The UK glass industry is continuously evolving and improving its products to meet the demands of the tomorrow’s world and future markets.
The UK’s proud heritage in innovative glass technology provides the strong foundation from which we are now developing novel glass compositions and treatments for high-tech applications in fields such as medicine and dentistry, photonics and power generation.
Meanwhile, manufacture of mainstream products continues to underpin the UK’s supply chain in the food, beverages, cosmetics, pharmaceutical, construction and automotive sectors.
We support manufacturers, and their supply chain, across the full range of glass products, including:
- flat glass – including glazing for buildings and vehicles
- container glass – bottles and jars
- glass fibre – used for reinforcement and insulation
- scientific hollow glass – such as tubing and vials
- photonic components – optical technology used in systems for navigation, satellite communication and more
- glass beads – used in, for example, reflective paint, wet and dry blast cleaning and water filtration
- domestic glassware – such as tumblers, jugs and vases.
Flat glass is everywhere, from windscreens to touchscreens, furniture to building facades. It was once made by blowing cylinders of glass, which were then sliced open and cut into small panes. In the 1950s Sir Alistair Pilkington developed the float process, forming a continuous ribbon of glass on a bath of molten tin. In the early 1960s the world’s first purpose-built float line began operations at Pilkington’s in St Helens in Merseyside.
Today, high performance coatings are continually improving the thermal efficiency of glass, in turn reducing the energy needed to heat or cool homes and businesses. And the continuous improvement of glass manufacturing, as well as toughening and laminating techniques, is reducing the weight of glass in planes, trains and vehicles – saving fuel and cutting CO2 emissions.
Container glass – usually bottles and jars – is an ideal packaging material. Because glass is non-toxic and forms and impermeable barrier it keeps food fresh and tasting its best. Glass is also 100% recyclable – it can be melted and made into new containers again and again with no loss quality or performance.
Until the late 19th century glass containers were blown by hand. The first fully automated bottle machine was developed in America by Michael Owens (of Owens-Illinois); the machine was trialled in Manchester, UK and proved capable of making 2,500 bottles an hour. Now modern IS (independent section) machines can make 36,000 bottles or jars an hour. And thanks to increasingly precise control of the manufacturing process, today’s glass containers are approximately 40% lighter than they were 30 years ago. This saves materials and fuel and reduces CO2 emissions throughout the supply chain.
Glass fibre is drawn as a thread from molten glass. In continuous fine filament form it is used to strengthen materials such as plastics, and used for everything from cars to wind turbine blades to mobile phone casings. In its glass wool form, made by spinning the glass through holes in a rotating drum, it is used for heat and sound insulation in buildings, vehicles and domestic appliances.
Today, glass fibre fine enough to be woven or knitted is used to make fabrics for applications such as fire retardant clothing, printed circuit boards, architectural canopies and acoustic curtains that absorb sound.
In the UK continuous glass fibre is produced by Electric Glass Fibre (UK) Ltd. Glass wool is made by Rockwool Insulation, Knauf Glass Fibre and Superglass.
Scientific hollow glass
Scientific hollow glass such as tubing and vials plays an important role in the scientific and industrial sectors: from medical tubing the width of a hair, to industrial tubing for lighting and electronics applications. Today, most is made using a machine that controls the flow of the glass melt through an orifice partially blocked by blowpipe in the centre; flow around the blowpipe produces a hollow rod whenever air is forced down the pipe.
In the UK, Plowden & Thompson produce a range of bespoke glass tubing for a variety of applications. Other major international producers include Schott AG, Gerresheimer (Germany) and Corning Inc (USA).
Photonics – the science of generating, controlling, and detecting particles of light (photons) – will be the foundation of 21st century technology to the extent that the 20th century depended on electronics. Glass substrates and fibres, as well as crystal components, are critical to many photonics applications.
Photonics exploits a wide variety of wavelengths, from gamma rays to radio, including X-rays, UV and infrared light – and this technology underpins daily life. We rely on it for telecommunications (internet), consumer electronics (DVD players, remote controls, barcode scanners), health (eye surgery, medical instruments), security (infrared cameras, remote sensing) and manufacturing (laser cutting and machining).
Precisely controlling the thermal and optical qualities of these glasses is crucial – and glass technologists are continually developing specialist glasses for new applications.
VitriTech Ltd develops specialist glass for precisions photonics products.
Glass beads are used to make reflective road marking paint so it can be seen at night. It’s also used for wet and dry blast cleaning, finishing metallic components and water filtration.
Domestic glassware includes household glass such as tumblers, stemware, dishes, jugs and vases. This type of glassware was often made by hand, using glass blowing techniques, until the Westlake machine was developed in the twentieth century, originally producing light bulbs. Machine-made domestic glassware has not been made in the UK since the 1990s, when the trading conditions were stacked in favour of cheaper imported goods and both UK producers went out of business within weeks of each other.
However, hand-made domestic glass from the UK and Ireland – particularly crystal – is still world-renowned. Names such as Dartington Crystal, Cumbria Crystal, Tudor Crystal and Waterford – synonymous with quality and luxury – are thriving.