After graduating with a master’s degree in engineering (specialising in materials science) in Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium), Marc Van Den Neste started his career in 1991 as a production engineer in the iron and steel company Cockerill Sambre, now in hands of ArcelorMittal. Nine years in this 24/7 heavy industry (like glass) shaped his sense of responsibility and leadership, and saw him move away from a vision of hierarchical management.
“In this environment, workers and foremen generally know more about production than young engineers. My role was to make normal people do great things in a team and not to give lessons,” explains Mr Van Den Neste.
From steel production to glass innovation
With the decline of the steel industry, he turned to glass and joined the Glaverbel Research & Development Centre (now AGC Technovation Centre) in 1999 as a researcher in the Melting and Refractories department. Moving from production to research in refractories reinforced his feeling of contribution. “In addition, I was also responsible for developing the activity of ceramic welding aimed at repairing furnaces of all industries. This is where my first contacts with clients come from, which gives you an incredible energy boost. Very exciting,” confides Mr Van Den Neste. He then became head of his department in 2001 before being appointed Director of the R&D Centre two years later. From 2009 to 2015 he was Vice-President, Chief Technology Officer, of AGC Glass Europe.
Marc Van Den Neste recalls three highlights during this period as European CTO. First, it coincided with a strong will to go further in innovation and in the value chain by creating new business models. “For this, with the support of our CEO Jean-François Heris, we tripled the R&D budget and launched a programme of innovative participation throughout the company,” explains Mr Van Den Neste.
Secondly, together with his Japanese counterpart, they strove to make research more global. “In a large group like ours, if we don’t use the critical mass to work on common projects, we just have the disadvantages of being big, which makes research slower, less efficient, more political, more complex and leads to internal competition and double developments. Hence we launched common strategic projects, proceeded with exchange of researchers, etc.”
Thirdly, AGC Glass Europe convinced its Japanese parent company to invest in a new European R&D Centre in Gosselies (Belgium) opened in 2014. “From our shareholder it was a mark of trust in our regional capacity to fully contribute to glass innovation and enhance value creation for the company,” claims Mr Van Den Neste.
Optimising research and development
The cornerstone of research at AGC is the brand new Yokohama Technical Centre (Japan) inaugurated on 24 June 2021. Employing around 1,500 staff, this facility integrates product and manufacturing technology development functions that were previously in separate locations. This R&D centre serves all AGC businesses. “Maybe to a lesser extent for the glass sector,” confides Mr Van Den Neste.
Indeed, the Building & Industrial Glass Company has its own network of R&D facilities to better serve its regional customers. Based on the company’s historical expansion, this network is mainly spread across facilities in Europe, with around 300 employees at the Technovation Centre in Gosselies, Belgium; a unit of around 20 Interpane employees at Lauenförde, Germany, specialising in coated products and coating equipment; 40 employees at the Yokohama Technical Centre; and around 20 employees dedicated to coatings in Abingdon, Virginia, USA.2
In order to optimise research at AGC, distinction is made between the concepts of ‘technological platform’ and ‘blockbuster’. “We select shared technological platforms (= one facility) on which we work in a globalised way and where 80% of the development is achieved,” explains Mr Van Den Neste, who uses coatings as an example. “The point is to use our critical mass and the remaining 20% is left to regional customisation.”
In contrast, the ‘blockbuster’ concept results from a top-down global innovation strategy, regardless of input from researchers or customers. “This is a radical innovation project, such as carbon neutral manufacturing, which may breakdown into multiple research projects and lead to new products, processes and new businesses,” states Mr Van Den Neste.
Being part of a large organisation has advantages in terms of R&D, especially in a diversified group such as AGC, the only glass corporation with activities in building, automotive, display and electronics. “We can exploit our critical mass and multiple areas of expertise for faster development,” says Mr Van Den Neste. “For example, we have taken advantage of 30 years of experience in automotive antennas to now transfer this technology to the building industry” [see further in article].
However, as developments become increasingly rapid and complex, it becomes impossible for a single company to reach the market with complete solutions. Hence the need to practise Open Innovation in partnership with customers, suppliers or even competitors.
“Our Fineo vacuum glazing, as insulating as a triple glazing but thin as a single one, results from a collaboration combining Panasonic’s expertise in display-related technology with our know-how in glass processing,” observes Mr Van Den Neste.
What about the correlation between research/innovation and financial performance of the company? This complex issue is constantly debated among CTOs with no real model for calculation, according to Marc Van Den Neste. “However, internally and with the help of defined rules, it is crucial to be able to quantify the impact of research that turns into innovation and success. As CTO, it’s my role to convince the management to engage as far as possible in innovation on a solid basis.”
