Goulburn could become one of the world's centres for glass manufacturing. Kate Wendt, managing director of Dragon Glass Lamination, intends to make Australia a global leader in the industry once again.
Ms Wendt officially launched her Copford Road factory on Friday, 18 months after the formerly Wagga-based businesswoman set up the manufacturing plant here.
The launch was delayed by COVID, just as the company gained commercial viability. Ms Wendt and her team used that time to develop the world's first military-grade ballistic glass made without an autoclave (a pressure vessel used to process glass).
This product is expected to hit the market soon, once it has been certified. Ms Wendt said Dragon Glass would have the ability to make the largest such glass in the world.
The factory already manufactures the largest and strongest construction glass in the Southern Hemisphere.
"We have a product that is better, comparably, and in a larger size than most of the countries overseas can produce," Ms Wendt said.
"We are very close to bringing Australia back to where it was in the 1950s and '60s, when it was a leader in glass."
Federal and state politicians - including Hume MP and Minister for Emergency and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, and Damien Tudehope, NSW Finance and Small Business minister - attended the launch.
The world's toughest glass
Dragon Glass specialises in laminated glass: panels joined together with an interlayer between each one to create durable, un-shatterable glass.
Their EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) glass is the largest and strongest in the world, Ms Wendt said.
While float glass (the raw product) will easily shatter into dangerous shards, and toughened glass might withstand a direct face-on blow but breaks into small pieces if hit on the side, laminated glass does not break. It slumps in its frame; it folds; but it does not shatter - and nobody will be cut or hurt.
The glass, Ms Wendt explained, has residential, commercial, and industrial uses. Sentry Glass (a structural product) can replace balustrade panels in high-rise buildings, protecting children from falling to their deaths. It can be used as see-through, blast-proof panels in chemical factories; or as viewing panels in zoos and aquariums.
Sentry Glass can be used on coast guard ships, or in government offices and politicians' homes for blast-proof rooms.
It can resist even trucks going through it, if the glass is thick and the framework solid enough.
"Sentry Glass is fabulous for ram-raids. It does some awful damage to vehicles when they run into it," Ms Wendt explained.
That glass forms the basis of the new ballistic glass product.
Inside the factory
Ms Wendt came to Goulburn in late 2018, attracted by the town's closeness to Canberra and Sydney (her warehouse is in Bankstown), its rail hub to transport product to Adelaide and Perth, and its affordable land.
Her 1200 metre factory in Copford Road resembles a set from a James Bond film. In the centre is an enormous vacuum oven, replacing the traditional autoclave. This is the secret of Ms Wendt's success.
"Autoclaves have an enormous amount of power draw," Ms Wendt explained. "So we've reduced our footprint probably by half. It's almost takeaway; it's almost the fast-food outlet of the glass industry."
The machine is modular: a series of stacked ovens and cooling units. Ms Wendt can use as many or as few as she needs.
"I can run multiple layers, but if I've only got one glass panel to do, I can run one oven, so it becomes cost-effective," she said.
The plant also contains a large tilting table onto which the raw product is placed; an automatic glass washing machine; and one of the largest clean rooms in the world.
Ms Wendt designed the lamination technology herself; the parts were fabricated to her specifications by Chinese engineers. She sold the patent to a Spanish company to fund her Goulburn operation.
Plans for expansion
Under a five-year expansion plan, Ms Wendt envisages employing up to 30 people. Two new staff members were employed only this week. As the factory becomes commercial, more staff will be employed to run it, trained in automated CNC (computer numerical control) glass-cutting machinery, which Australia lacks.
At present, the factory can laminate glass up to six by 3.3 metres. In the second stage, Ms Wendt will install a nine by 3.3 metre toughening furnace and CNC processing machine - which will be the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.
Dragon Glass will expand its product to nine by 3.3 metres - the biggest glass in Italy - then to 12 by 3.3 metres, allowing Australia to manufacture super jumbo glass. Although German and Japanese factories can manufacture longer (18 metre) glass, it is thinner than the Australian product.
This, Ms Wendt hopes, will both achieve export quality into Europe and America for the first time since the 1950s, and end Australian reliance on overseas imports, often of "dubious quality."
"We're trying to take the 10 per cent of the market that is traditionally imported from overseas, and squash importing," Ms Wendt said.
"The less that Australia imports, and the more manufacturing that they have here, the better [deal for] Australia."
We need to protect our glass industry
The raw product for Dragon Glass's product comes from Viridian Glass in Tasmania - the only float glass manufacturing line left in Australasia.
Ms Wendt urged government and business to support Viridian.
"We are on the edge of losing the glass industry in Australia," she warned her audience.
"We need to keep the float plant with Viridian. Otherwise, all of our raw product is imported, and then we're exporting only a partly Australian product. The glass must be made here, so then it's a fully Australian product."
The rest of Australia's glass comes from overseas, and does not necessarily comply to Australian safety standards, Ms Wendt said.
In 2019, Australia imported 49 per cent ($US 377 million or approx $AU526 million) of its glass from China, according to the international trade database TrendEconomy.
"Australia does better glass than China," Ms Wendt said.
"It has less nickel sulphide inclusions. It has less seeds - what that means is that when you temper it, it's less volatile; it won't explode. Some glass spontaneously explodes because of nickel sulphide, because the glass they're using is substandard.
"This is what's coming into Australia, what's being put into buildings - and it's not quality, and nobody's testing it; nobody's checking it. Australia is not running a standard on imported products, and they're getting into trouble.
"[Chinese glass] is cheap, and it's quick, and we can throw it in, but now we're all suffering from what's happened. We have substandard glass that is exploding in balustrades. In huge shopfronts in Westfield, the glass is spontaneously detonating. There is no control over that. Somebody must have taken their eye off the ball."
Dragon Glass products are tested by ADFA in conjunction with CSIRO.
The launch was held a day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his $1.3 billion Modern Manufacturing Strategy to make Australian industries more globally competitive and rebuild the economy after COVID.
Mr Taylor called Dragon Glass a great example of a niche manufacturing business in the region.
"We want Australia to be a country that makes things, and I want Goulburn to be a country that makes things."
The federal government was potentially a customer.
"Products that have been made in Australia are crucial in national security. We want to be able to control our own destiny,"Mr Taylor said.
Mr Tudehope praised Dragon Glass's devotion and dedication to manufacturing.
"It epitomises where we want to see small businesses be at," he said.
As Australia emerged from the pandemic, Mr Tudehope continued, it had the opportunity to become a manufacturing nation.
"We want to be a state and nation which is exporting our expertise, rather than importing - and now is a better time than ever."
Mayor Bob Kirk congratulated Ms Wendt on the ingenuity and opportunities she had created for the city.
"It's obviously a product that is going to put your business on the map and put Goulburn on the map."
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