Now demand has returned, it’s time to get back on our feet

Matt Buckley, managing director at Pilkington UK, explains how the glass manufacturer is getting back up to speed following lockdown, and calls for cautious optimism for the months ahead – while the sector helps customers adapt to a post-Covid world.

Like many sectors, Covid-19 turned glass and glazing on its head, as the shutdown of domestic installations and construction sites dealt a blow to order books that ricocheted through the supply chain.

Encouragingly, demand for glass has now sprung back towards normal levels after lockdown’s easing. Production lines are getting back up to speed as installations and projects resume.

Indeed, there’s reason for optimism looking forward after the last few months we’ve had, but there’s every need for caution too. The unknowns of second waves, local lockdowns or the extent of economic distress on our market temper any firm hopes the sector may have in a speedy recovery.

Whatever happens, it’s time for the sector to do what it does best and rise to a challenge. Glass and glazing’s ingenuity has played a crucial role in making our built environment more sustainable over the last decade. Now, specifiers and architects are calling on that same inventiveness to help them create safer spaces in the post-Covid world.

As is the nature of glass manufacturing, getting production back online is a cumbersome process requiring weeks of preparatory work. When lockdown hit, demand fell away overnight and we turned to 100% crush or hot hold to ensure our float and rolled lines could start back up as fast as they could when the time was right; with a skeleton team working within health and safety guidelines to keep our plants safe.

Of course, glass furnaces can’t simply be turned off when demand falls, leaving us the only option to keep them hot or risk losing them altogether; a costly job at a time when sales had been wiped out.

Our team has done a tremendous job restarting our glass production when demand started to pick up. Now, we can supply high-quality float and coated glass once again. Our merchanting and processing operations are also back online after a phased return alongside the gradual lift in lockdown.

We’re ready to help customers to get back on their feet and respond to the bounce-back in demand, while advising them on how we’ve set up our factories to meet the new guidelines and be Covid-secure.

While projects resume, the sector will hope that the government’s agenda to ‘build, build, build’ will translate into new supply opportunities over the next year.

Such a focus on a green recovery holds encouraging signs too. The private sector is lobbying the government to drive investment in low carbon innovation and infrastructure. As a supplier of energy efficient building materials, there’s a chance for any investment to trickle through to our sector. However, any specific plans related to home insulation, the sector judged best for cutting emissions and creating jobs, are yet to be heard from the government.

We’re also beginning to respond to the very new challenges the pandemic has brought to the built environment. With the support of a £50,000 award from Innovate UK, we’re fast tracking our development of a glass coated with antiviral properties. This could help to reduce the impact of the virus on surfaces in hospitals, schools, shopping centres or in trains and buses.

Meanwhile, the sector is also producing glass protective screens, which are typically more durable and easier to clean than plastic barriers, helping to prevent the spread of the virus where close proximity is unavoidable.

These two examples alone represent the new ways glass will make a difference in buildings going forward, and we’ll be harnessing these opportunities by the side of our customers and suppliers.

While it’s a great relief, the return of demand and restart of production are only two steps forward on the road to recovery. There are opportunities for supply and innovation in the months to come, but a lot of uncertainty remains on the UK’s way out of this crisis.

But we’ll be working alongside our team with new ways of working, and our current and new customers along the road ahead as we rebuild and adapt to the new era. And, above all, the health and safety of our team, our customers and our suppliers will always be our top priority.