Owens-Illinois Inc. believes the work being done inside its new Innovation Center could define not just the future of its own company, but the entire glass bottling industry.
“We do not think that we are going too far when we say that this Innovation Center has the potential to do for glass production what Henry Ford did for the automotive industry,” CEO Al Stroucken said.
Owens-Illinois spent $35 million to build the Innovation Center, which opened in September. Mr. Stroucken made his bold comments Friday as the company invited select customers, business partners, political leaders, and media to view the facility.
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The Innovation Center is essentially a miniaturized glass factory that gives the company the ability to test new products and revolutionary new glassmaking processes.
Just a few paces from O-I’s laboratory at its world headquarters in Perrysburg, the complex gives the company research and development opportunities that it has never before had.
While there has always been innovation in glass, Mr. Stroucken said the industry has been too complacent. O-I has stepped up research and development investment in recent years, culminating with the Innovation Center.
“While costs are naturally a very important part of the packaging industry, we think that innovation is even more critical,” Mr. Stroucken said. “For too many years, the glass industry traveled steadily in the right lane while other industries innovated their way into the passing lane. Our new Innovation Center is going to change that.”
The center has everything found in a traditional glass factory, including a 20-ton furnace that melts glass at temperatures in excess of 2,500 degrees. The technology allows for expanded prototyping and better testing, and it should open the door to more product development.
“It unleashes the creativity out of the team, plus — and maybe as important as that — it brings all the functions together,” said Ludovic Valette, O-I’s vice president of research and development.
Mr. Valette said the center should also help O-I more bring new products to market more quickly.
Previously, O-I had to pause a production line in one of its manufacturing plants to run prototype tests, a process that was time consuming and costly. Now that can be done in the Innovation Center. What once took weeks can be done in a matter of hours.
Already, more than 40 new prototype bottles have been developed for customers and for internal research.
In glass, small things can make a big difference for customers, from color that affects ultraviolet light penetration to coatings that can make jars or bottles easier to open without reducing the seal quality.
Inside the lab, O-I showed off a device that mechanically pours liquid from a bottle and measures the flow pattern. The results can help O-I’s engineers develop bottles more suited to their usage.
For example, a regular brewer might want a smoother pour for its beer, while a craft beer maker wants the pour to result in a thick, frothy head.
To be sure, glass is a very old industry, one that goes back thousands of years.
Mr. Valette said today glass is thought of as a mature industry, on the plateau of development.
Owens-Illinois thinks it can elevate that plateau.
“Think about some industries that have been revolutionized,” Mr. Valette said, pausing to pull a smart phone out of his pants pocket. “Fifteen years ago one would not have thought about these kinds of things. How could you have Internet access to the world in your pocket?”
“We are truly doing the same with glass.”
Mr. Valette couldn’t give specifics on what the company is doing, but said O-I’s work will revolutionize the way glass is produced, processed, and the way a container looks. Officials say the center has new-to-the-world equipment that was off-limits on Friday’s tours.
“I believe this Innovation Center will ultimately shape not only the future of O-I but the future of the glass industry,” he said.