Innovation Required to Meet Changes and Challenges Ahead

By Katy Devlin, Glass Magazine
March 18, 2014

The glass industry is entering a time of major change that will present challenges and opportunities, and drive innovation, according to speakers during the Building Envelope Contractors Conference, March 16-18, in Las Vegas.

“The only way to get from where we are now to where we need to be in the future is through innovation,” said Mic Patterson, vice president of strategic development at the Advanced Technology Studio for Enclos Corp. “We need innovation throughout the process. It is about every one of us figuring out how to innovate with our business.”

The industry faces increases in design complexity, a push for more stringent codes and a worsening labor shortage. Companies, and the industry at large, will have to adapt and evolve in order to thrive in the quickly changing building environment. “We are, traditionally, a risk-averse industry,” Patterson said, but that needs to change, moving forward into the new world of design and construction.

Complex design

The major factor affecting change on the industry is design complexity, according to several speakers. The advancements in computer design capabilities has “fueled an explosion of creative building design,” said Richard Beuke, vice president, flat glass, PPG Industries. “We are seeing nonlinear, non-square envelopes, and projects where each piece of glass is one of a kind. This has added tremendous complexity to envelope design, construction and assembly.”

“Today's facade technology is not what it was 5 years go, or even 3 years ago,” Patterson added.

To keep up with increasingly complex wall assemblies, many glass and glazing companies are incorporating 3D printing into project planning. “With 3D printing, an entirely new industry is emerging before our eyes,” Beuke said. “One-of-a-kind, complex parts that were previously impossible to fabricate are now possible.”

In addition to the projects and products, “the processes themselves are more complex,” Beuke said. The building industry is moving toward Building Information Modeling, with design-assist projects becoming more common.

Codes and standards

The industry needs to prepare for a toughening code environment, said Tom Culp, president of Birch Point Consultants and code consultant for the industry. On the horizon for codes is “increased stringency in base energy codes; increased code adoption and enforcement; and expansion of green codes and standards,” Culp said.

Code and standard bodies continue to push for better performing buildings. The industry needs to become a more proactive player in these conversations and a bigger contributor to energy performance solutions, Culp said. Doing this could help the industry avoid further “attacks on glazing,” like the recent moves to reduce window to wall ratio at ASHRAE, he said.

“We need to change the conversation at ASHRAE regarding windows and glass,” Culp said. “The industry needs to suggest more productive ways to promote high performance buildings and windows.”

Leading this new conversation needs to be the promotion of smart daylighting, including toplighting, and the promotion of emerging technologies such as dynamic glass, vacuum insulating glass, highly insulating spandrels and integrated facades, Culp said.

“There is huge pressure at ASHRAE to get to the next step in window performance requirements for the 2016 edition. … We need to push it in a direction where we can achieve high performance facades in a way we want to do it,” Culp said.

While stringent codes and standards will challenge the industry, they will also drive innovation, Patterson added.

“I’m an advocate of more stringent building codes. I could make a case they will benefit the industry,” Patterson said. “In Europe in the 70s and 80s, energy efficiency was mandated by law in a very significant way. Buildings had to reduce energy consumption, sometimes by as much as 80 percent, in just 2-3 years. This drove development and put the Europeans 20 years ahead of what we have in the U.S.”

Labor shortage

“The biggest thing that worries us is finding and keeping talent,” Beuke said. “How many Gen Y’s and Gen Xers want to work on a job site in the construction industry? We are competing with other industries for talent.”

The lack of incoming talent into the glass and glazing industry affects companies in all segments and of all sizes. From engineers to installers to transport drivers, the industry needs workers, particularly as baby boomers begin to enter retirement.

Innovation and technology could prove critical in addressing the skilled labor shortage, Beuke said. “Robots have been a common sight in factories. Our factories are almost entirely automated. However, that automation has not made it to the jobsite, yet,” he said. “Robots are being built and tested in construction. They are already being used to build prefabricated assemblies.”

If the lack of skilled workers begins to strain the construction industry, automation could move into the jobsite as it has at manufacturing facilities. “Adoption depends on cost, capability and the amount of skilled labor that is available,” Beuke said. “This could be volatile change for our industry in 5 to 10 years.”

Innovation may also be key to attracting new workers. “Bringing innovation into your workplace acts as a magnet to young people,” Patterson said.