Architects Guide to Glass, USGlass

Floating the Beyond Float Idea

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted in the way of transportation, they would have said a faster horse.”

So goes the famous quote widely attributed (though never verified as belonging) to Henry Ford. No matter who really said it first, it’s a great quote and one that made its way into “The Role of Glass in Adaptive Facades” panel discussion at GlassCon Global held in early July.

I enjoyed the conference greatly, not only because we got to work on it a bit, but because it was designed to look at glass in new ways and to gather together the thought leaders in the industry to discuss its future. And discuss they did, through a number of fascinating and thought-provoking presentations and panels.

What was most apparent, if you will, was that architects and others in the design/build community are a bit frustrated with our beloved building material. They want to do more with it and they want the glass to do more. They want it to curve more tightly, color more brilliantly and be ever-more energy-efficient. What we have here, then, is a failure of imagination.

Thomas Henriksen speaks during the "Role of Adaptive Facades" panel at GlassCon Global 2016.
Thomas Henriksen speaks during the “Role of Glass in Adaptive Facades” panel at GlassCon Global 2016.

What holds glass research back? An interesting take on the answer was provided by Thomas Henriksen, global leader of façade engineering with Mott MacDonald during the session, which included Ulrich Knaack of Delft University of Technology, Helen Sanders of SageGlass and Stephen Selkowitz of LBNL. The session was moderated by Keith Boswell of SOM.

Henriksen mentioned the Ford quote in his presentation. “I often wonder,” he said, “if the float process doesn’t limit what can be done with glass.” Henriksen says he has heard numerous times that “you can’t do that with the float process” or “that won’t work on the line.” He has heard it so much in fact, that he wonders if maybe it’s time to explore new manufacturing methods.

He may have a point. The last paradigm-shifting manufacturing invention, the float process, is now more than 60 years old. Float glass manufacturing is known to require large amounts of space, time and energy.

The float process was developed because the Pilkington brothers were experimenting with new ways to create glass. Since that time, our industry has devoted most of its resources to refining and enhancing that process and adding value to it. Much of it has born great results—most notably the work in coatings in the past two decades. But Henriksen’s rhetorical question made me wonder if we have become too comfortable with the process to research alternative methods of manufacture.

It’s sort of like that other famous quote by Jack Welch, that the people who get you to be a $5 million company won’t necessarily be the same people who will get you to $500 million. The float process has been an incredible advance that has gotten us this far. But will it take us where the future is going?

It’s incredibly expensive to build a float line so I can imagine how much it would cost to develop its replacement. Gone are the days of familial experimentation. Shareholders rule and long term development is difficult to justify in these days of life and death quarterly reports.

But it is fun and invigorating to dream and some day, “floating” an idea like this might be more than a dream … it might be necessary.