition coatings. Within the group I manage certain capability projects, which is really the ‘R’ side of R&D where we’re evaluating new film materials and processes. I also have responsibility for delivering some development projects, such as working on current products that we want to manufacture to a revised specification. That’s the ‘D’ side of things.
In addition, I have responsibility within our incubator programme, which covers those very new, early-stage innovations. That includes responsibility for what we call our dynamic or switchable glazing programme, where we evaluate new leads, often discussing novel technologies with start-up companies, universities, and so on.
Q. How have you developed your expertise during your career?
I came through what was essentially an apprentice scheme straight after leaving school. I started with ‘Pilkington Brothers’ as the company was called back then and gained my training and education through that scheme. I then actually left the company and returned 20 years later taking up a position with the Off-Line coating team, and was seconded to work / study at the University of Liverpool undertaking a 3 years research programme, completing a PhD in 2006. My PhD focussed on high resolution microscopy of sputtered metal / metal oxide interfaces. I then had the option to return to work back in the thin film team, so I’ve really gone full circle and done a great deal of education in the process!
Q. What are some of the applications of thin film technology, and where is the technology heading?
Everyday applications would include coatings that provide thermal insulation for windows in colder climates where the aim is to keep heat in a building. On the other hand, in hotter climates coatings with solar control properties would be applied to a window when there’s more of a demand to keep the heat from the sun out of the building. Many coating technologies are used in a wide range of applications within the glass , architectural and automotive industries. Within the R&D Incubator programme the focus is to add value via functionality to a piece of glass via several coating technologies, including PVD, CVD and wet chemistry by investigating a variety of potential product property options, including anti-dirt, anti-bacterial, anti-fingerprint, dynamic and avisafe glazing to name but a few.
Q. How do you work with universities and start-ups to share expertise and drive innovation?
We routinely work with several universities at any given time; in the main with those who have built up expertise in a particular field. We’ve historically had good relationships with local, national and international universities, as well as university spin-off and small start-up companies. At the moment, we have a project within our capability programme where we’re working with a spin-off company from a large North American University.
We invest our time and resources into these partnerships, particularly within our incubator programme. A key advantage to working with an academic institution or small start-up company is that we get the opportunity to work on a wide and diverse range of activities that allows us to move a research programme forward.
Q. How is the next generation of talent and expertise being brought into the glass industry?
In light of my own career background, I’m very much an advocate for the argument that university isn’t right for everybody. There are some very good apprenticeships out there where young people can develop the expertise and skills needed in an industry like this, and that’s something we support within the company. We offer placements, sponsor PhD students and support STEM educational activities which is why I sometimes visit schools and colleges to support STEM students and talk about possible career options.