Dispelling the Myths and Championing the Industry
By Tara Taffera
When Bill George, director of business planning at Pilkington North America, started there 22 years ago, he actually did think it would be a long-term commitment. That’s the kind of guy he is—always looking to the future. In fact, his job requires it. After all, he oversees business planning for all of North America for one of the largest glass companies in the world.
Pilkington Automotive Glass Replacement (AGR) provides original equipment manufactured (OEM) quality glass products to auto glass replacement professionals throughout the United States, with markets extending into Canada and Mexico. The glass is supplied to more than 120 company-owned service centers and 200 truckload customers from its distribution centers located in Columbus, Ohio and Phoenix, Arizona.
When we spoke in July, our conversation covered the gamut—no, there isn’t a warehouse somewhere loaded with Opti-Aim units waiting to be sold. Yes, he did see the ADAS technology coming and the company was preparing for it for years. But he didn’t see it coming at such a fast rate of adoption. Read on for the full interview.
AGRR: When you started at Pilkington 22 years ago did you think you would still be there today?
George: Yes. I joined with the expectation of being here as long as they would have me.
AGRR: Take us through a typical day for you, if there is such a thing.
George: My day is full of looking at business opportunities for the organization, and the direction we may go. This includes evaluating current business and looking at emerging markets.
AGRR: Let’s talk about Pilkington’s auto glass manufacturing capabilities. As glass becomes more advanced with all the new technology, how difficult has it been to keep up with advancing technologies and what changes have you had to make in your plants?
George: Yes, it has it been difficult. We have gone all the way from windshields having a mirror button to today having multiple cameras, lasers and sensors, etc. It’s been a huge and dramatic change. It has required us to really stay ahead of the technology. We have an opportunity to do this as we are bidding on all the original equipment (OE) work so we are looking out five to seven years so we can see it coming forward. The huge ramp-up has been over the past two and a half years and upcoming augmented reality windshields. So much has gone on we have had a lot of retooling in the plants and tighten our performance specifications to allow for the requirements of the vehicle manufacturers such as changing optical quality—this has been significant. Distortion in the glass can come from the fl oat and or quality of fabrication process—and it has to meet an ever-increasing optical specification. That requires really skilled bending techniques and advanced furnaces. In a typical highly capable furnace we may have hundreds of heating elements so we can accurately bend the glass. With the newer ADAS glass you have to almost double that. That is just the optical quality, let alone bending and shaping control. We have had to make significant adjustments and we are still changing as more technology is coming on—especially with augmented reality where the image is half the length of the windshield, etc.
AGRR: Did you ever think the industry would become so complicated? I mean, it used to be about removing and replacing glass, but now it’s about so many more things.
George: A little bit. We saw it coming but we didn’t see it coming nearly as fast as it has. The adoption and celebration of ADAS by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and the National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) and by government be-cause of potential to save lives, etc., has really accelerated this type of technology. Anti-lock brakes took ten years. This came out a few years ago and in Sept of 2022 the vehicle manufacturers have signed Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) that every vehicle will have forward collision alert and avoidance. That hockey stick sized ramp-up is what we didn’t anticipate. But we saw it coming as to what’s happening in Europe and other countries, etc. We never thought that inside of three years, we would be suddenly required to retool plants. I think it’s good for the industry. It adds value to what the installers do, and to what the distributors do. It brings value to the whole market.
AGRR: What does auto glass demand look like today in North America in terms of OE and aftermarket?
George: We don’t consider there to be a difference between OE and original equipment equivalent (OEE)—the original glass is exactly the same as our aftermarket glass. The difference is the logo in the glass. The ex-act same performance specs are in play. We may distinguish in terms of what is sold in the market but the glass itself is the same.
AGRR: Pilkington has its own distributors but you also sell to other distributors. Take me through your supply chain to market and why you chose that strategy.
George: We call them service centers which are small wholesale distribution locations. We also sell to resellers—the Mygrant’s, American down in Texas, etc. We also sell through our own channel. We chose that strategy because we are first and foremost a manufacturer and we want to bring as much high quality into the market and we see that as the best route.
