We tend to look right through it, but glass is a versatile and durable material that has shaped our lives and environments for centuries. How many sectors rely on it?
From the windows that let in light but not the wind, to our cups of water and smooth smartphone screens, glass plays many pivotal roles in our daily life. The material starts life as silica sand, usually being mixed with soda ash and limestone at high temperatures to be moulded into the desired shape. The exact ingredients and methods matter: glass products were some of the earliest subjects of formal patents.
The glass manufacturing market was estimated at US$178.81b in 2022 and is forecast to grow at a compound annual rate of 5.8% to US$312.74b in 2032. Nearly half of the demand is for glass containers, widely used for food, beverage, medical and cosmetic products. How the glass interacts with moisture, temperature and the fact it can be sterilised are important features, not to mention its transparency giving a preview of any contents.
Glass is also attractive for packaging because it’s easily recyclable and is non-toxic. O-I Glass ($OI) moved away from its original plastic packaging business in 2007 to focus on glass, with clients like Coca-Cola ($KO), Anheuser Busch ($BUD) and Kraft Heinz ($KHC). Others find the renewable nature of glass to be rather rose-coloured; Amcor ($AMCR) has noted that its production process has relatively high carbon emissions.
Advances in technology have led to larger sheets and stronger types, enabling glass to cover skyscrapers and, as is the focus of Apogee Enterprises ($APOG), to shield storefronts or prized artworks. Keeping the heat in or out is another common concern, as consumers consider whether the costs of high-end architectural glass from the likes of Technoglass ($TGLS) can later be offset by energy savings.
However, visions of smart glass have started to show cracks. A company called View ($VIEW) promised auto-adjusting tinted windows that could also serve as big screens, but this largely resulted in shattered dreams rather than raising the ceiling for the industry.
Some growth areas for glass might be slightly out of the obvious lines of sight: fibreglass and solar panels are expected to be demand drivers in the coming years. Electronics is another segment with positive prospects, with particularly strong demand for scratch-resistant layers for smartphones, tablets and laptops.
The precursor of the ‘Gorilla Glass’ used in all of Apple’s ($AAPL) products was accidentally discovered by a chemist at a Corning ($GLW) lab. The company was slow to commercialise this innovation due to fears of cannibalising their existing Pyrex brand, and it was used in car windscreens, safety glasses and planes before becoming the face of the first iPhone.
Glass can give us a clear view of the world, or be the ‘black mirror’ that only reflects us when we disconnect from our devices. Similarly, how you see its prospects is up to you.