Smart Windows and Mirror Technologies: An Opportunity Analysis

The information for this article was taken from the NanoMarkets reports “Worldwide Smart Windows Markets 2013-2020” and “Smart Windows Materials Markets 2014-2021

The construction, automotive and aerospace industries combined will spend around $2.0 billion in 2013 for glass and film that prevents too much light being transmitted or reflected.  The reasons why someone would need materials of this kind are easy to understand.  Avoidance of glare is critical to this market, but so is energy efficiency, and temperature control.

We think this aggregate market number is accurate, but acknowledge that it might be somewhat confusing.  It includes both what we might call “dumb glass,” as well as the smart kind.  By dumb glass we simply mean films and coatings that filter out light.  Smart windows by contrast adapts to the sunlight level either by virtue of a smart coating that changes with the level of light (passive smart windows) or through direct electrical control (active smart windows).  In the case of active smart windows, the control might come directly from a building automation system.

Many of the smart windows technologies are not especially new.  What has suddenly given them some glamor is that the rising real price of energy is increasing the ROI of smart windows deployment, while at the same time smart windows fit perfectly with the growing interest in LEED and zero-energy buildings.

For smart windows to replace dumb ones, they are going to have to achieve improved price points.  And the business models adopted by smart windows suppliers are going to have to recognize where the opportunities are and where they are not.

The Smart Windows Opportunity:  Not as Big as it Seems?

Most of the revenue included in NanoMarkets’ $2.0 billion estimate given above could not really be called an opportunity in the usual sense of that word.   Around $550 million comes from conventional window film.  We expect that market to grow slowly – 5 to 6 percent each year through this decade.  It is already a low-margin business, dominated by established suppliers.  Not a land of opportunity for newcomers this.

Nor is window film “smart” in the sense that the smart windows sector uses this term, it does not respond dynamically to changes in light conditions either as the result of the chemical nature of the coating or film used, or because an on/off switch can be flipped.  Glass that is “smart” in this sense currently uses one (or more) of the following technologies:  thermochromic, photochromic, electrochromic, SPD or PDLC.

While all these technologies are included in our global $2.0 billion number and they are genuinely “smart,” NanoMarkets cautions that not all of them are areas worthy of commercial pursuit.

• In particular, included in these numbers are self-dimming automotive mirrors, most of which come from Gentex.  Gentex claims an 88 percent share of the self-diming mirror market and this firm has dominated this part of the smart glass market for many years. For this reason alone, self-dimming auto mirrors do not seem a good place to invest for a new entrant.  Nonetheless, we think these mirrors represent 30 to 35 percent of the smart windows market.

• Then there is PDLC.  This is also a genuine smart glass technology and perhaps one that presents a good future for existing and future suppliers, but it is limited in applicability mainly to privacy glass, because it is does not offer enough transmissivity to serve as a substitute for regular windows.  There is definitely a market for smart privacy glass, and not just in James Bond movies, but it is a market separate and different from which most smart glass makers are targeting

Where the Opportunities Are

Kicking out the technologies listed above, one is left with a general “opportunity space” worth around $350 million consisting of electrochromic glass, and several different kinds of films (electrochromic, thermochromic, photochromic and SDP).  Some of these technologies have excellent growth prospects – we have estimated a CAGR of around 30 percent for electrochromic film, for example.

However, all of these technologies are chasing after the same markets to a large extent, so it makes considerable sense to benchmark them against each other, which we do in the exhibit below.  While a discussion with any of the fine purveyors of smart windows will leave one convinced that their particular flavor of smart windows technology is the way to go, there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between the smart windows technologies.  That is to say, there is nothing that jumps out that we can see that says one smart windows technology is going to be a winner or a losers.

Price, of course, does make a difference; especially when one considers the potential for residential market sales over time (which is considerable) and there does seem to be a view in the market that electrochromic technology may do especially well, because of its ability to lower prices over time.  However, NanoMarkets expect that – in the final analysis — what really may stand between success and failure in the smart windows market may be supply chain strength; or what is today sometimes referred to as a strong business ecosystem.

The Vital Ecosystem

Glass firms are taking a considerable and understandable interest in the smart windows business and some of the biggest – AGC and Corning, for example – have been doing R&D in this field.  However, at present most of the innovative work in smart windows seems to be coming out of smaller firms.

The obvious strategy in such circumstances is for these small technology providers to form alliances with the big glass firms.  But the nature of these alliances – what works best – has yet to be determined.  Some possible business models are evolving, however, and more will evolve and develop.

There is already some of this going on; PPG and Pleotint are technical partners, for example.  And Saint-Gobain now owns Sage, the strongest possible alliance.  This could give these smaller smart windows firms a presence in supply chains that are long established and well-funded; supply chains that they could never have created for themselves.

There will be more technical alliances, mergers and acquisitions.  That’s for sure. But we also note that a licensing model can be very effective.  The case in point here is Research Frontiers which licenses its SPD technology to a huge range of firms.  The downside, of course, is that its revenues consist entirely of licensing fees.  It’s hard to build a big business that way, but then again, in another industry, ARM did exactly that.

RFI’s SPD technology is currently manufactured exclusively by Hitachi Chemical which has at least 400,000 square meters of production capacity in place. This would be the equivalent of perhaps $200 million in SPD glass shipped if the plant was working at full capacity and firms other than Hitachi Chemical are beginning to manufacture SPD glass too.

While only some of the value created by RFI’s technology will be returned to Hitachi, this means that Hitachi has enough confidence to believe that SPD – currently regarded as something of a niche — will emerge someday as one of the most successful smart windows technologies.

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