The future of IGU supply

IGU supply proved one of the biggest challenges for the industry’s return to work following the coronavirus pandemic. Mark Norcliffe, Cornwall Glass Manufacturing’s joint manufacturing director, talks to Glass Times about what he believes lies ahead.

Glass supply became one of the industry’s biggest stumbling blocks coming out of lockdown with IGUs distinctly thin on the ground and installers unable to complete and get paid for jobs. This, plus the consolidation that was already happening in glass supply pre-Covid-19, arguably puts a question mark over the future stability of the sector, according to some.

“The end of this year, into 2021, is going to be tough, but I do believe that there will be opportunities out there for businesses that are adaptable and can offer their customers not only the products that they want but underpin that with stability of supply,” Mark Norcliffe, joint-managing director of Cornwall Glass Manufacturing, said.

Cornwall Glass Manufacturing, in common with much of the industry, shut its doors with the start of lockdown in March. It returned, however, to a limited restart at the end of April, building capacity in line with demand throughout May.

“We were talking to customers everyday throughout the lockdown period,” Mark said. “We knew that the demand was there, and we had a very strong pre-existing order-book. The challenge was in getting resourcing right to meet it and managing the costs of doing so very carefully.

“You don’t just flick a switch and your glass operation comes back on. There is massive cost associated with restarting operations. That was what every IGU manufacturer was trying to balance and why many remained closed well into May.”

Cornwall Glass Manufacturing was able to move forward during this period with a higher degree of confidence with “an exceptionally strong order book” pre-lockdown, giving it an indication of future demand.

“In addition to supply of standard units, we have taken a strategic decision to focus on higher value products, large and over-sized units, solar control – product going into the higher end aluminium residential and light commercial markets,” Mark said.” That demand was there throughout lockdown. It didn’t go away.

“Every one of our customers that I spoke to during the lockdown period was either trying to get jobs completed or seeing new demand for those higher value products. The exception were the PVCU guys who had to contend with the challenge of working in other people’s homes.”

Cornwall Glass is fully geared to high volume IGU fabrication, with manufacturing facilities in St Austell, Highbridge and Plymouth.

The latter provides the foundation for the manufacture of super-sized units, which includes automated concertina racks and gantry crane, and Intermac cutting tables, process cutting laminated jumbos in as little as 15 minutes.

The site also features a Northglass Gapless Series toughening furnace capable of handling sheets of 2,850mm x 4,200mm. Its Bystronic IGU line is meanwhile capable of handling units of up to 2.7m x 5m.

“I really don’t see the market for those higher value residential products, light commercial work, drying up,” Mark said. “If you’re suppling glass into very big commercial projects, things may well be changing but we never did. Our markets remain resilient and our customers have a high degree of optimism about the future.”

He said this included high-volume demand for single sheet processed glass, with customers seeing enquiries from the retail and hospitality sectors. Specific to the south west, Mark added that a number of its customers had reported increased residential demand.

“We have a lot of second homes down in the south west, and it appears their owners have taken the opportunity that lockdown has given them to plan renovations, either as part of their maintenance programmes or relocation plans,” he said.

“That makes me very positive about the longer term. We’re going to see more of what we have all become very familiar with over the last couple of months, and that’s cost control.

“Will there be consolidation in IGU supply? I think probably yes. The supply of standard IGUs remains highly competitive.

“In those markets where we have applied particular focus – over-sized, and high value products, for example solar control, security, acoustic glass – I simply don’t see significant change.”