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Ohio glass industry looks to regain form through innovation, diversification

 O-I’s new Vortex bottle is debuting in North America with MillerCoors’ Miller Lite beers.
O-I’s new Vortex bottle is debuting in North America with MillerCoors’ Miller Lite beers.

Through much of the 20th Century, Ohio built a reputation as the world's glassmaker. Offering cheap resources and nearly free natural gas energy, it once lured east coast glassmakers to the state in droves and became a dominant world player by riding the demand of the nearby auto industry.

For the last decade, though, things have not been so rosy. Threatened by a flagging economy and foreign competition, that reputation has developed a crack.

"Unfortunately, the strongest part of the industry in Ohio, production for new construction, was the hardest hit," says Avery Fromet, chapter administrator for the Ohio Glass Association. "There are no hard-and-fast statistics to point to, but in talking to our members, it will be a long time until we return to the levels of 3-4 years ago, if ever," he says. "Most of our members are tied to construction, so as it goes, we do."

Having also suffered the shared woes of the auto industry, Ohio's glass industry surrendered its top position to foreign firms, especially in China, which subsidizes its glass production. Where Toledo was once called "Glass City," the southern China city of Shenzhen now holds the title, fueled by huge subsidies, cheaper labor and even cheaper energy costs.

While cracks may be evident, Ohio's glass reputation hasn't shattered. And many are looking for better times ahead by diversifying into new areas and making innovation a key focus.

"The glass industry has weathered globalization better than steel and other industries," says University of Findlay Professor Quentin R. Skrabec. "Where those industries are largely gone, innovation has kept the glass industry's head above water."

The state still has a substantial glassmaking community, anchored by concentrations of large companies in central and northwest Ohio that have turned to innovation and diversification to survive. From newer glassmaking technologies, to new products and new markets, Ohio glassmakers are finding new niches.

In central Ohio, for example, glassmaking giant Anchor-Hocking Glass Corp. is depending on the diversity of its production — from light covers to parking meter glass and candle holders — to weather the times.

In the state's northwestern corner, renowned bottle-maker Owens-Illinois Inc. has stepped up investments into research and development for new and lighter bottle designs to keep their market share, while a cache of new firms have focused their attention on glass solar panels.

Anchor-Hocking, located in Lancaster, is known for tableware and baking dishes. In fact, only about half of the factory's production is used for those products. The other half, says Kevin Wellendorf, the company's director of retail marketing, is direct-sales of products to other firms. Their glass is used in a wide range of products that never bear the company's name.

"We make light covers, glass for parking meters, nearly every major candlemaker you see in the stores, we've made the glass jars their candles come in," he says.

Having produced glass at the Lancaster site for more than 100 years, the company has depended on diverse product lines. At the plant, where they churn out 32 to 35 million pieces of glass annually, running day and night, they also feature as many as 13 different glass-making processes to accommodate the diverse product line. Most glass factories have only a handful.

"We've been manufacturing glass on these grounds since 1905, and we have a strong heritage of surviving the ups and downs in the market," adds Wellendorf. "With that, we learned along the way that the best way to survive the down times is to produce a wide array of products. Innovation is key, too, especially in today's world. If you're not making technological improvements, you're falling behind."

In northwest Ohio, glassmakers also have taken innovation to heart.

Following the slump in automotive glass, the area has become home to a high concentration of companies applying the same flat-glass techniques and products to solar panels. Led by the largest (and first) solar panel firm in the area, FirstSolar, other firms like Xunlight Corp. — founded by University of Toledo physics professor Xunming Deng — and the energy-veteran backed Willard & Kelsey Solar Group have spearheaded more than 5,000 new jobs in the industry along the Maumee River 20 minutes south of Toledo.

With Findlay only a stone's throw from that area, Skrabec, who has authored a pair of books on the Buckeye State's glass heritage, has watched the development with interest.

"Initially, it was the glass industry that drew them to the area," he says. "Those entrepreneurs largely started in the glass industry, and then they started looking at this new technology."

While their innovation is beginning to pay off, they have a way to go to challenge on the world stage, he points out. More than 50 percent of the world's solar panels are produced in China — again, because of cheaper production costs.

"Both China and Germany are still bigger players in the solar panel market, and both are subsidized by their governments," he adds. "Now, the U.S. government has started putting money into it. There's no question (that is) helping, but we have a way to go to be able to challenge either on the world market."

Not far away along the Maumee's banks, Fortune 500 staple Owens-Illinois resides. The company, the successor to the Owens Bottle Co. founded in 1903 by innovators Michael Owens and Edward Libbey, has a long history of innovation. It was Owens who developed the first automated bottle-making machine that pushed the company into a dominant global profile — almost half of the world's glass containers are made by O-I, its affiliates or licensees. With 80 plants in 22 countries around the globe, it's North America headquarters is still in Perrysburg.

And it's from that location and another in Zanesville, in southeast Ohio, that innovation continues.

The company expects to invest $40 million in research and development this year, says External Communications Manager Stephanie Johnston. From the new Vortex beer bottle to new, lighter wine bottles and stronger glass technologies, the company has continued to see the value of innovation.

"The glass industry, especially the glass container market continues to grow, contrary to what a lot of people think. There are new markets opening all the time. We think innovation creates opportunity, and that's why we invest so much into research and development," Johnston says. "The products we have out on the market now underscores that commitment."

She adds that, with its roots so entrenched in Ohio, the company is committed to remaining a world player from the banks of the Maumee.

"Our history and our roots are here, and we're proud to be in Ohio. That's not changing anytime soon," she says.

Along with other glass companies, including fiberglass producers Owens Corning (located in Toledo) and Johns Manville (Waterville and Defiance), and flat-glass producer Pilkington North America (Toledo), Ohio is still depending on glass as a large segment of the economy. The state also remains attractive to outside glass producers. Earlier this summer, Montreal-based Serigraphie Richford Inc. announced plans to open a plant in Lancaster. The firm, which specializes in "glass printing," frosting and etching specialty bottles for Jack Daniels, Smirnoff vodka and other products, expects to bring a $10-million investment to revive an unused factory and add an initial 100 jobs.

Anchor-Hocking's Wellendorf believes the outlook for Ohio glass is encouraging. So much so, that Anchor Hocking — so much a part of the state's past in glass — wants to be part of its future, as well.

"We're looking at the future 100 years, not the past 100, and we plan to stay in Ohio," he says.

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