In a sense, these workers in the "clean room" at Viracon's window factory in Owatonna, Minn., were trying to do just that - save lives by fabricating blast and bullet-resistant windows strong enough to help protect federal workers from terrorist attacks.Working as a team, Sandy Stark, Jennifer Sackett, Sue Harris and Mary Ann Yocum swiftly peeled and layered five-foot sheets of glass, polyurethane, polycarbonate and glass until a 2.1-inch-thick pane emerged ready to be vacuum-sealed, pressure cooked and fused into a $2,000 window.At the other end of the plant, the command "one, two, three, fire!" sounded as researchers Dwight Roos and Brad Erickson cannon-shot a four-foot beam at 34 miles per hour into a test window.The beam bounced off, leaving only circular cracks in the intact glass. Erickson then whaled an ax into another window, producing loud thuds but no flying shards of glass.
Similar production and testing have been nonstop at Viracon and other factories across the nation since demand for blast-mitigating glass first climbed after the Oklahoma City and the U.S. Embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, then skyrocketed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
For decades, protective glass and window films were used by U.S. building owners for protection from hurricanes, sunlight, car accidents or gunshots. Now, these products are finding new life as key tools in mitigating the threat of terrorism to government and commercial buildings.
Total demand for installed laminated windows on new buildings has risen about 33 percent to $4 billion since the 2001 attacks. Film adhesives, which are applied to existing windows and made by 3M Co., CP Films, Bekaert Specialty Films and others, have seen sales leap 40 percent to about $1.4 billion in just 22 months.
"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Virginia Kubler, business director for CP Films, a division of Solutia and one of the largest U.S. window filmmakers. The industry "will grow much more because the government has not completed its risk assessment of federal buildings and ... it's not more than a third of the way through."
At 3M, commercial interest in window film adhesives "has really picked up over 2002 and this year," said Jeff Bradley, business manager for 3M's Consumer Safety and Light Management unit. "Government is just starting to increase (its use) significantly in 2003 because the funding is now available. There was a delay in fiscal funding" for the Defense and Homeland Security departments and the Transportation Security Administration..