Saint-Gobain traces its glass industry roots back to the 17th Century and the reign of French monarch Louis XIV, whose ‘Royal Factory’ of mirror glass took its name from the small village in the north eastern part of the kingdom where it was situated: Saint-Gobain. Headquartered today in Paris, the Saint-Gobain Group has an empire of its own, extending to 70 countries and over 170,000 employees who design, manufacture and distribute materials and solutions for buildings, transportation, infrastructure and industrial applications.
Jérome Lionet joined Saint-Gobain’s Abrasives business in 2001 and worked in different positions in strategy, marketing and general management for more than 10 years. He moved to the group’s glass business at the end of 2011 and until 2015 was the General Manager for South Eastern Europe, a region covered by a float plant in Romania. Jérome is now General Manager of Glass Industry and Industrial Director of primary and transformed products at Saint-Gobain Flat Glass.
“I am an engineer” says Mr Lionet, who graduated in France and holds master degrees in industrial engineering and fluid mechanics. “My engineering background and specialist engineering degree is extremely useful to be able to understand what is happening in the plants where the processes involve both sophisticated scientific and technical aspects."
“Since 2015, I have held a position with ‘two hats’ as both the General Manager of flat glass operations in Europe, whether it be float, coated, laminated etc – the upstream part of the activity; plus I am also the Industrial Director for the glass business worldwide” he explains.
In Europe, Jérome Lionet supervises 13 float plants: Aniche, Chantereine, Salaise sur Sanne (Eurofloat) in France; four in Germany: Torgau, Porz, Stolberg and Herzogenrath; at Eggborough in the UK; Dabrowa in Poland; Calarasi in Romania; Pisa in Italy; Arbos in Spain; and Ain el Sokna in Egypt.
Saint-Gobain Flat Glass also has nine coaters, a number of lamination lines, mirror lines and cutting lines for architectural and automotive glass.
“Our market position is number one in Europe and number two in the world and we have been growing our position over the years” says Mr Lionet. “We also have a very strong position with our colleagues in automotive glass” he adds (one out of two European cars is equipped with automotive glazing from Saint-Gobain Sekurit).
“I always wished to join an international industrial company like Saint-Gobain” Mr Lionet confides. “I oversee the plants outside Europe from an industrial policy point of view, such as all the global functions surrounding engineering and technical direction.” His responsibilities also include being in charge of strategic projects – for example building a new float, cold repairing a float or investing in a new coater. “I oversee the global teams that are managing those projects and global standards” he says.
Discussing the challenge of managing plants in a multi-national, multi-cultural organisation, Mr Lionet explains how “the exposure to such diversity of people, experiences, culture and backgrounds requires an awareness; it is a challenge and I have learned over the years that we should never take for granted the cultural differences.” There is ‘constant discovery’ but ‘being exposed to such a level of diversity is a very positive thing’ he believes. “I am exposed to diversity not only in terms of culture but also businesses throughout the whole international Saint-Gobain group” he continues. “Capturing and transferring the best (knowhow) throughout our operations is a big part of my activity and that of central management. To recognise that a plant is making progress thanks to a local initiative in terms of a process or organisation, for example and being able to transfer that to other plants.”
Besides infrastructure that is common to all plants, such as industrial IT, Saint-Gobain is developing best practices and standards “that we try to apply everywhere in terms of process control and knowledge” says Jérome Lionet. “We exchange the knowhow and expertise across all our plants worldwide.”
The value of knowhow
While technical business, machinery and automation are very important at Saint-Gobain Flat Glass, the quality of the workforce is fundamental, Mr Lionet stresses. “It’s a business that is based on knowhow” he states. “Even if we standardise best practices, the knowhow of our team is extremely important. Over the years, we have been investing in specific glass training knowledge for our teams, not only at management level but to all operators throughout the world being trained on glass practices every month on a permanent basis. The higher you go in hierarchy, we also have technical training programmes on a global level for float line managers and plant directors that are deeper in terms of science and technology."
“In addition to using the science and techniques gained from our R&D knowledge, we feed our training structures and programmes with daily operational experience because the different events you can be confronted with on a furnace are almost unlimited.”