Marc Van Den Neste believes that AGC owes its more than 110 years in the glass business to innovation. Without innovation, any company based on the sale of commodities is doomed to disappear. Innovation has also earned AGC technological leadership in different fields such as vacuum coatings and glass melting processes. Twenty years ago AGC used to develop a new coated glass every two or three years. “Now, thanks to realistic virtual prototyping, our Coating on Demand service allow architects to define, create and view their own tailor-made coated glass on screen under various weather conditions,” says Mr Van Den Neste. “This takes place in specific plants which produce a sample of their unique creation the very same day.”
Glass melting also benefits from AGC expertise in float for sectors ranging from building, automotive and display and on various advances the company has made, e.g. with its oxycombustion furnace and heat recovery system. “AGC has some of the most energy-efficient melting tools in the glass industry,” claims Mr Van Den Neste.
Unsurprisingly the most powerful driver for research now at AGC is sustainability. Marc Van Den Neste cites the example of the present carbon footprint of AGC glass operations in Europe which shows a ratio of 1:8. This means that for each tonne of CO2 emitted by AGC activities, eight tonnes of CO2 are avoided thanks to the use of its products. However, in line with the EU Green Deal [for the EU to eliminate or completely offset its greenhouse gas emissions by 2050], AGC’s commitment is to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and bring down the first part of the ratio from 1 to 0. No more CO2 emissions!
According to Mr Van Den Neste, energy-intensive glass manufacturing can achieve this in different ways. “Firstly through optimisation of our process, which we have been doing for long. Secondly, through electrifying with green power up to 50% of the process (a limit above which electrification can raise technical issues). Thirdly, by using green hydrogen combustion for the remaining 50% or so. A small amount of CO2 will remain from the decomposition of the carbonates releasing CO2. This can be treated by CO2 capture and storage techniques that already exist in Europe.”
Intense efforts will also have to be put into increasing the figure of 8, the second part of the ratio, through new high performance products. New buildings will not only have to be [consuming] zero energy but will also have to produce energy. To this end, Marc Van Den Neste strongly believes in energy-generating façade solutions which are increasingly efficient, affordable and aesthetically pleasing. In his view, glass with built-in PV cells should be widely used to cover the opaque parts of buildings: spandrels but also concrete walls, for example. Nowadays glass can be designed without the photovoltaic cells being visible to ensure there is no compromise on aesthetics.
“Based on real data, it has been demonstrated that some European cities could produce the amount of energy they need by equipping roofs with traditional PV panels and opaque facades with PV glass,” insists Mr Van Den Neste. Will the same thing ever happen with transparent glass (vision glazings)? “It’s underway,” he reveals, “and we will one day succeed in developing transparent glass capable of producing a large amount of energy at an affordable price. It seems indeed absurd to reflect solar energy through solar-control glass instead of converting this in power. But the opaque parts of large buildings, which represent about 30% of their surface, must first be made profitable.”
Another huge challenge to the EU’s carbon neutrality mission is the renovation of the building stock. The Green Deal practically implies speeding up the renovation rate from the current 1% to around 3% per year. This involves a large-scale approach aimed at industrialising renovation works by groups of buildings, districts or even cities. “We can no longer afford to renovate on a case by case basis with solutions which are expensive, complicated to implement, not flexible. Glassmakers must take advantage of this momentum to come up with industrialisable and high performance glass solutions, to co-ordinate partnerships in order to meet this enormous challenge,” adds Mr Van Den Neste.
Looking to the future
Next to sustainability, the other classic drivers for research remain to make glass a source of comfort, safety, appealing aesthetics, and communication through active glass.
Marc Ven Den Neste also points to a very topical issue: connectivity with the advent of 5G. With Waveattoch, AGC has developed transparent glass 4G/5G antennas to be installed indoors against the glazing. These antennas enhance network densification and improve urban coverage where extra capacity will be strongly needed. “They avoid any health issue due to their low power and do not spoil urban aesthetics while their deployment has no real technical, cost or legal limitations,” he insists. This solution is now being implemented in Japan with NTT Docomo.3 Wavethru is another development aimed at improving mobile coverage indoors also where 80% of mobile calls are made and received. Well-insulated spaces and high-frequency waves (such as 5G) are two major factors that attenuate indoor signal. By applying a laser de-coating treatment in places on existing windows on site, wave pass-through significantly improves without compromising the initial performance of the glazing.
When asked about his dream of radical innovation, Marc Van Den Neste says with a smile: “I take up my boss’s idea of 15 years ago, namely inventing a glass that photosynthesises and processes CO2 like nature does.”
* The ‘Building & Industrial’ division is set to be replaced by the ‘Architectural Glass’ division at AGC.
1 The AGC Group has four in-house companies which operate worldwide: Building & Industrial Glass, Automotive, Electronics and Chemicals. The first two companies form the glass segment which accounts for around 46% of AGC sales.
2 On 15 June 2021, AGC announced its decision to sell its architectural glass business in North America to Cardinal.
3 Japan’s largest telecommunications company.