Wanted: Breakthrough Industry Innovation

The last time the global flat glass industry saw a breakthrough innovation was in 1952, when Sir Alastair Pilkington invented the float glass process, said Scott Thomsen, managing partner at Innoscovery Inc., and former president of the Global Glass Group for Guardian Glass during a video presentation at the 2017 Glass Performance Days Conference in Tampere, Finland. 

Certainly, the industry has innovated, advanced and developed new products and technologies since Pilkington’s game-changing innovation. Recent decades have seen the development and widespread adoption of low-emissivity coatings and high thermal performance systems, the emergence of switchable glazing and smart glass, the implementation of automated manufacturing, and more. While important, these changes are not enough, Thomsen said. The industry continues to wait for its next step change—a significant, game-changing alteration in the market that will propel the industry forward, he said.

“The glass industry is mired in incrementalism,” said Thomsen. “Industries die if they don’t make large changes. Industries fail without a major step change every 30 years.”

Thomsen’s fellow GPD presenter, Bernard Savaëte, founder of BJS.Différences, called the lack of breakthrough innovations “the key difficulty for our industry.”

If the glass industry won’t drive the next step change, the likely innovators will be the technology giants that have been catalysts for disruptive change in other industries. “It will be Google, Tesla, Amazon,” Thomsen said. “Tech giants have started to automate the home and are driving innovations in building.”

However, it’s not too late for glass companies to get involved and ensure that the next step change remains in the industry. In fact, the industry already has firms that are dedicated to discovering the next breakthrough innovation for flat glass. There are more than 150 start-up companies working in the glass building material space, Thomsen said, and these companies “outpace development at primary glass companies at a rate of three-to-one.”

To find the next step change for flat glass, companies should look beyond their own research and development activities and consider collaborations with the quickly growing field of start-up companies, Thomsen said. Established glass companies—both primary glass manufacturers and fabricators—should collaborate with these start-ups to capitalize on the innovation and become part of the process. “Identify start-ups that impact your business and provide some value to the start-up,” he said. “Get involved early. … Be willing to take risks.”

The next flat glass step change is inevitable. The only question is: who will drive that change?

Katy Devlin is editor in chief of Glass Magazine. Contact her at kdevlin@glass.org. Follow Glass Magazine on Twitter.

Comments

This could not be more true. Nonetheless, I see very little movement in the glass industry in this direction. In fact, the entire AEC industry is steeped in incrementalism, and it will be a step change in itself for us to move beyond this. Best to all in Finland! Mic

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