Automation is an aspect of technology towards which Saint-Gobain prides itself on having a “very proactive” approach. As part of an Industry 4.0 strategy to develop the skills of its teams, in 2019 the group started to roll out a global programme for its Data Analytics Academy. “The objective is to have (personnel from) all levels from the plants (operators, shift managers, engineers etc) getting more knowledgeable with the latest analytical tools and methods that have been developed” Mr Lionet explains. “Data in the process industry has always been extremely important; every day we have millions of data coming from the process but in the past, we were often limited in our analytical capabilities. New computing technology is addressing being able to better analyse the data and it’s really important that we are now making those tools accessible to many levels in our plants, empowering our operators. We can now respond more quickly in terms of process evaluation and the increased flexibility allows us then to adapt quicker to market demands” he maintains.
Investing in production plants
In a spate of recent investments, in 2018, Saint-Gobain renovated with €85 million a float line at its Dąbrowa Górnicza plant in Poland to increase production of glass for the construction and automotive industries. “In 2019 and 2020, we also invested in a new coater” Mr Lionet added. “In Poland the market is growing extremely actively, in terms of volume and quality of products so more value-added glass is needed and we invested to respond to the market needs.”
In 2019, Saint-Gobain opened a third float glass line and a second magnetron coater line at its factory near Chennai, making it the largest float glass plant in India.
The same year the French glassmaking giant made a significant outlay for a jumbo coater in Morelos, Mexico to manufacture large panels of layered glass with 6x thermal insulation capacity for automotive and building applications. A new flat glass plant is being built in Mexico to meet growing domestic demand and supply Central America, the Caribbean and North America. “We have strong growth in the automotive sector in Mexico and the USA and we need more capacity to serve the market” says Jérome Lionet. “It is a massive investment and the plant should go live in the course of summer 2021."
“We have also recently been investing significantly in Europe in two big lamination lines, one in Germany and one in France” he adds. “To summarise our investment strategy, we will keep investing to add value to our products in Europe, making them increasingly sophisticated, with better performance. Outside Europe, the investment is more focused on increasing capacity. We have future plans in place but will review accordingly due to uncertain market conditions because of the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Contending with Covid
“Before the pandemic, we started 2020 with overcapacity because of a new float plant in Poland” Mr Lionet explains. “The spring 2020 lockdown led to a temporary stop of our activity in countries like Spain, France Italy and the UK but we never stopped in other countries such as Germany and Poland. Firstly, we had to make sure there were measures in place to protect our people with the best sanitary standards and procedures. In May, building activities restarted quickly and on the architectural glass side and today, all our float activities in the world are working at full speed."
“In automotive, the restart was a little slower and it took until September/October 2020 to be back at full speed” he says. But now the company is back “at full saturation” across of its lines, he reports. “We see even tension on the market and there are no regions where demand is not at the top end. We are enjoying this period while it lasts!”
Approaching carbon neutrality
As a major player in the glass industry, the issue of going carbon-neutral has major consequences for both Saint-Gobain and the industry as a whole, something that Jérome Lionet views as both a challenge and an opportunity.
“Usually, carbon neutrality is thought about in terms of cost and change of technology but it is a big opportunity as glass is actually part of the solution. Nearly 40% of worldwide CO2 comes from buildings, whether it be the construction, usage or demolition. In Europe, 50% of that comes from construction and 50% from usage (heating and air cooling); from the 50% caused by heating and air cooling, glass is a big part of the solution."
“In terms of the heating of the building and traditional thermal insulation, the performance of the glass can be a big part in almost completely insulating a house and also very importantly (especially in a lockdown!), it keeps the light going inside” he continues. “Thanks to extremely high value-added glass, we are able to have a good energy balance, as well as adding a very high level of light entering the building. It’s a long historical path of development to have extremely efficient glass in terms of energy balance and daylight transmission. Coated glass and electrochromic glass (such as produced by the Saint-Gobain company SageGlass in the USA) have big roles to play as part of the solution.”