AGRR: Although in some segments demand may be flat, is the value of glass higher due to all these technology advancements?
George: Yes the value-added con-tent of the glass in the market has gone up significantly—over one hundred percent. Back in the day it was a windshield and a moulding but we are double that now.
AGRR: Study after study shows that car -sharing will continue to increase and years from now a large percentage of customers won’t even own a car. How is Pilkington preparing for this major shift and how will this affect your business?
George: We are always looking for-ward in the market and preparing our business for what is coming.
AGRR: You led product development for the Opti-Aim system, which assists in the calibration of windshields. Are you where you thought you would be today in terms of sales and number of companies using Opti-Aim and performing calibrations?
George: Yes we have surpassed where we thought we would be and happy with where it is going. We are pleased to see how the industry has taken hold of calibration and it has far surpassed our expectations.
AGRR: I would like to give you a chance to dispel some myths out in the market about Opti-Aim. The first is that Opti-Aim can’t calibrate a lot of models.
George: That is definitely a myth. When we are looking at the vehicles that are out there and we start talking about not necessarily the number of different skews but amount of volume that gets installed, we calculate that we can cover 95 percent of that. We are not pining away to figure out calibration on a high-end Bentley as there are only a few in the U.S. But we have the ability to calibrate more than any other system—conservatively at 95 percent.
AGRR: The second myth is that there are 8,000 pieces of equipment in a warehouse waiting to be bought.
George: We do a good job of inventory management, and are exactly where we want to be in terms of sup-ply and demand. We have a great relationship with vendors, especially hardware. The value is in the soft-ware that is contained in that hard-ware and the training we provide. There is no reason to have a bunch of hardware units sitting around.
AGRR: The next myth is opposite to the previous one—that there is an 8-10 month waiting period.
George: No, but I wish the demand was that high. If someone calls me today, I can sell you a unit and get you scheduled for a training in a few weeks. When we launched in 2016 there was a wait list because we had so much demand. The bottle-neck was the training as we didn’t expect that much of a demand.
AGRR: I know you are giving a seminar at Auto Glass Week about OEM and aftermarket glass and how it affects calibration. Can you give us a preview of that presentation?
George: Our message is—forget all the labels. Is the glass specification exactly the same or is it not? Are you putting the exact same glass in? We try to break that down. Does the glass permit infrared light to pass at the 405 nm range? If yes, then in that spec you have the ex-act same as OE. Some of the lidar systems that are out there use an infrared laser and that is focused in that range.
Then we will get into the calibration part and address some of the myths like: I didn’t touch the camera so I won’t be liable. What you may not realize is that you may have changed the position of the lens. My message to the installers is if you aren’t calibrating you need to get on this. We are super concerned about the safety of what is going on. We have done so well up to this point and it’s a shame to see that we would not force ourselves to under-stand that this is our opportunity.
AGRR: What has been the biggest challenge with Opti-Aim and the biggest success?
George: The challenge was really for us coming to grips with what we were going to need to do when we started to understand calibration. We started seeing it in new models five years out. We were doing all the analysis and understanding that we were under an obligation to provide an alternative to the marketplace.
We looked at what we needed to do to be the type of company that provides a solution so the industry can move forward as it has been. Getting it off the ground and implementing the solution took us three and a half years. From when we decided to do it then fast forward to 2016 to when we launched at Auto Glass Week. The biggest success is realizing we created an easy to use product that is full featured.
I love seeing customers being trained. You are watching entrepreneurs learning so they can provide for their families. You can see it and it’s really special. You are in the midst of watching the market adapt to a really challenging situation. This is a massive challenge, and we have the ability to help our customers to adapt and provide a solution.
TARA TAFFERA is the editorial director for AGRR magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com. Taffera is the winner of several journalism awards including the prestigious Jesse Neal Awards dubbed “the Pulitzer prize of business journalism,” and from the America Society of Business Publication Editors.
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