Managing Director of Pilkington UK Neil Syder spoke exclusively to Glass Worldwide about taking up the family trade, why the company that he joined as a school-leaver still excites him and how innovation and collaboration with bodies such as Glass Futures and British Glass are crucial to the long-term prosperity of the flat glass sector. The full version of this article appears in the Nov/Dec 2022 issue that has been mailed globally and is also now available free of charge in the digital archive*.
Originally published by Glass Worldwide - EXCLUSIVE PILKINGTON INTERVIEW | Glass Worldwide Magazine
A member of the NSG Group, Pilkington United Kingdom Limited is based in St Helens, Merseyside, and at the NSG Group’s European Technical Centre nearby in Lathom, Lancashire. The renowned inventor of the float glass process currently employs around 3,000 people across the UK for its operations, which range from the manufacture of float, rolled and coated glass to glass processing and merchanting, automotive original equipment (OE) and automotive glass replacement (AGR) manufacture.
Neil Syder has a long history with glass – and with the company of which he is now Managing Director – owing to his family’s association with Pilkington UK, which began with his grandfather’s employment as a Warehouse Manager at the firm’s Cowley Hill Works.
Aged five, Mr Syder remembers visiting Pilkington’s plant in Halmstad, Sweden, where the family relocated for two years while his father, as Manufacturing Manager, trained the newly-established business’ employees to make glass.
“I couldn’t claim that I started work at that age, but I did go to the plant some weekends when my dad took me in, so I knew my way around the batch plant even then!” Mr Syder recalls. Back in the UK, his father held the position of Works Manager at Pilkington’s Cowley Hill and Greengate plants and ran its (newly invented) float lines – “a brilliant time to be working at Pilkington,” observes Mr Syder.
Neil’s own involvement with Pilkington started in 1987 when he left school, aged 16. Pursuing an interest in engineering and mechanics, he joined the research and development department of Pilkington’s Glass Laboratories in Lathom (now the company’s European Technical Centre). “Pilkington supported me doing a Higher National Diploma (HND) and then a part-time degree so it could be said that I am chemist by trade,” he muses. “I can’t say I’ve used a lot of chemistry in my roles in the past, but I guess it’s a way of logically thinking and I learned how to approach and solve certain problems.”
Career to date
Mr Syder moved to Cowley Hill in the late 1980s, progressing from “quite engineering-focused” laboratory work to a role in operations in the early 1990s. This was the era of ‘Pilkington K Glass™’, when the UK’s original hard coated, low-emissivity glass for energy efficiency in homes was in development and just becoming a mainstream product. “We had made it in the lab and then in a plant, but this was really the subtlety of making it better, getting longer runs and tweaking the products to improve, for example, the control of the emissivity and colour,” Mr Syder explains. “All those types of things had to be understood fully and with nothing written down, we had to work it out as a group. So, it was a very interesting time to be in that type of role at Pilkington.”
From there, he moved into different operational roles, working in warehousing, the cutting section, hot end glassmaking areas and working physically in warehouse loading as a manager. “Eventually in the year 2000 I moved into operational, planning and supply and was there for 12–13 years, during which time the role expanded quite a few times,” he continues. “In 2013 I moved into commercial as Head of Sales for the UK as well as export. I kept the responsibility of planning and supply, so it was a big role but gave me the chance to balance demand against supply, which was very useful!”
In 2017 Mr Syder was made Head of Operations, a role he held until being promoted earlier this year, taking over from outgoing MD Matt Buckley, who retired after a helpful four-month handover. “Obviously I am very proud to be Managing Director, but I think it meant even more to my father – he was extremely proud!” confides Mr Syder.
As Managing Director, Mr Syder’s primary focus for the business centres around innovation and sustainability. “I am quite a strategic person, analysing things and seeing what could be done better,” he notes. “Over my career, I’ve seen many things done well and other things that in hindsight could be done better and that has shaped me in some extent to the person I am today and how I manage."
“I’ve got a very good overview of the business having worked in pretty much all the operational roles as well as knowing how the commercial and financial sides work,” he remarks. “My responsibility is to allow people to grow and to facilitate the ability of others. I’ve done many of these roles myself in the past so I can help by providing focus and shaping their progress by allowing them to develop and improve our operations and products.”
Pilkington UK requires the same lifeblood as any company: “diverse ideas and people to make sure that we alter direction as necessary. We have that in an open and honest team, and I enjoy the challenge of the different ideas coming from them,” Mr Syder says. “I have my own ideas, but I welcome input from the team to make the best-informed decisions. Being open minded and working together with inclusion is now coming from the top down and we will benefit greatly from that in the years to come.”
