Business

Smart Windows: Digital innovation from Poland

Glass is rarely the first product that people associate with digitisation. What potential do windows have to revolutionise our way of life?

29.11.2019
7 minutes 7 minutes
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Table of Contents
Poland is the largest manufacturer and exporter of windows in Europe. Smart windows boast a number of functions thanks to research and innovation. The products that polish companies are working on are surfaces on which users can read texts rather than just being a piece of glass in the wall. Is the Smart Window a technology with a chance of establishing itself in our homes and offices?

In 1989, Poland was a window through which the winds of change were blowing – carrying a democratic breakthrough throughout East-Central Europe. The country’s economy was, however, in a disastrous state and had little to offer to foreign contract partners or customers.

Within three decades, the situation has changed fundamentally. During this time, Poland was often referred to as ‘Europe’s economic prodigy’, even surviving the 2008 economic crisis unscathed.

The economy continues to be in good shape at present, although experts point out that one of the main problems of the state is a lack of innovative strength and an inclination towards low labour costs. But there are sectors of industry that do not have this problem. One such sector is the manufacture of windows.

Windows – Poland’s leading export

In Poland, approx. 2,500 companies manufacture windows. In 2015, Poland even overtook Germany in terms of exporting windows and became the leading exporter within the EU with a turnover of around EUR 1.5 billion. Companies on the Vistula produce approx. 13 million windows a year, of which 70% are exported abroad.

This landscape is dominated by family businesses for carpentry and window construction products. These were set up in the 1990s and are still run by the founders or their families. Their revenues run into the hundreds of millions of PLN and some of them, such as Krakow-based business Oknoplast, exceed the PLN 1 billion mark (approx. EUR 250 million).

Behind their success lie, above all, excellent product quality, the latest technology, appealing design, attractive prices and quick delivery. Thanks to years of market research concerning the peculiarities of foreign markets, Polish companies are not only able to acquire contract partners in the EU, but also in the USA, Mexico, Australia and even on Zanzibar. 

Panes, frames and a bundle of new functions

What could be simpler than a window? – you may be asking. A pane of glass, a frame and that’s everything. And a few dozen years ago, you would certainly have been right. Polish manufacturers are developing solutions that are enhanced via the windows’ functions and ensure that these are lighter, more durable, safer and more energy-efficient, as well as offering improved design and ensuring more light in the room.

Entire teams of scientists work on developing modern windows; and space technology – technology from space travel – is even used. And space can be taken literally here. One example is so-called aerogel – a material with impressive thermal properties. This material is being investigated by NASA and is used, for example, in the construction of spacecraft and as an insulating layer in spacesuits.

‘After a long search for materials with high insulation parameters, Oknoplast began using this aerogel in its products,’ says Mike Żyrek, director of research and development at Oknoplast.

But that is not all. Oknoplast and other companies are working on projects that are changing our perception of windows. According to their vision, the window is not simply a mechanism for lighting and aerating a room. Windows are becoming one of the most crucial systems in smart homes.

With the touch of a button or via voice command, people can control them and program them so that the smart glass reacts in the event of predefined atmospheric conditions or at a specific time. Thus, in the event of rain a window can close on its own. Smart windows can also be controlled via smartphone from a hundred kilometres away or from the office. But the future has even more innovative solutions in store.

 
Infographic that shows the biggest exporting countries of windows and carpentry

The largest exporters of carpentry and window building products

The Internet in your window

The spread of the so-called Smart Windows will herald a real revolution. It is a technology that looks a little bit like a vision from science fiction films. Despite this, the first Smart Windows are already on the market.

But what is an intelligent window?

It looks like an ordinary window, but the pane of glass is a giant touchscreen. This can be used to watch films, browse Facebook, access the playlist with your favourite music, call up information from the Internet, check your emails – in short, everything that you can do on your PC, tablet or smartphone screen.

But there is more – once the keyboard, mouse and an external hard drive are connected to the Smart Window, you can work conveniently and then give a presentation on the glass screen during client meetings.

Passers-by can look at advertising on the building that prompts them to use services or products. And if the weather worsens, the intelligent window can project your favourite landscape image.

The next smart revolution?

Although a few companies already offer Smart Windows, the technology is still new to the market. It tends to be targeted at so-called early adopters and well-off client bases. Despite this, manufacturers believe that Smart Windows will soon become just as popular as TV sets.

This may develop into a real revolution that will also see a huge fight for customers. If the technology becomes accessible to all, this could lead to a seismic shift in the window industry on a similar scale to that seen with smartphones.

Companies need to keep pace with this development otherwise a handful of big players will divvy up the market between them and other providers will lose control, be pushed into niches or will disappear from the market completely.

An even bigger change awaits customers – both privately and within a professional context. Smart windows are transforming large, practically all-encompassing spaces that we pay little attention to into fully functioning interfaces offering astonishing possibilities.

Can you imagine a glass office space where intelligent glass surfaces replace PCs, TV sets, screens, projectors and other devices? This will not just affect the window manufacturing industry, but also companies involved with electronics, architecture, design and interior decoration.

A view to the future: how intelligent windows are produced

A new approach to window functionality also represents a new way of working on their manufacture. This will lead to changes in all processes of the system – from development and production to installation. The window will transform into a kind of computer solution.

The current focus is on research and technological development work, including laboratory testing and collaborations with scientists. The next step will involve the manufacturers significantly extending their IT departments. They require specialists to make the glass intelligent and reliable.

The change will also impact sales and distribution systems for new products. Companies have to ship electronic components and LCD screens with even more care. However, installation is no longer the sole preserve of installation firms – IT specialists are also required. Ultimately, the smart solutions have to work with the entire network of devices and services to guarantee the seamless functioning of the smart home system, smart office or smart shop.

Most people do not yet associate digital innovations with window manufacturing. But at some point, this will likely be very different. Long-established companies on the Vistula could then find themselves at a state where they are competing more with the giants of the electronics industry, such as Samsung and LG, rather than manufacturers in the construction sector. There is plenty to suggest that this moment is approaching.

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