By Drew Vass
With more manufacturers producing windshields, converns about quality increace
The topic of glass quality may have reached its boiling point a decade or so ago with the advent of offshore manufacturing, but the temperature is rising again—this time for original equipment manufacturers. Double-sided tape, improperly applied mouldings, misshapen windshields (some by as much as a half-inch in places), optically distorted glass retailers say there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that corners are being cut in manufacturing processes. And that, they say, is problematic for operations.
“We’re in a very, very competitive situation each and every day,” says one glass company owner who wished not to be identified in this article. “We’re already investing lots of money into things like 30-minute urethane and technologies that help us to run very efficient and specific schedules. When you get somewhere and find that a windshield doesn’t fit properly, it’s a real challenge.”
Everyone agrees that manufacturing defects are as old as the industry itself. And, to some degree, they’re also inevitable due to the complicated nature of windshields, says glass expert John Ballato, Ph.D., a professor of materials science and engineering at Clemson University. When thinking of cars, Ballato says, “The tendency, of course, is for people to think about things like the engine, or the onboard electronics. But the glass is highly and remarkably engineered for very specific purposes.” People have been making glass for 5,000 years, Ballato says, “but particularly on cars, because there’s an additional layer of safety requirements—the glass, the plastic layers, the composites, the laminates—they all form a remarkably sophisticated system.” And when it comes to the optical clarity that system produces, he says the results are often subjective.
“Everybody has different eyesight and visual acuity, so everybody could have a different point at which [optical distortion] becomes tolerable or intolerable,” Ballato says. The same conclusion was reached via a 2011 study by Washington University in St. Louis and Boeing seeking to quantify optical distortions among aircraft windshields (which are also made of shaped, laminated glass). The resulting report, “Measuring Optical Distortion in Aircraft Transparencies,” finds that, “Even with adequate training, different inspectors may legitimately come to different conclusions about a windshield’s optical quality.” And hat might explain why plenty of folks are suggesting that glass quality has decreased in recent years, but just as many say they’ve spotted no degradation whatsoever. It doesn’t,
however, account for reports of windshields that are as much as one-half inch out of curvature. And those issues are surfacing in places they’ve never been seen before.
“The problems we’re having indicate to me that the same attention of detail isn’t being applied [by OEM manufacturers] to aftermarket glass,” one retail company owner says. (He wished not to be identified in this article.) Meanwhile, the same owner says that ordering windshields directly from an auto dealership will get you crystal clear glass that fits like a glove, while the same brand from a glass distributor often comes up short on quality.
“Distributors will then tell you that there is no problem,” another owner says, “or that you’re being too picky.” Replacement product, we’re told, often is no better, which is just one reason that some suggest that, these days, manufacturers are more apt to issue refunds than to ship replacements.
The industry has long accepted that some (especially lower-cost) aftermarket windshields aren’t the same quality as those produced by OEM manufacturers (manufacturers that produce original equipment windshields for auto makers). That’s been a mantra among windshield repair companies that promote the concept of preserving—rather than replacing—original windshields. (The National Windshield Repair Association states as much directly on its website.) For this reason, the idea that more windshields are leaving OEM factories with manufacturing defects is one that auto glass installers say they find both new and troubling. But not every windshield leaving an OEM factory is produced by those manufacturers.
“American manufacturers [now] provide product from their own factories, as well as glass that’s manufactured overseas,” says Angel Zamudio, owner of Majestic Auto Glass, a Chicago-based distributor. As a result, he says, “No longer can you take for granted that, when you order from an OEM manufacturer, you’re getting OEM quality.” While no glass manufacturers we contacted were willing to confirm or deny those claims, we found plenty of distributors and industry experts who corroborate. For this reason, Russ Corsi, auto glass expert and consultant, suggests that glass shops are well advised to check the Department of Transportation (DOT) identification numbers on every windshield they receive. The DOT number pinpoints the specific manufacturer and should in theory at least—confirm whether or not it originated from the manufacturer they intended, or was outsourced.
Corsi says a lot of installers are getting those outsourced products when they think they’re getting glass that’s manufactured by an OEM provider. “They should know how to read the DOT number and if it’s not the manufacturer they expect it to be, they should say, ‘I don’t want this one. I want one from whatever the DOT number is for that specific manufacturer.’”
Zamudio says he has the ability to specify when ordering from manufacturers and that his customers have the same option when ordering from his company. But failing to make that distinction, he says, will get you whatever’s in stock at the moment (from manufacturers).
Meanwhile, Zamudio says he’s had customers decide that they prefer to specify OEM-quality glass, but after a few billing cycles declare, “You know what … I think I’m all right with the Chinese glass.” And therein lies another side to the story. Every person interviewed for this article agrees that offshore products have improved in quality. And just as Zamudio describes, for this reason, more glass shops have decided that less expensive glass is “good enough.” Add to that a “glass is glass” mentality among some insurance providers (we’re told), and therein lies the crux of an issue.
“That’s what’s forced OEM makers to stop producing certain products and to farm them out instead,” Corsi says. That, he says, has led them to outsource manufacturing to other (less expensive) providers. Yet, not all of those products are outsourced. We found plenty of reliable sources who suggest that corners are being cut in manufacturing in order to produce less expensive windshields.
“They have OEM lines and they have aftermarket lines,” says Bob Beranek, owner of Auto Glass University in Sun Prairie, Wis. “Why do they do that? Because they realize that the aftermarket is price-sensitive, and if they can eliminate some of the steps that go into an OE part for an aftermarket part and give a better price point to the aftermarket, they’re going to do that.”
In terms of how those manufacturers might be economizing, Ballato says, “It’s gonna robably be downstream in forming and shaping.” If that’s where manufacturers are saving money, “the uniformity and the shape may not be as good, which means that [windshields]
may or may not fit as well,” Ballato says. Meanwhile, they might also be hastening in quality controls, he adds.
“Your readers shouldn’t be lulled into the thought that glass is just glass,” Ballato says. “Anything that degrades or otherwise compromises the overall product is cause for concern.”
Where’s the Sheriff?
By this point you may be wondering why there are no safety nets in place to prevent defective windshields from being shipped in the first place. Quality specifications exist, but those specifications do very little—if anything—to regulate glass shape and quality. Manufacturers are responsible for self-policing and documenting their own compliances. Meanwhile, auto makers specify quality standards among OEM windshields, but when it comes to separate, aftermarket lines, OEM manufacturers are free to set their own standards.
“There are no rules that say it has to fit,” Beranek says. “No rules saying that it has to look the same [as OEM glass]. The only thing that those standards say is that it must meet the safety requirements of glass—not the fit, not the appearance, not anything other than that.”
Thus, some auto glass shop owners say shopping for aftermarket glass is trial and error.
Look to glassBYTES.com for how the installer can help with quality control and how some say, when it comes to quality, the industry might be its own worst enemy.
DREW VASS is a contributing editor for AGRR magazine.
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