Glass is a supremely useful product, but to a layman the full extent of its benefits may not be immediately transparent. Perth-based Spectraglass has been delivering innovative applications for more than 30 years, as Gordon Dow explains.
When was Spectraglass formed?
I set the business up in 1983, and it is still a family-owned enterprise. I had been working in the industry previously, and knew customers in the US, Canada and Mexico, so we had a customer base from day one. Today we supply glass to customers in 79 countries, supporting everything from scientific research to heavy industry.
What does Spectraglass produce?
Glass is an incredibly versatile product and its qualities make it suitable for a vast range of applications. We don’t manufacture glass here, instead we buy in either tubular or sheet glass and then process it for multiple products in three key markets; instruments, industry and architectural.
Glass has many qualities and we can manage to deliver a specific benefit that reflects the qualities essential for the customer’s application. It might be an ability to show true colour, or resistance to chemical corrosion or high temperatures. Resistance to thermal shock is another attribute, as is UV protection, light transmission efficiency (for monitors or instruments) or the ability to absorb x-ray radiation.
Glass can also be used to diffuse light, as a method of fire protection, or as a shatterproof safety panel. It can be mirrored, coloured for navigation signals or manufactured to resist extreme pressure underwater. We can provide a product to match any of those requirements.
So how does the company add that value?
We cut, grind, toughen and finish products to meet the high quality standards required by our customers. We employ about 40 staff here and are essentially partners for the manufacturers – companies like Pilkington, Schott or Thorn, which is part of the Zumtobel Group.
Architectural applications are a rapidly growing market, and in that arena we work with the architects, developers or engineers, providing the glass required for the solutions they’ve specified – everything from decking to doors. My son, Sandy, is our development director and he works closely with key clients to build innovation in the business.
Why was the business established in Perth?
Historically, Perth was a centre for the railway industry and this was a service and repair hub for many years. The local glass industry evolved, in part, to service a demand for gauges and other dials. At one time six companies were based here. Today, we’re the only company of our kind in Scotland and we have only one competitor in the UK.
Has your location been a benefit?
Our customers are international and the annual trade show for the industry is in Dusseldorf, so Perth’s national and international connectivity are great assets. We have one customer in Glasgow, which produces lighting for the oil industry, and we deliver directly to them, by road, in under an hour. We import mica from India, via the port at Grangemouth, which also supports the delivery of much of our raw materials, as glass can be heavy.
We import much of our initial tubular glass from China, and we have a partnership with the University of Beijing’s Building Sciences Department. They have a small furnace that produces Aluminosilicate, a glass that is resistant to thermal shocks, which is also useful in high temperature environments where normal glass would quickly corrode. We have a monthly shipment that comes in from them.
Initially, however, we set up here as this was already my family home and the area offers a great quality of life. We were also able to start with a core staff of skilled people, some of whom are still with us today.
Over the years we’ve been given great support by the Council, MPs and Scottish Enterprise, which has helped us expand. Today, more than 60% of our production goes for export.
What is the most unusual product you’ve produced?
We produce so many bespoke items, especially for exhibitions and special events. We produced the BBC Mastermind Trophy for fifteen years. But, probably the product that gets the biggest reaction is the Olympic lamp. It crosses the world every four years, transported on commercial flights, but it’s illegal for a naked flame to be carried on an aircraft. So, we produce the glass that encloses the flame and enables it to keep burning as it goes on its journey! It’s a bit like a Davey lamp, which used to be used to detect methane in mines.
How is the business structured?
We have agents in the Far East; in Japan, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia; an
agent in Vienna and one in West Texas. We also work with distributors in the Egypt and the Persian basin, one in Alberta and another in Odessa, in the US, and a third in St Louis/Kansas City.
However, much of our business is supplying other businesses, for example we provided the glass used for the lighting at Terminal 5, and will be providing the glass to be used on the pedestrian footway lighting on the new Forth Crossing.
How is the business evolving?
We have more than 20 standard products across our three core sectors of instruments, industrial and architectural. Our turnover is around £2.5m annually and we have just opened a £1m extension to our factory here in Perth, to help us with the expanding order book. It has given us space to reorganise the factory set up, to become more efficient.
What is on the horizon?
Architectural products are a key growth area. Another developing market is the growing popularity of wood-burning stoves in the UK. The doors use a transparent ceramic as the ‘glass’, which will ultimately crack due to the temperatures involved. We’re looking at setting up a regular product line that supplies replacements, sold direct to the public. That will be a first for us.
But every day brings a fresh challenge. Recently, we’ve been exploring the option, for some applications, of using lasers available at St Andrews or Dundee universities. And we’re proud to be the manufacturers’ go-to supplier whenever they get new opportunities. It’s a global market, so there’s always some innovation to respond to.