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Unexpected Furnace Outages Prompt Concerns Over Glass Supply

Last week, a float furnace at the Vitro Architectural Glass plant in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, unexpectedly went down when a glass leak caused a fire at the facility. Vitro officials have yet to make an official statement on the extent of the furnace’s damage and estimated downtime. However, the unexpected loss of float capacity has prompted fresh concerns over float supply in North America.

The incident in Carlisle comes on the heels of recent outages at other North American float plants. In the last six months, two additional float production furnaces have unexpectedly gone offline—a furnace at the NSG Group Ottawa, Illinois, plant, which is undergoing cold repair after a tornado damaged the facility in March; and the furnace at the Guardian Glass DeWitt, Iowa, plant, which is offline for extended repairs after a fire and explosion occurred at the plant in June.

“It is somewhat unprecedented to have several floats out of commission for unplanned reasons,” says Stephen Weidner, vice president at the NSG Group. “When you have unplanned issues that pop up—particularly when they are long-term unplanned issues—it creates management challenges and lead time issues, because you haven’t prepared on the front side.”

“It is hard to believe how many manufacturing plants have gone down,” adds a representative from a leading North American glass fabricator. “We are still trying to put things together to secure inventory for the next few months. All I can say at this point is that it’s going to get worse.”

The unexpected loss of capacity comes during a time of already tight supply. Concerns over glass shortages in North America have been bubbling since the construction economy recovery ramped up post-recession. Float capacity in North America fell more than 20 percent between 2005 and 2015, with the number of working lines falling from 44 to 34, prompting worries over increasing lead times and difficulty ordering certain products. Losing several lines on top of those existing closures only exacerbates capacity challenges, sources say.

“The loss of float glass production due to the Vitro Carlisle fire compounds the glass supply problems already facing the industry,” says David Balik, president, GGI. “We expect that float glass production will continue to tighten this year and into next year with spot outages of items increasing.”

“I have not personally been told by anyone they’re having serious trouble getting glass or panicing, but I do think there will be a tightening the rest of the year, as business seems to be improving everywhere and the economy growing faster than anytime in the last 10 years,” says Matt Hale, vice president, Global Glass Solutions.

In addition to capacity issues, the unexpected float outages create transportation and logistics problems, Weidner says. “Transportation is already fairly tight, particularly in the summer construction season,” he says. “We now have the two floats in the Midwest taken out. There are trucks and drivers that we all share in the industry. These trucks and drivers have to go further distances to customers and back to original sourcing plants. … Effectively, it’s not just glass manufacturing capacity that has been taken out of the system, but trucking and logistics capacity that has been taken out as well.”

Hale says imports of raw glass and fabricated glass have eased some strain on supply. “Manufacturers have been importing a lot of glass, so … a ‘shortage’ might be invisible to their customers,” he says.

Key to managing the capacity situation is planning, sources say. Now more than ever, fabricators and suppliers will need to collaborate and plan ahead to minimize lead times and to ensure desired products are available. GGI, for example, has worked with suppliers to build up inventory. “GGI is working closely with its suppliers here and around the world to expand the products we carry and increase inventory levels in our … facilities in an effort to alleviate the concerns of our customers,” Balik says.

“Before two or three years ago, everyone was used to just-in-time service. There was plenty of supply. Since then, people have extended their horizons and are planning ahead. The industry has been able to manage around it,” Weidner says. “These situations [of unexpected downtime] just require additional management and patience.”