Made in USA: Growing Panes for a High-Tech Window Company

Feb. 6, 2017
SageGlass was bought by a French company but its manufacturing remains in the United States. Operations director David Pender talks about the pros and cons of this arrangement.

Read more on this topic in our main feature, “The Ups and Downs of Made in the USA”

SageGlass invented dynamic glass—“tint on demand” windows that use special coatings and low voltages of electricity to filter out varying degrees of light. The small company started in 1989 in New York, but eventually moved to Faribault, Minnesota, 50 miles south of Minneapolis, because the area was developing a reputation for its innovation in window manufacturing.

Then in 2012, French building materials manufacturer Saint-Gobain acquired SageGlass. Although the unmet demand for dynamic glass was mainly in Europe, Saint-Gobain chose to keep production in Minnesota, build a new plant there, and convert the old plant to a research and development facility. The new facility can coat panes of glass that are more than twice the size of the old ones.

David Pender, director of operations at SageGlass (who previously spent 11 years in Germany working for Saint Gobain), talked about the challenges and advantages of keeping SageGlass’s manufacturing and R&D in the United States:

Challenge: Europe has the most growth potential, but our manufacturing facility is in the U.S.

Western Europe is a little further along than the U.S. in building codes. What’s considered extremely exotic here … is considered almost normal in Europe. Getting the supply chain right to be able to produce everything from what’s acceptable in the U.S. to what’s expected in Europe poses a certain amount of challenge. We’ve got to be sourcing some things from Europe, to make the products here and then shift them back to Europe. That doesn’t make too much sense at the moment, but we are trying to grow this market worldwide. Europe is growing very, very quickly because the Saint-Gobain name in Europe is a big plus.

Advantage: The highest demand for the product is still in the U.S.

Overall, we’re on a three to four times year-over-year expansion. So this year we’ll produce three to four times what we did in 2016. Which is a phenomenal growth rate, and that’s set to continue as we grow in the Europe, in the U.S. and the Middle East. We just got our first really big job in China. In the future, this facility will get to capacity and just produce in North America, and there will probably be another facility doing something similar in Europe—and who knows how that will do going forward.

Challenge: The specialized machines to coat the glass are built in Europe and have to be shipped to the US, and it’s a pain when they need repairs.

Many of our pieces of equipment are unique, so the team members worked very closely with suppliers of this type of equipment to set it up so they could do this type of work. There are two coaters. Each of them is the largest vertical coater of its kind in the world. They’re enormous. They’re monster machines. There’s a lot that goes into that, and most of these machines were produced by German manufacturers. It brings a level of complexity when you’ve got very complicated high-tech machinery that is being serviced from Germany. It makes the maintenance and the service of the equipment a little more challenging than if they were just down the street

Advantage: Strong local workforce that can be trained to learn specialized tasks.

We’re in an area here that knows something about glass and coatings on glass, and that’s important. We’re not in any way foreign to the local workforce.

We certainly have to do an awful lot of training because a lot of what happens here,  you can’t learn anywhere. We do have good local connections with South Central Community College. We’ve set up an apprenticeship program, which is very useful.

We have to rely on certain aspects of the European suppliers in particular around software modifications [for the machinery], but there’s a lot that we can and have done locally to build up expertise here. Code is written on a lot of these European machines. The control systems are Siemens-based. We’ve been working with suppliers here to build up that expertise. We’re able to get people to learn and understand how to do that here. And we’ve built up a lot of competencies, particularly around laser processing of these thin films.

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