New glass manufacturing plant opens in King George County industrial park

N A Field that once yielded ears of corn, machines are turning sheets of glass into windshields.Their hisses, hums and thumps create a metallic cacophony inside American Glass Industries Inc.

The fledgling auto-glass manufacturer opened recently as the first tenant in King George County's industrial park.

Already, stacks of replacement windshields cut and molded for Chevy Astro vans and dozens of other popular makes sit on specialized carts that owner Nick Lahijan, 54, bought from Chrysler after the automaker shut down its auto-glass plant in Detroit.

"In the last 15 years, we're the only company that has put this kind of business in the United States," he yelled over the din of the machines. "It's because we believe we can produce and manufacture them competitively in the United States."

Many auto-glass repair and replacement companies buy windshields from foreign countries where labor is cheap.

Chrysler, for example, closed its Detroit glass plant three years ago partly because it was costing the automaker $135 to build a windshield for the Dodge Neon, while an outside supplier was selling the same product for about $35, according to a 2002 Detroit Free Press article.

But Lahijan said the fact that his windshields won't have to be imported will be a factor in his favor. Delivery time will be days instead of months, for one thing, meaning companies won't have to tie up money in inventory.

Customers in the United States, Canada and Mexico also wouldn't have to pay the stiff tariffs that apply to windshields imported from China since all three countries are covered by the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"In Mexico, glass is much more expensive than it is here," Lahijan said. "China has to pay a 23 percent import tax to export to Mexico. We wouldn't have to do that."

And offering a Made in the USA product appeals to many American companies, he said.

Glass Doctor, a chain with a number of locations in this area, recommends that its franchises buy only American-made replacement windshields because they fall under U.S. quality and safety guidelines, said Melissa Hamblett, spokeswoman for the Waco, Texas-based company.

Lahijan, who immigrated to the United States from Iran in 1976, also owns five Auto Glass Outlet stores in Washington, Northern Virginia and Maryland. They provide on-site windshield replacement, using other manufacturers' parts.

Three years ago he decided to explore the possibility of getting into that end of the business as well, and started studying other auto-glass manufacturing operations during buying trips to China, Finland, Poland and Italy.

"I came to the conclusion that we can manufacture here and be competitive," he said. "We think we can be a role model."

Lahijan decided to locate in Virginia because it is a right-to-work state with low electricity rates and a business-friendly tax structure. He settled on King George because of its low taxes, relatively cheap land and willingness to help, he said.

The county purchased a 125-acre tract near the landfill for an industrial park in part to attract American Glass Industries, said County Administrator Dennis Kerns. It also put in water and sewer, and the state built a road into the park.

Lahijan currently owns 15 acres there with an option to buy an additional 45 acres. Two other businesses--Gerdau Ameristeel, a Canada-based company, and Driveways by Us, a Fredericksburg firm--also have bought property in the industrial park.

"This was farmland that was generating very little in taxes," Kerns said. "We're not only increasing our tax base, but we're creating new jobs in the county."

In its initial phase, American Glass Industries will employ 55 workers and turn out 200 to 300 windshields a day. Lahijan said he'll have 125 employees turning out 1,000 windshields a day by next year.

He eventually plans to add another building, add 375 more workers and expand into making side and rear windows for vehicles, as well as bullet-resistant glass for buildings.

"Federal buildings will have to have some type of security glass. It's going to be a big market for us," he said. "In five years we'll be a $100 million company."

To make its products, American Glass Industries uses some of the most sophisticated manufacturing equipment on the market. The process begins with flat sheets of glass, which are fed into a high-tech Japanese pre-processing machine that cuts and grinds them into the correct shapes for each of 55 top-selling windshields.

Excess glass will eventually be sold for recycling, Lahijan said.

After a short trip through a washer, half of the panels are printed with a black border that gives glue a better grip and hides the mechanics of installation. The silk screens for this process are made in-house at a fraction of the cost of outsourcing them.

"We capture the shape in 3-D and use software to make a flat pattern," said manager Enrique Gudino, who used to be in charge of an auto-glass plant in Mexico.

Both painted and unpainted windshields are then set into molds and loaded into a computerized furnace. They emerge with the precise curve they'll need to fit into a specific make and model vehicle.

Workers sandwich a piece of vinyl between a plain windshield and a painted one, trim the edges and vacuum out the air between the layers to create a tight bond. To complete the lamination process, assembled windshields are heated in an autoclave.

Lahijan said American Glass Industries will initially sell to his Auto Glass Outlet stores. This will allow him to gather feedback, improve his products and establish a track record to show other buyers.

"A lot of manufacturers said this is so complicated, we couldn't do it. They thought it was just a dream," he said. "We believe we're going to be a success."

600450 New glass manufacturing plant opens in King George County industrial park

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