There is a problem with glass supply in the UK. I have seen comments of late questioning whether this is all hype and bluster. I have had my own conversations with people involved directly in the process of buying and manufacturing of glass and IGUs and I am assured that there are major problems within the glass market in this country.

The more conversations I have, the more it appears to me that this is a problem at the very least partially of our own doing.

Chop and change

From the conversation I have had with various sources, and just looking at the general state of things, those who make the glass are now making conscious decisions on who to supply to. For some the frustration of now not having a guaranteed supply will be palpable. Especially as some firmly believe that those with the power have artificially created this current supply shortage. To then start cherry picking who to supply would be adding salt to the wound.

But there appears to be the state of play right now. Those who produce are choosing who to supply and who to hold back. They’re making a commercial decision. Those are the top of the list are likely to be the ones who have stuck with a sole supplier for a fair amount of time. It would be a move that would appear to be rewarding loyalty, whether you believe that the be a morally fair move or not.

The companies doing the supplying would argue that if they are supplying a product that is now harder to make and harder to source, it is in their business’ best interest to supply only those who have shown them solid faith and not chopped and changed supplier at the nearest sniff of getting something cheaper.

On that front, I do have some sympathy with that argument. For decades our industry has beaten down prices year after year, and then we wonder why profit margins aren’t as good as we think they should be. Here’s something mad, there are some glass products bought now that are actually cheaper than 30 years ago. Really? Have we really put that much pressure on our whole supply chain that three decades of economic growth and inflation still hasn’t had an effect on certain glass products in our industry? That is an utterly ridiculous scenario to be in now.

So, whilst those struggling to get hold of glass products at the moment are entitled to feel frustrated, we have to look at ourselves as a sector and take responsibility for at least part of the problems we are hearing about now.

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Years in the making

I feel as though the supply problems we see now have been a long time in the making. And there are a number of factors involved.

I have already mentioned the damage we have done to ourselves as a sector on the pricing front. Until we all accept that we have to start paying more for our wares and let companies all across the supply chain make some good profit margins, then nothing is going to change.

Then there is the home grown supply. We hardly have any float lines left open in the UK now. Pilkington closed one of their two remaining lines in 2013, after making float glass at the Cowley Hill site since 1871. The site was apparently making major losses. As far as I know there is just one Pilks float line left open. It must be noted that Guardian have a float line in Goole in East Yorkshire. Still, we rely heavily on imported glass stocks from Europe and elsewhere. I cannot help but feel that if we had retained some of our home grown glass manufacturing capabilities we wouldn’t be having the problems we see now.

The chance of opening up new float lines is pretty much impossible. When you close a float line down they’re closed for good. These are mile-long machines that when they’re turned off, they’re off for good. Creation of brand new ones would take tens of millions of pounds of fresh investment which simply isn’t available right now. So, we’re at the mercy of the global import supply chain, and if one particular region decides that the UK is no longer profitable for them, they can quite easily decide to go sell their glass somewhere else in the world where they now they will be able to make a profit margin worth making and leave the UK to sort itself out.

I have seen some articles in the past few weeks and months that seem to suggest that a lot of this is hype and overblown. That there isn’t really that much of a shortage and that prices aren’t really going north. Yet all the conversations with the people I know right in heart of buying decisions all tell me that they either see it happening right in front of them or are being affected by it directly. It is happening, and there is no sign that things are going to improve any time soon.

I’ll say this though. Whether there is a glass crisis or not, is it not time we addressed the two issues I mentioned above anyway? Is it not time to have a grown up discussion about what we should be paying for our glass products and other fenestration products in general? Is it not time to address our reliance on imported glass products? The UK fenestration sector is worth nearly £5bn, is it right that so much of it relies on imported goods? Would it not be prudent to invest in UK manufacturing so that when scenarios occur abroad that affect our industry here the effects aren’t as severe?

Just some food for thought.

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