Most car owners would begin to feel nervous if the guy about to replace their windscreen set himself up with a couple of sharpened screwdrivers, a rubber mallet; a length of waxed sash chord; some paraffin and an old car tyre.
“When I started in this trade – 32 years ago – you didn’t need much more than this” says Steve Allard, boss of Western Windscreens. He started as a trainee fitter just as the windscreen replacement industry was about to experience one of the biggest changes it has seen to date. And just as the trade was sweeping up the remaining fragments of shattered glass, dusting itself off and licking its lips at the advent of laminated windscreens, the idea of glazing glass directly to the car landed from the future and took everybody by surprise, whether they liked it or not.
In an inherently reticent trade, making room for new technology was never going to be easy and would always take time to bed in. But as the cantankerously cautious were closing up their cantilever tool boxes in fear of such changes, the proactive were prudently embracing what is now one of the most important safety features of a motor vehicle: the bonded windscreen. Modern cars now feature larger ‘directly glazed’ panels which form part of a car’s safety features as well as providing better efficiency. To help achieve this, the sandwich construction of glass and Polyvinyl Butyral (PVB) is now thinner than previous examples; some of the metal hardware (to hold condensation, light and rain sensors; active lane assist and road sign recognition cameras, etc) has been substituted for lighter plastic components, and microns have been spared from applying a finer coat of – black, UV inhibiting – ceramic paint to the inside of the glass. As the motor car itself has continued to evolve, chromed embellishers and ‘lockable’ rubber gaskets have been phased out and replaced with clip-mounted mouldings or extruded trims (but now even they are slowly disappearing to give modern day glass a more flush and seamless look on a car). With this has also come the need for a more refreshed mindset for the auto-glazier, and an entirely different set of skills which has transformed the task of fitting glass into something far more technical, yet paradoxically easier.
Today there is a much wider range of specialist tools than what Steve cut his teeth on over 30 years ago. But some innovations (thankfully) didn’t last very long. Like the transformer needed to ‘cook’ a heat sealing ribbon – Solbit – is about as extinct as the cars it was once used on, and such bonding materials no longer need to be stored in refrigerators to keep them at optimum workable temperatures. The first windscreen-specific Polyurethane adhesives (PUR) would need to be heated in order to promote flow and workability but advancement in PUR technology has since waned that wave of temperature-sensitive bonding material. Gone too are the associated setting times, or Safe Drive Away Times (SDAT) which have gradually diminished from as long as 24-hours to a relatively pit-stop time of 30 minutes (airbag dependent).
As older cars move into classic and vintage categories, the tools (and techniques) needed to work on them are becoming just as niche. Specific clip-releasing equipment has pushed chrome embellisher insertion tools firmly to the back of the drawer; bashers and dibbers now gather more and more dust as the two-man-teams – the brute force and strength – have almost been out-muscled by mechanically assisted equipment. Piano wire, braided wire and short lengths of beaten copper pipe have become part of a long legacy as a much safer, square-profile wire is the preferred method of cutting through PUR to release bonded glass from the vehicle.
For every improvement made on fitting glass and windscreens, the trade has also developed better techniques to remove them, and as aware as we have become about ‘structural stiffness’ and as educated as we are of ridding contact surfaces and substrates of contaminants, the industry is still learning. These developments in skills; those innovations in technology, and this continuous improvement to integrate – and harness – them into a specialist trade has turned the windscreen fitter of yesteryear into the automotive glazing technician of today. This refreshing attitude towards awareness has seen an encouraging interest towards achieving accreditation and certifying competency even though there is still no requirement.
It is estimated that there are approximately 700 windscreen replacement businesses listed as wholesale customers in the UK, from local one-man-bands to corporate powerhouses employing hundreds of staff covering all corners of the United Kingdom. There are thousands of technicians gainfully employed, many of whom are registered with the IMI’s own ATA scheme, as well as the similar work-based NVQ awards. Although neither scheme is compulsory, conscientious technicians are still keen to grow with the industry; they understand there is direction in the practice of maintaining and developing skills and expanding the knowledge required in their chosen field.
In a business fueled by safety which, in itself drives the need for technological advancement, the desire for slimmer, lighter and above all safely installed glass, means that we, as industry professionals, must stay on top of the latest changes at all times. Our customers deserve better than a badly fitted windscreen, poor execution and even poorer customer service. We must strive to achieve and of course deliver, the best at all times – and reach beyond that.