All businesses retain value one of two ways: capturing revenue at the right moment or avoiding costly risk before it hits company coffers. What opportunities and dangers on the horizon should U.S. glass manufacturers strive toward or veer away from?
1. Mind energy efficiency innovations and their industrial applications
Far and away, glass manufacturing is one of the most energy-intensive industries in the industrial sector. According to research from the Energy Information Administration, U.S. glassmakers consume about 200 trillion British thermal units of energy annually, primarily derived from 143 billion cubic feet of natural gas. A quarter of total consumption, however, comes from electricity.
The EIA estimates energy reductions to melting, refining, and possibly forming processes, depending on the product under manufacture, could yield a sizeable return of 20 to 25 percent. Companies interested in energy-efficient operations should watch out for progress in science surrounding direct current field technology, which, among other things, lowers the melting point of glass for more cost-effective production.
Is energy efficiency on the horizon for glass manufacturing?
2. Envision a world with stricter glassmaking regulations
Last year, glass producers across the country were the subjects of federal scrutiny after the Environmental Protection Agency caught several companies using highly toxic materials to tint their products. More to the point, these facilities also lacked the appropriate filtering and ventilation technology to protect workers, the surrounding neighborhoods and the environment from the toxic, even carcinogenic, byproducts of consumed cadmium and other heavy metals.
Time will tell what will happen in the aftermath of this discovery. Current political ambiguity has pushed the matter off the EPA’s plate for now. However, glassmakers everywhere should take heed while there’s still time. What regulators find when the investigation reopens could spur new oversight and mandates throughout the industry. Are your operations agile enough to accommodate possible changes? Does your business possess enough capital to invest in additional safety measures should they be required of you? Will your processes withstand audits from the EPA?
3. Enter new markets with confidence
There’s market share and wallet share, but have you ever heard of “building share”?
No? Well, it’s only a matter of time before this concept takes off. As the U.S. toys with entrance into a new era of infrastructure spending and widespread construction projects, glass manufacturers must follow the innovative trends set forth by sister industries like concrete and steel to grow more valuable in the eyes of developers and contractors. The next architectural generation will define itself through greener, more energy-conscious building materials.
For glassmakers, this means not only consuming energy more efficiently, but also diversifying product portfolios and creating valuable partnerships to capitalize on offerings like photovoltaic glass, which, when installed, converts solar energy into usable electricity. In 2015, customers around the world bought 580 million square meters of PV glass, according to RnR Market Research.
In addition, many glass manufacturers have also begun formulating smart glass, which becomes more transparent or opaque on command. By restricting or exploiting direct sunlight and its heat, buildings enjoy energy cost savings from both lighting and HVAC systems.
With that said, to build long-lasting partnerships with new suppliers, glass manufacturers must demonstrate their operations are up to snuff. Just as important, these same businesses must ensure the vendors they work with won’t hold them back either. Consider both sides when entering into negotiations with suppliers, and never sacrifice a legacy of success for an uncertain future.
4. Train staff for 21st-century duties
In the past 30 years, U.S. manufacturing has lost about one-third of its jobs for myriad reasons, according to the Brookings Institution. Many rightly fear the effect automated glass manufacturing processes will have on employment. The entire industrial sector is currently undergoing a perfect storm of issues, automation among them, that are having a corrosive effect on hiring. This challenge also includes a sizeable swath of retiring baby boomers and difficulty finding eager and highly skilled applicants to fill open positions.
An investment in professional development and training can and should be a viable solution for any glassmaker. All it takes is leveraging human capital in such a way that long-time line workers become next-gen technology leaders. If done right, businesses prevent operational disruption and develop knowledgeable teams with ideal job experience. After all, these workers will already know everything about not only glass production, but what’s unique about glass production at the business that trained them.
However, training is and will forever be an ongoing process. As automated technology advances, so too must the businesses utilizing it. Through cross-functional collaboration and professional consulting, glassmakers should optimize and lean down as best they can to transform wasted costs into investment opportunities in the future of their workforces.