LAS VEGAS — Ply Gem Industries — a leader in sales of vinyl siding, windows, fences, rails and trim — topped off its product offerings last year with third-quarter shipments of “engineered slate” roofs developed by a separate legal entity it formed in 2012 called Foundation Labs.
At this year's International Builders' Show, the $1.8 billion-company based in Cary, N.C., introduced hinged hip and ridge shingles that conform to any angle to help roofers achieve a more authentic look than they can get from a one-piece ridge cap.
With its entry into the roofing category, the No. 5 pipe, profile and tubing (PPT) extruder in North America, as ranked by Plastics News, is on a manufacturing mission to be a single source for what it calls “the designed exterior.”
Innovation Officer Lee Clark-Sellers offered some insight for the first time into how the secretive Foundation Labs is helping Ply Gem “get outside our comfort zone” of product development and take ideas from 3-D imaging to testing to commercialization.
“We had not done roofing as a company,” she said. “It's a new market, new customers, new product. We had a lot of learning to do. We spent about two years working with the technology.”
Made from nearly 100 percent recycled resins, Ply Gem's plastic slate material is the result of a low-heat, pressure process called fusion annealing, which the company says relieves stress that can lead to problems like cupping and curling.
Ply Gem's latest products — PVC shake and shingle panel siding, too — were introduced to a convention crowd of 125,000 in Las Vegas, where other manufacturers also showed off their new crowning glories for residential and commercial builders.
DaVinci Roofscapes hit the big 5-0 with the introduction of its 14th shade of gray — Smokey gray — at the show held Jan. 20-22. The Lenexa, Kan., company has 50 standard colors of polymer slate and shake roofing products now and it is adding more sizes, too, to reduce the need for installers to cut to size.
Azek Building Products representatives talked about a trend in which their resurface pavers, as opposed to standard landscape pavers, are being used to turn flat roof areas into outdoor living space.
And, CertainTeed Corp., the Valley Forge, Pa.-based maker of vinyl building products that ranks No. 6 among extruders, gave a sneak peak of two new products that will be available later this year, including Presidio metal roofing, where company officials see a different opportunity to replicate the look of clay tile and wood shake.
From the lab
Ply Gem started recycling plywood crates into building products some 70 years ago so innovation isn't new to the company. However, the work of a research unit proposed about four years ago by CEO Gary Robinette is just coming to light.
Clark-Sellers attended the IBS to explain how the closely guarded activity of Foundation Labs, which has sites around the world, fits into the company's mission to keep its lead in product categories and venture into new areas. Company officials liken the labs to a business incubator.
“We've got to take risks and a lot of this isn't going to be successful,” Clark-Sellers said. “We needed to create a safe place and have some people concentrating on ideas, taking some chances, and experimenting with business models. That's why we created Foundation Labs.”
The lab staff leverages internal resources and looks outside the company to strategic relationships with universities, start-ups and established companies for its external network of expertise.
“We go to the harshest climates we can find and we created partnerships with companies that are half-way across the globe to help test and validate our products,” Clark-Sellers said. “These are some of the newer areas we're experimenting with and trying to look at from a Foundation Labs perspective.”
For the engineered slate, the R&D team went to slate yards, made 3-D images of perfect pieces, etched the image onto molds, and created realistic-looking products to run through a gauntlet.
“We sent it over to Australia for testing,” Clark-Sellers said. “We're trying to put in as much rigor as we can. We bought a test chamber — it's the size of a small house — that we can create polar-type weather conditions to Sahara-type.”
After a product idea passes the testing phase, Ply Gem gets customer feedback and comes up with a distribution model. Then, the product leaves the lab setting and becomes its own business unit or is incorporated into an existing unit.
“That's the model for Foundation Labs,” Clark-Sellers said. “We basically look for opportunities. We incubate and prototype those opportunities. We launch the opportunities in Foundation Labs. Then, we move them out.”
The engineered slate shingles are made of a composite thermoplastic compound formulated with recycled polymer materials and they contain real slate. Lightweight but strong, the shingles are designed to withstand wind loads up to 110 mph and golfball sized hail.
Last July, Ply Gem announced a distribution deal to supply the plastic slate, which comes in four colors, in 16 states from Maine to North Carolina.
50 shades of slate, shake
DaVinci Roofscapes, which has been in the polymer roofing businesses since 1999, leads the industry with color choices, tile thickness and width variety. All the products are made of virgin resin in Kansas to ensure quality and consistency of the raw materials.
While all the products are 100 percent recyclable, use of recycled materials in the manufacturing process isn't acceptable, said marketing manager Wendy Bruch.
“We don't feel confident using recycled materials in a product that's exposed to the sun because it has already gone through UV degradation,” she said. “We want to make sure we're putting a product out there that won't fade or crack. You don't want that variable in there.”
DaVinci introduced the new shade of gray at IBS this year, bringing its color palette up to 50 varieties of violets, terra cottas and grays. Why so many?
The company's color consultant, Kate Smith, said consumers want to personalize every aspect of their life.
“DaVinci makes this possible by offering a multitude of standard colors with subtle shade tones plus the opportunity to create their own custom roof color if they desire,” Smith said. “That ability to be completely in control of one's color choices empowers people.”
The company also has come out with a 12-inch wide polymer slate tile made from thicker profiles but they are the same weight. By the end of February, the company should be shipping five sizes of polymer slate that are 6- to 12-inchs wide.
“The really great thing about a multi-width product is once you get like 36 inches out, the installer can figure out a combination of pieces that will work so they don't have to make any cuts,” Bruch said.
The company also says its slate and shake composite products are resistant to impact, fire, algae and mold.
Role of roof grows
Azek, a brand of CPG International LLC, which is No. 14 on the Plastics News PPT ranking, makes products mainly for the decking, rail, molding, trim and pavers categories. Sales of its molded resurface pavers are getting a boost from roofing applications.
“We're seeing a trend where they are being used for hotel rooftops, schools, restaurants, even smaller residences, that have a flat roof space that they're trying to find a way to use with a light-weight product,” said Peter Jonswold, director of sales, Azek Pavers.
Made of mostly recycled tires and food containers, the resurfacing pavers commonly installed over worn-out decks and patios are seeing some higher uses.
“They can turn that rooftop into a living space,” Jonswold said.