As an international brand, Pilkington has a European Managing Director that all countries report to and then a Chief Operator Officer who brings the architectural, automotive and specialty glass sections together. “We also have meetings with operations directors across Europe to discuss challenges, and with commercial teams to ensure that focus on development and new products meets the wider business and not just one area,” adds Mr Syder.
Pilkington UK also benefits from being a member of British Glass, the UK glass industry’s representative body. “It’s good to have that forum,” attests Mr Syder. “Some of the challenges I have will be unique to Pilkington but a lot of them will be common challenges so being able to come together and have one voice – to address, for example, a government body – is very useful without getting into competition compliance issues. I am on the British Glass board of directors and attend meetings, as I do with the Glass and Glazing Federation,” he adds.
The majority of Pilkington UK’s operations are all in St Helens, based around three different sites within four miles of each other: Cowley Hill Works, Greengate Works and Watson Street Works. “We have a float line, an offline coater (the float line actually has online coating capabilities), a mirror line, a laminating line and a textured glass operation – so a quite diverse operation overall,” comments Mr Syder.
“One of the strengths of the UK operation is that I can’t think of another plant inside or outside of NSG that has the capability for making an online coating and offline coating in the same vicinity,” he continues. “Cowley Hill Works is four miles away from Greengate Works so close enough to be classed as together. We are able to double up on the efficiency and it does give us many benefits.”
Approximately 85% of the glass that Pilkington manufactures in the UK is for the UK, with higher end products accounting for the 15% exported products (for example, solar control). Demand is currently “strong” for the company’s offerings for the UK architectural and automotive glazing sectors and “has been all year”, reports Mr Syder.
The UK5 float line at Greengate operates “one of the best furnaces in the world,” he maintains. “We’ve got all the assets in the UK to a very high standard and that really does help us to innovate, especially with the team at Lathom being able to make ideas a reality.”
Research and development
Pilkington’s UK operations benefit from close proximity to the brand’s European Technical Centre in Lathom (nine miles away). “There are other R&D facilities around the world, including in Japan, but the major R&D facility is in Lathom,” confirms Mr Syder. “We are very committed to it and innovation is our core strength. As the centre of excellence and development for the NSG Group, a lot of products will be developed in the UK plants because of their proximity to the European Technical Centre. Also, the experts from the European Technical Centre travel the world to other plants and I’m always happy for them to go to our UK sites and share different ways of doing things and technology developments. They need to focus on the R&D side of course, but I’m very happy for the team to spend time on the operations sites because they see how things can work practically. I enjoy having the R&D team around because it’s educational all ways round."
“It would be easy from an operational point to get very insular in the UK and focus on just output,” he continues. “Obviously that is very important but there is a long-term view on encompassing development from the wider world. For example, we might be experts on glassmaking, but we might not be the world experts on carbon capture. Pilkington is very forward-thinking on such topics, but carbon capture is not an isolated glassmaking issue so working with other partners across the world and seeing how they are tackling these issues and how solutions can be developed for use on glass furnaces is very important.”
Hydrogen and biofuel trials
Pilkington takes a long view in its approach to principles of sustainability and improved environmental performance, according to Mr Syder. “We’ve got things we need to do such as improve sustainability and net zero, but we look further than that because it’s very easy to make glass net zero by making more of it… If we produce low-emissivity glass or solar controlling glass so as to reduce the need to heat the house or produce the energy to keep it cool, that is fundamental and is part of the whole climate crisis. And on top of that we need to keep developing glass with extra functionality that makes living easier."
“Lathom will be working on all of these things and a lot of them will happen at Greengate first, which we’ve already seen to some extent with the hydrogen and biofuel trials.”
As a reminder, during summer 2021, as part of the regional HyNet Industrial Fuel Switching project to produce, store and distribute hydrogen to decarbonise the North West of England and North Wales, Pilkington UK conducted a full-scale production trial over several weeks to demonstrate that its float plant could be safely and effectively fired using low-carbon hydrogen in place of natural gas. In October 2021 HyNet and HyDeploy project team members witnessed the success of a five-day trial using a blend of hydrogen with natural gas in the furnace at Pilkington UK’s Greengate site. And in February 2022 the company’s support of Glass Futures’ £1.7m BEIS (UK Government’s department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)-funded project to cut CO2 emissions from the glass making process saw it become the world’s first flat glass manufacturer to fire a furnace on 100% biofuel (made from organic waste materials), which it did for four days, creating 165,000m2 of the lowest carbon float glass ever produced. Pilkington UK’s next major step will likely be when the HyNet project goes live and provides a hydrogen pipeline to the Greengate site.
