That means we don’t just sit back and do things the way they’ve always been done. Instead, we continually identify emerging trends – be they economic, societal, or environmental – to understand how the world is changing and how we need to innovate and evolve our products.
In his role as Incubation & Value-Added-Product Technical Manager at Pilkington, Rory Back has responsibility for understanding and exploring these ‘mega trends’ that are changing the way the world thinks about glass.
Here, he identifies five major global challenges facing glass manufacturers, and explains how Pilkington is innovating to ensure it meets those challenges and plays a key role in shaping the future.
1. Decarbonisation and reducing energy use
Currently glass does not suffer from the same image problem as a material like plastic, but it won’t be long before consumers and investors are demanding better environmental and sustainability credits from the various materials used in construction.
Glass manufacturing relies heavily on fossil fuels, and although public awareness about this may be low at present, this is likely to change as people become better educated about the environment. It’s a challenge we are certainly tackling through innovation, and are currently working in collaboration with the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) on their new waste-powered energy plant to be built adjacent to our float glass line in St Helens. This will help to bring our carbon use down significantly while also reducing our energy costs.
2. Digitisation of glass manufacturing
Glass is a historic industry where the logistics of manufacturing have remained quite analogue. As a result, glass has lagged behind in terms of digitisation and there is a question now of how the industry can react and take advantage of smart, lean, on-demand manufacturing enabled by technology like cloud computing, sensors, and data analytics. At Pilkington, we’re expanding our application of such technology because we know how important it will be in keeping up with consumer demand, working in tandem with other industries, and responding to future challenges.
3. Keeping pace with automotive change
Cars are one of the places where people interact with glass the most – not just now but increasingly in the future as the world shifts to a model of Autonomous, Connected, Electric and Shared vehicles (ACES). The possibilities are huge as the automotive industry advances and in-car glass can be used as displays for cameras, vehicle information, and multimedia, as well as an interactive interface. To move at that speed, the glass industry has to react faster and produce more and better products in a shorter timeframe. This is a key focus at Pilkington, such as in our work at our Innovation Incubator site in Lathom, and our sites around the world.
4. Bringing the outdoors inside
Big changes in our work and home lives have meant that people are spending more and more time indoors – and this is changing the way consumers think about glass. The demand for glass that looks good and provides good thermal performance has always been there, but increasingly people also want glass that provides added health benefits.
In the past, the focus on air quality and pollution has been outdoors. However, as people progressively spend more time indoors in buildings with increased environmental sealing, indoor air quality has come under greater scrutiny. People exposed to pollutants and allergens in the air may develop health conditions, while others may struggle with low productivity or depression due to a lack of exposure to the outdoors. There is pressure on glass manufacturers to develop products that improve these issues in various ways, such as through better colour rendering, optimized ventilation, and glass that maximises the benefit of incoming natural light. These issues continually feed into our product innovation work at Pilkington.
5. Smart cities and the buildings of the future
Smart technology presents both opportunities and challenges for the glass industry, which must keep pace with the transformational changes taking place in our cities and urban spaces. Just as products like thermostats, TVs, and cars are now connected to the internet, there is the potential for glass itself to develop into a smart device capable of performing its own digital functions. On buildings, this could include advanced dynamic facades, where skyscrapers feature glass that can generate its own imagery or advertisements, or that can generate electricity and change how the building heats and cools.
As population densities grow, we may also see glass play a vital role in new developments like ‘sky gardens’ which could be built at the top of buildings to help meet the demand for food, or in the increased use of prefabricated construction, which will require glass makers to find new ways of integrating glass on a mass scale. These are big future challenges which require a firm commitment to innovation – something which is central to our vision and working culture at Pilkington.