In terms of CO2 produced by manufacturing, glass has another advantage because it can be recycled without limit Mr Lionet notes. “For that, we are investing heavily in terms of capital expenditure and R&D to develop our usage of cullet; this is not a completely new initiative but if you compare flat glass to container glass recycling, container glass started 30 years ago but due to quality constraints, flat glass only started much more recently. We have made great progress and on average, 30% of our glass is now made from recycled cullet. In addition to cullet from the value chain (processors and window makers), we are also now starting to recycle from construction and for this, we want to increase our level of cullet content, which helps to reduce the CO2 emitted during the fabrication of the glass."
“Each time we have a new furnace or a rebuild, we improve the energy efficiency of the furnace and we invest into energy recovery” Mr Lionet maintains. Saint-Gobain is taking steps to increase the longevity of furnaces by working with refractory suppliers to improve thermal/lifetime efficiency. The company has numerous general development agreements with suppliers where we try to innovate with, for example, equipment that is new for the industry or a customisation of equipment from other industries into the glass industry. We are developing such external partnerships to speed up innovation in general” he states.
“We are also investing in R&D for the long term. A key question is whether we will be able to use higher levels of green electricity in the glass manufacturing process or whether we move from natural gas to hydrogen. And it is too early to know…” he muses.
Saint-Gobain as a group has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 and in November 2020, the group issued an additional target to reduce its carbon footprint by 30% by 2030, validated by the Science-Based Targets. Embedded in the company’s environmental strategy, this roadmap outlines Saint-Gobain’s new commitments to reduce not only direct and indirect carbon dioxide emissions but also emissions along the value chain. To meet these targets, the group has dedicated a capital expenditure and R&D budget of around €100 million per year until 2030.
Riding the renovation wave
The European Union’s Renovation Wave initiative to meet carbon neutrality targets and relaunch the construction sector by increasing the rate and quality of renovation of existing buildings has created “a real opportunity for glass and Saint-Gobain” Jérome Lionet believes. Increased demand for the standard of glazing that EU buildings must have to become carbon-neutral by 2050 and the need to ‘repair and prepare for the next generation’ was highlighted by the European Commission amid proposals for a recovery package and a revised EU budget to address the immediate economic and social damage brought by the coronavirus pandemic. “We are part of the solution for the renovation wave” says Mr Lionet: “All the recovery packages are green and insist on building renovation.”
As Vice Chairman of Glass for Europe, the trade association for Europe’s flat glass sector, Jérome Lionet participates actively because “a lot of regulations are coming from the EU in terms of renovation waves and green financing that is really important to our business. Glass for Europe is representing the interests of the flat glass industry and also advocating the benefits in general of the flat glass industry” he adds.
Extending the reach of R&D
“Being part of a large group means we can keep our research and development investment almost constant and this is part of Saint-Gobain’s strategy” Mr Lionet notes. Reflecting on recent flat glass product innovations of which he is particularly proud – and permitted to discuss in this publication! – he cites ECLAZ, the company’s enhanced insulating glass, designed for residential and tertiary markets in cold and temperate climates to deliver the thermal insulation benefits of triple glazing with the daylight gain of double glazing. The technology is “unique in the flat glass industry, involving really deep science and R&D to understand the behaviour of coatings” says Mr Lionet. “We are very proud to have developed this new technology, which is bringing better energy balance for the windows with maximum daylight inside the building.”
Another innovation that he finds “particularly pleasing” is an 18m pane of glass that Saint-Gobain started to produce a few years ago. “It might not be that difficult from a technical point of view” he concedes “but it’s impressive when you see examples of installations that are as high as a standard building in Paris. The glass is always a signature of an architect’s building in terms of aesthetics and shape and it can be emotional to see our glass in such applications."
“Because the glass process is so complex and touches on so many themes in terms of science, physics, chemistry etc, it’s always a pleasure that we are developing new approaches, systems and practices and to see the speed they are adopted throughout the organisation” Jérome Lionet explains. "I find it fascinating when we make something possible that was impossible before. With glass, you have the opportunity to discover new things every day.”