“The NSG group is committed to net zero; there are targets out there and the UK operation will deliver in line with those; for example, we are in a good position with the HyNet project and we are also benefitting from the Glass Futures project,” comments Mr Syder, who believes that the industry research and technology organisation’s pilot plant for sustainable glass manufacturing – also in St Helens – will be “a perfect development to try out things and see if they work”.
“There is a not a huge competitive edge with this,” he underlines: “it’s about making the whole glass industry better and more sustainable. I fully support Glass Futures because we don’t need every company trying to work out their own net zero solution if we can work collaboratively in a way that is not compromising the competitive nature of the business and working together on solutions that the world needs. Glass Futures provides us with that. Having a body independently doing this, helping all the glass companies and giving us all the same information to allow us to change our operations at the right time is key.”
KEW Technology syngas
More broadly for the future of decarbonisation, “Pilkington is evaluating a range of decarbonisation technologies,” says Mr Syder. The company is currently exploring the replacement of natural gas with syngas (also known as ‘synthesis gas’), a lower-carbon alternative fuel consisting mainly of carbon monoxide and hydrogen that can be produced from a number of materials that contain carbon, including biomass and municipal waste materials. To this end, Pilkington has partnered with UK-based sustainable energy solutions company KEW Technology for the BEIS-funded ‘Modular Approach to Decarbonisation of Energy (MADE) for Glass’ project to develop an Industrial Co-location solution for on-site fuel switching. In future trials KEW’s modular advanced gasification units will be used to provide syngas as a pressurised natural gas substitute at two of Pilkington’s glass manufacturing sites in St Helens.
Solving design challenges
When asked about any Pilkington products that are currently helping to solve key design challenges, Mr Syder came up with a number of examples. Firstly Pilkington Suncool™, which is “helping to protect buildings from overheating, without relying on costly and carbon intensive cooling systems.” The range of coated, solar control and low-emissivity glass products offers a number of light/heat transmittance options, keeping buildings at a comfortable temperature without compromising on natural light. At two primary schools in Dudley, in the West Midlands, 380m2 of glazing in areas most at risk of overheating (yes, it can get hot up there…) were replaced with Pilkington Suncool™ 70/35 solar control glass. “The project has helped bring extra comfort to both Ridge Primary and Gig Mill School, providing a much better learning environment than previously, when the buildings suffered from overheating in summer and substantial heat loss in the winter,” reported Mark Chenery, Project Manager at Dudley Council.
Another key product, according to Mr Syder, is Pilkington AviSafe™, used to help prevent bird collisions with glass. A uniquely patterned UV-enhanced coating fine-tuned to the optical abilities of our feathered friends, Pilkington AviSafe™ disrupts reflections on glass so that birds perceive a barrier and know to steer clear. The coating is designed to be aesthetically appealing (to humans) on the exterior surface, and to be barely visible from inside the building. At Mere Sands Wood, a nature reserve in West Lancashire, a new visitor centre has benefitted from glass units made of 6 mm Pilkington AviSafe™ as the outer pane and an inner pane of 4 mm Pilkington K Glass™ S low-e glass. The glazing was installed in areas that most commonly saw bird strikes, providing protection for the birds as well as thermal insulation for the café’s visitors.
Mr Syder also mentions NSG TEC™ glass, which has an intriguing new application in a gaming machine. Last autumn NSG Group collaborated with product design studio Cohda to combine the latter’s Power-Tap (P-Tap) wireless power technology with its electrically conductive glass, the result being a glass that acts as a wire – transferring power out through contact alone. UK touchscreen and glass processing specialist Zytronic has now created ‘ElectroglaZ’, a futuristic gaming concept for casinos and bars featuring ‘floating’ components powered invisibly from two layers of NSG TEC™ electrically conductive glass laminated together (electricity flows into the glass via a hidden connection around its perimeter, through the conductive glass’ lamination, and out to the touchscreen and other devices via apertures and contact points). The gaming concept was exhibited at the G2E global casino gaming trade event in Las Vegas, where it received “significant interest” from slot machine product developers.
Lastly, Mr Syder lists the popular Pilkington Activ™ dual-action self-cleaning range with a clever coating that uses the forces of nature to help keep the glass free from dirt.
And there will be more innovations to come. “We need to keep working hard to meet customers’ aspirations the best we can while still developing for the future; we are in a strong position to do that,” states Mr Syder. “We need to solve our customers’ problems and to help them to sell their products, so it’s about creating products that meet the customers’ requirements and providing service and quality. We’ve got a lot of that going on at the moment with innovation days and communicating with customers to find out what they need so that we are developing the right products. ‘Challenges’ is just another word for opportunities,” he concludes.