The Lancashire village at the heart of global glass innovation

Shirley Sergeant, R&D director for Europe at the NSG Group, parent company of Pilkington UK, reflects on 60 years of innovation at the company’s facility in Lancashire.

St Helens is a Merseyside town known for its industrial heritage. It’s where almost 70 years ago we pioneered the modern float glass process that’s used to this day around the world.

And fittingly, it’s where we recently completed the world’s first trial using hydrogen in a glass furnace, kickstarting a new chapter of decarbonisation in the industry.

But eight miles up the road, few will know of the sleepy West Lancashire civil parish of Lathom.

The village, with fewer than 1,000 residents, is home to our European Technical Centre, which has researched and developed some of the world’s biggest innovations in glass technology – and continues to do so today.

As the facility marks 60 years in operation, what has it given to the world of glass, and what exciting new glass applications is it looking to next?

R&D at Lathom covers a wide range of activities, from developing new functional glass and glazing systems and photovoltaic glass substrates, to testing our range of fire-resistant glass.

The Lathom centre itself has delivered product innovations such as Pilkington Activ self-cleaning glass and, more recently, Pilkington SaniTise – glass with an antimicrobial coating.

Other examples include Pilkington Sundym Select, which uses Suspended Particle Device (SPD) technology for push-button glass-tint control automotive roof systems, and the world’s first head-up Display powered by augmented reality (AR).

Many of the technological breakthroughs at Lathom are down to collaboration.

The facility, and its innovation incubator, is a base where we can collaborate with any partner, from new tech start-ups, to larger businesses in other industries, to universities.

For example, our Lathom team is working on ground-breaking glass applications with the University of Cambridge’s Fluids in Advanced Manufacturing team (FIAM), to establish a way of printing conductive materials onto wide areas of curved glass surfaces.

This research could introduce new glass applications including pollution detection, incorporating heating elements or digital signage.

The innovation incubator at Lathom is something of a crystal ball for the glass industry.

Technological breakthroughs start with our Lathom team identifying what the long-term needs of the company may be in terms of technologies, and how these could give rise to new value-added products that take us into new markets.

Opportunities in the future tend to be outside of our current markets, which is why we collaborate with third parties to find those early-stage innovations that we should be thinking about.

That could be anything from new horticultural applications for glass, to glass that can be a canvas for overlaying electronics and sensors, so that the glass is transformed into a high value device in its own right. We look at a huge range of potential innovations, all with the future world in mind.

Six decades ago, few will have predicted the vast capabilities of advanced glass products on the market today.

And with glass being such a versatile material, there are still countless new opportunities for it to solve modern challenges, especially as the world responds to today’s tipping point for climate change.

Centres like our European Technical Centre in Lathom will be at the forefront of delivering these exciting innovations that will result in positive change for the built environment, while introducing new and helpful products making our everyday lives that bit easier.