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Within the walls of its Plant 21 Technology Center, Pilkington North America Inc. uses an array of mostly "miniaturized" factory equipment and environmental testing chambers to develop glass products that may eventually coat skyscrapers worldwide, form car windshields, or even outfit oven doors.
Testing goes on outside as well. Sections of building glass in various colors, clarity, and reflectivity are found on one side of the Northwood center, giving engineers an idea of how well products will perform in the elements.
And those products - such as an anti-reflective glass Pilkington plans to introduce this fall for use in high-end retail stores and a new energy-efficient reflective glass selling well worldwide - are providing rays of hope for the Toledo-based company's recently restructured building products division as the U.S. economy improves.
The division, focused on commercial glass, finished a restructuring more than a year ago that improved efficiency at its three out-of-state plants and made other cost-cutting moves, such as decreasing overall employment from about 850 to 670.
Nearly 15 corporate positions were trimmed in Toledo, but Laurie Kruger, who took over as president of the division 18 months ago, halted plans to move the building products division to North Carolina.
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That move didn't make sense considering the talent the division had in Toledo, Mr. Kruger said. Managers went over every expense to see where cuts could be made, he said.
"If you have a competitive cost base, it allows you to profitably compete," he said.
It also made sense, he said, not to alter employment much at the Northwood technology center, where Pilkington's local research and development efforts were consolidated a few years ago.
About 100 people work at Plant 21, one of two main technology centers run by Britain's Pilkington PLC. When Pilkington bought the former Libbey-Owens-Ford Co. nearly 20 years ago, the glassmaker decided to keep in Toledo development efforts both for auto glass and for coatings added to glass in its molten state, said Stephen Weidner, vice president of sales and marketing for North American building products.
Plant 21 has a furnace to bend and temper windshields and other auto windows, as well as other equipment needed to make prototypes and finish them with the necessary fixtures, such as frames complete with openings for wipers.
Pilkington engineers are given specifications for cars and trucks years in advance of their introduction so they can develop the windows, which now are typically bent in more than one direction and cover larger portions of vehicles in order to save on weight, officials said.
The technology center has machinery to help test coatings for commercial glass, such as the upcoming anti-reflective glass Mr. Weidner envisions on Porsche dealerships, jewelry stores, and other retail settings to allow customers to better look at merchandise, not their reflections. The product was developed and patented by a team led by David Strickler, whose name is on a dozen of the patents awarded to Pilkington employees, and is being made at Pilkington's Illinois plant.
One recent product developed in Northwood and sold worldwide is an improved transparent mirror used by security officials in stores and other places where one-way observation is needed. Another is an energy-efficient reflective glass, called Eclipse Advantage, which continues to control thermal heat from the outside while letting in more light than past products.
While the U.S. economy improves, Pilkington North America has bolstered sales in international markets: Eclipse Advantage is selling well, for example, in China and the Middle East.
"I tell you, China's just booming," Mr. Weidner said. "It's amazing the amount of construction going on. There's like a Toledo going up every week."
Contact Julie M. McKinnon at: