Dealing with Disruption

August 13th, 2021 by Nathan Hobbs

Advancements in OEM technology threaten to encroach on the window film industry. In the end, tinters think they can handle it.

By Matthew de Paula

From IR coatings to light-blocking multi-layer windows, innovations at the OEM level are of growing concern to some in the window film industry for their potential to disrupt the business. While impacts are already being felt, if there’s any good news, it’s that the most radical advancements are years — if not decades — away from mass adoption, relegating them to little more than long-term threats.

Apple Disrupts Again

Perhaps the most fanciful innovation on the horizon that could one day impact the industry stems from two patents granted to Apple in November. One is for a multilayer polycarbonate window that “may have a layer of liquid crystal material with dye that is interposed between polymer substrate layers.” The intent of the design is to block the transmission of visible and non-visible light selectively. Industry insiders speculate that this technology could be intended for the much-hyped Apple Car, an autonomous electric vehicle that has reportedly been under development off and on since 2014.

One of the patents also mentions a “system and method for dynamic privacy and window tinting,” where “tinting hardware modules” connected to sensors could vary the amount of light transmission to the vehicle’s interior based on external conditions. It would do so by “adjusting the voltage level of the adjustable tint film,” the patent says. The list of sensors alone for this system is staggering: global positioning system, thermometer, barometer, precipitation sensor, ambient light sensor, weight sensor, electrocardiography sensor, multiple cameras and more.

Impressive though it may be, Apple’s multilayer window technology faces major hurdles for adoption, says Darrell Smith, executive director of the International Window Film Association (IWFA). For one, the legal ramifications of ensuring appropriate light transmission in compliance with state laws would be tricky.

Secondly, multilayered “smart film” similar to that described in Apple’s patents is already in use on buildings, but is difficult or impossible to apply on curved window surfaces, such as the windshield of a car, due to the delicate circuitry of the conductive layers. “The electrochromic layers are metallic or ceramic coatings that are stacked one on top of the other, and when you start to bend them, you break the circuitry of the layers,” Smith says.

Yet another potential problem is the need for power to vary the light transmittance. Because it would require electricity to stay tinted, the glass would turn clear when the vehicle is parked with
the ignition off, thus negating one of the key selling points of privacy glass—the privacy itself, Smith says. However, he has seen at least one example of a workaround for this issue from a vendor at a conference: self-contained solar-powered battery packs that power the smart film.

Mercedes-Benz, which has been offering electrochromic sunroofs with variable tinting on select models in the United States since 2012 solved this so-called privacy problem another way, by making its panels go dark with the engine off. “When the electrical current is turned off (via a button above the rearview mirror), the nano particles disperse randomly, reducing light and tinting the roof panel,” says a press release for the 2011 SLK Roadster.

Beyond these factors, the cost and complexity of such multilayered glass will limit its adoption for the foreseeable future, sources say. But like every new piece of technology, eventually prices will
come down.

That’s precisely what concerns Brian Felts, who is a lead window tinter at Solar Control Glass Tinting in Cumming, Ga. “It’s not so much impacting our business at the moment,” he says. “But if they continue to do this self-tinting glass and such, then it definitely will.”

What is starting to make an impact are automakers’ design choices on some of the latest vehicles to hit the market. Felts says that rear windows of some cars are nearly impossible to access for tinting.

“Especially with the rear seat designs where the headrests are actually attached to the rear seat and you only have like 6 inches of space to go between the back window and the headrest, they’re
trying to make it impossible to put anything aftermarket on the glass,” he says.

Challenges for Tinters

To overcome the confined quarters, Felts uses the reverse roll or “California roll” as a workaround. He credits another window tinter for a helpful technique that works on hard-to-reach rear windows: using a clay bar to clean it beforehand, thus preventing the air bubbles or “peanuts” from forming under the film around the defroster elements.

Other window designs that are causing grief include small quarter panels between the windshield and side window on cars like the Honda Civic, or at the rear like on the Volkswagen Jetta. Their size and awkward location make them difficult to tint, Felts says.

But it’s not just the glass on late-model cars that is creating headaches. Bulky A-pillars that protrude more than usual on some new models can make tinting windshields a challenge, says Michaela York, who owns KC Tint and Graphics in Hartwell, Ga. On other vehicles, it’s the electronics inside the dash that sometimes create a problem.

“We have to be really careful about getting water down in there and frying those systems,” York says. “So the Soak Shield Rope and dash towels come in really handy when doing full windshields on newer vehicles, especially Mopar products like Dodge.”

York has noticed more high-end vehicles coming in with tint already applied to certain windows, which invariably complicates things. The glass roof on the Tesla is a case in point, she says. It makes achieving a uniform tint across all windows a trickier proposition than on most cars. Likewise with a 2020 Chevrolet Corvette that recently came through her shop. “The windshield on the car was already tinted a little bit,” she says. The client, however, wanted a tint job on all of the windows, which required care in selecting a shade lighter on the windshield than on the rest of the vehicle for an even look.

Perhaps more troublesome than OEM window tinting are the IR coatings now coming on some cars from the factory. Multiple Lexus vehicles come standard with such a coating on the windshield and front side windows. “It impacts how much you can scrape the glass because maybe you’ll damage it,” says Cody Becker, who works at Shore Tint and More in Delaware. “You can’t razor-blade it, so it’s hard to take off the stickers. You have to be careful.”

A plastic scraper, white scrub pad and extra time and effort gets the job done without damaging IR coatings, he says, adding that educating the customer is also important. “Let them know, ‘Hey, this is what you have; this might happen.’ Just go from there,” Becker says. “They’re not an everyday thing yet. So they’re not super common.”

Film Still Has an Edge

And there’s a reason for that. When it comes to blocking light, window films still have the upper hand—especially when it comes to ultraviolet light. The most advanced solar management glass available today, which makes use of pyrolytic ceramic coatings to aid reflectivity is too costly for mainstream vehicles and only blocks up to 67% of UV rays. “Even clear window film blocks
99% of the UV,” says IWFA’s Smith.

Meanwhile, both Felts and Becker were excited about CoolVu’s transitional photochromic film, which adapts to the intensity of sunlight by transitioning automatically from light to dark. “I love the capabilities of it,” Becker says, “and I can see that technology only getting better. It solves a lot of the issues that people have always had.”

Transitional photochromic films offer results similar to what Apple is aiming for with its highly complex new patented polycarbonate windows. Only the film is available now, whereas Apple’s tech is still vaporware.

In that light, advancements in glass technology maybe aren’t so threatening after all, a point to which York certainly agrees. “I don’t think that it’s going to affect us quite as much as what people
are projecting it to,” she says.

Matthew de Paula is a contributing writer for WINDOW FILM magazine.

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