GGI has trained four people: two programmers and two machine operators for two shifts. Everyone else must stay out of the clean room. Pictured: Cristina Antunes, quality control manager. The direct-to-glass technology allows any design to be permanently printed on glass in a variety of ceramic ink colors and opacities. Photo by Ari Mintz.
What comes first, the process or the product? For General Glass International, Secaucus, N.J., the impetus to buy one of the first direct-to-glass printing machines in the United States came at GlassBuild America in 2007. Richard Balik, senior vice president of sales and co-owner, saw the machine, made by Dip Tech, Kfar Saba, Israel, at the Atlanta show. Once home, he passed around the article “GlassJet prints digital images directly on glass." GGI signed the purchase order for the machine in August 2008.
About GGI’s Dip Tech
GlassJet is the first industrial direct-on-glass digital printer and uses solvent-based ceramic ink in an enamel color range that includes black, etch-like, white and spot colors. Printing speed is up to 30 square meters per hour, depending on the number of colors, coverage and layers of thickness with a print resolution of 360 dots per inch. Maximum glass size is 84 inches by 144 inches; minimum glass size is 3 inches by 12 inches; glass thickness is 5-19 millimeters. Graphic formats include: PDF, PS, EPS, Tiff, BMP, JPEG.
You could also say that introducing “Alice”-- the name the company settled on for the machine after an intense creative naming process (see “The how and why of Alice”)--began 15 years earlier. This family-owned glass company has re-invented itself many times in its 109-year history, but 1993 stands out as a “transformative” year, says David Balik, president and co-owner. That year, the company closed the last sheet glass plant in the United States, in Jeannette, Pa., and bought the assets of Boss Glass, an East Coast distributor in Pine Brook, N.J.
These two actions and related tactical moves kept the company well supplied during the glass shortage of 1994-95 and set the stage for a strategic repositioning. During this period, GGI also was a barge-load importer--a barge holds 500 tons or about 25 truckloads--of polished wired glass, with a 45 percent U.S. market share.
In 1997, GGI bought the assets of The Glass Factory in Long Island, N.Y., thus entering the fabrication business. “Looking back, this four-year period between Boss and the Glass Factory, when we were deciding whether to acquire or grow a fabrication business, seemed to take forever,” says Ron Vance, senior vice president of operations. As did the next formative stage, 1997 to 2002, culminating in the company’s decision to combine the distribution and fabrication operations into a 100,000-square-foot building in Secaucus.
GGI’s truckload customers started changing their buying patterns. Wired glass demand softened due to building code changes and the development of clear fire-rated glass. “We realized that we had a logistics network that was more valuable to our future than just the wired glass it distributed,” says David Balik.
Growing demand for decorative glass products answered the question of how to continue selling truckload quantities of glass. Drawing on its worldwide importing base, GGI added dozens of specialty and decorative glass products to its warehouses. The “mixed truckload” sale was launched and continues strong to this day.
GGI’s fabrication capabilities also created new opportunities. “We found that our customers wanted us to fabricate decorative glass, not just distribute it,” says Richard Balik. The company bought fabrication equipment to keep up with two-shift production for its growing interior application glass orders.
Setting up “Alice”
“We looked into silk-screening, back-painting, decals, sandblasting—all kinds of fabrication techniques that would help support the needs of the decorative glass markets,” Vance says. At more than $1 million, the digital printer and supportive machinery represents the company’s most expensive single investment in new technology. “I don’t know that we would have bought it in today’s economic climate,” says David Balik, “but as we were building the clean room, we started building new business for custom interior and exterior decorative glass.”
GGI used a Gantt-type chart to illustrate the start and finish dates of the installation and determined that the most critical part of the process was finishing the construction of the clean room in time for the machine delivery. Vance notes that while the company has always used such tools as part of its analysis before deciding on any new process, new technology introductions always come with, “Oh, we didn’t expect that” moments.
Direct-to-glass printing and its creative requirements were more sophisticated than expected. “We didn’t anticipate needing to set up a color lab,” Vance says. Meeting the demands of the architectural and design community steeped in the range of Pantone colors mixed by the thousands is one thing. Just getting the reds and yellows right for the first building project bid is another.
Matching the color and design of thin stone affixed to glass on a high-visibility façade falls under the “unintended” outcome of a new technology. The developer’s demand: the digital ink-printed replacements “must match exactly.” After reviewing many samples, the architect decided that the colors produced by Alice were more attractive than the original panels.
The technology’s customized and quick turnaround capabilities helped GGI win a fast-track project for a series of university library interior partitions and windows. The contractor needed 10 designs delivered within two weeks. The all-white design required various ink opacities for each panel, resulting in a subtle image of stacked books. A fitting first project for a technology named after the 1865 Alice in Wonderland novel by Lewis Carroll and GGI’s quest to help its customers “tell your story with glass.”