Many factors are shaping the glass industry, from emerging tech to lack of labor. To explore these megatrends, industry leaders from across the market convened at GlassBuild’s Main Stage to discuss the critical pain points, and possible opportunities, shaping the landscape now, and into the near future.
Host Max Perilstein, founder of Sole Source Consultants, was joined on the GlassBuild Main Stage by Alan Kinder, director commercial segment, Guardian Industries; Shelly Farmer, national sales manager, Sightline Commercial Solutions; Ron Crowl, managing director, FeneTech, a Cyncly Company; and Bruce Wesner, senior director of strategic operational reliability, PGT Innovations.
Here are a few takeaways from the discussion.
Demystifying AI, and using tech as a recruiting tool
Given the recent buzz around artificial intelligence, or AI, the panel kicked off with a discussion of the technology and how it might be used in the glass and fenestration industries.
“AI has been around for decades,” says Crowl. “Chat GPT brought it into the average person’s awareness.”
Though it’s still an emerging field for many users, Crowl sees AI as having a few applications in the industry, and more immediately in front-office activities. He also sees it having a role on the factory floor, though “this is a slower adoption process, as AI needs a very rich data set,” which not every manufacturer will have available. He also sees possible applications in quality control.
Crowl encourages industry members to “play with AI” and see what it can do for their processes.
Sightline’s Farmer also rejects the idea that AI will take employee jobs. “We are the AI, building the tool and creating inputs for it.” She encourages industry members to simply see it as a more advanced tool. “It’s the difference between a rock or a hammer.” Instead of taking jobs, AI has created niche careers like prompt engineers who work with the technology, she says.
If anything, new tech can be a recruitment tool, says Wesner. He points to the possibility of using augmented reality goggles for preventive maintenance work. “Stay ahead of tech. We need to make it fun for the next generation to come into our companies,” he says.
Childcare and culture may make the difference in recruitment
Panelists also responded to a question about the entrenched labor shortage. “Labor is always a pain point,” says Kinder. “This is a very skilled industry, which makes it exciting, but also means there’s a longer onboarding process.” This is becoming even more of an issue as a whole generation of glass industry employees, with decades of experience, is about to retire, he adds.
Sightline’s Farmer underlines the importance of childcare, now and in the coming years. “Childcare will be a huge issue for all sectors,” she says. “Companies that offer it as a benefit may succeed,” she adds, giving an example of a contract glazing firm she visited that offers in-house daycare.
Farmer and Wesner emphasized the importance of partnering with schools and teaching students about the glass industry early to boost awareness of these careers.
As glass industry products gain in complexity, more industry expertise is needed
Panelists agreed that more is being asked of glass and glazing as a building product. Kinder spoke on the increased demand from architects for environmental product declarations, or EPDs, and embodied carbon transparency. Guardian is updating its EPD, allowing customers to meet the top 20% limit in the General Services Administration’s Low Embodied Carbon Material Standard.
Wesner says PGTI is also focused on energy efficiency, and is now producing thin-triple insulating glass units that are compliant with Energy Star 7.0. PGTI also added diamond glass to its window product portfolios—the product is lightweight and scratch-resistant, and in a system, offers impact resistance.
Farmer emphasizes that all this complexity and higher performance—which can also include bird-friendly compliance, seismic and ballistic performance, as well as aesthetic considerations—requires more expertise, expertise which general contractors may not have about glass products. “General contractors’ talent is very young and green, so they need our expertise,” she says. Increasingly, GCs also want “one-stop shopping” she adds, meaning they want a firm that can manufacture, fabricate and install, if possible.
Kinder also encourages industry members to see a demand for product innovation as an opportunity. “We need to determine how our products can fill a void.”