Made in the Midwest: Glass Creates Visual Spectacles

Posted at: 11/21/2012 8:16 AM
Updated at: 11/21/2012 9:30 AM

(ABC 6 NEWS) -- A local company continues to build its reputation sky high.

Viracon helps turn some of the worlds tallest buildings into visual spectacles by using glass.

One of the largest employers in Owatonna, a workforce of 1,000 people fabricates glass for some of the world's tallest buildings.

"We serve every major metro area in the U.S. and most major Canadian cities and from there many cities around the world. Any buildings above 10 stories built in the past 15 to 20 years the chances are very good its Viracon glass," said Kelly Schuller, president of Viracon.

One of its most memorable projects is happening right now in New York City. Construction crews are using Viracon glass to build the Freedom Tower at the site of the World Trade Center. When finished, it will be the tallest building in North America.

"It's very touching," said Schuller.

So how do you turn a glass panel into being strong enough hundreds of feet high? It starts with lamination. It's like making a grilled cheese sandwich.

Each panel is washed until spotless then rolls into a room, where vinyl is put between two of them. Then it goes into an oven.

"If this glass does break that vinyl inner layer is going to keep that glass together, keep it from falling out," said Lance Lawrence of Viracon.

That happens in an autoclave, where panels sit inside for a few hours and pressurize. After that it's put into a custom built crate and shipped out. It's a delicate process running all day, everyday.

To get to this point, a lot of change has happened since Viracon started four decades ago in Owatonna.

"We have a very talented base of employees, really experts in the glass industry," said Schuller.

At the peak of the recession construction projects slowed and so did Viracon's growth, forcing layoffs. Now, there's a sign things are picking up.

"Architectural firms are hiring again, which is a first sign for us," said Schuller.

Also, the company just won its first two projects in Japan and earlier this month, it introduced a new digital print line.

"People are still building buildings and we're doing alright. We'll be here for a long term, we're just looking forward to the recovery," said Schuller.

A recovery that may include some purple and gold.

"We hope to do the Vikings stadium, but we'll see," said Schuller.

Viracon has a few smaller plants in the U.S. but in Owatonna it ships out 1 million square feet of glass each week.
Some of the projects its done in Minnesota include TCF Bank Stadium, Best Buy's headquarters and the Gonda building at Mayo Clinic.