3/29/2010

Simon Pearce Glass and Light

As a senior technical communicator who has worked in transportation (electronic tolling) telecommunications, biotechnology, nuclear, and other manufacturing areas, I have always loved seeing, understanding, and describing, in paper and digital media, how things are made, as with the Simon Pearce glass blowing process.
Why?
Because, no matter how advanced the Six Sigma, quality control, good manufacturing practices, LEAN, CMMI, and other manufacturing process systems are, in the end, it is a caring and hardworking human being that creates a great product. I discovered this again when I toured the glass plant of Simon Pearce in Mt. Lake Park, MD near Deep Creek, MD.
Dr. David Hummel, Mt. Airy, MD, high-tech dentist extraordinaire and owner or Bear Creek Dental, was kind enough to lend my wife and I his cabin in Deep Creek, MD for our 25th wedding anniversary.
Among the finds that weekend was a glass blowing factory owned by Simon Pearce nearby. You can visit the plant and see the glass being made by the artisans. It is a difficult and delicate process. In this age of mass-production, it is a marvel to watch them take molten liquid glass and shape it to create a piece...one at a time.
Hopefully, the photos below (click any photo to enlarge it) give you an idea of how they do it and the wide range of clear glass products they create and offer. More of their products can be found at the Simon Pearce website here.
A brief view of some of the multiple steps of the glass-blowing process and the art of the artisans is shown in the short videos below. Click the button in each video to start it.
According to the "Glass Blowing Process" procedure sheet given out at the Simon Pearce factory, the following steps are involved.
"Today at Simon Pearce, glassblowing is still done, as it would have been done 200 years ago. Employing the traditional skills of old European studies, finished by one person and an assistant making each pieces. As a result, the glass has its own distinct, individual character.
Learning: it takes an individual 2 to 5 years to learn the art of glassblowing. Each blower follows a course from apprentice, to journeyman, craftsman and master. This course takes place under the guidance of a master glassblower."
When we toured, Anthony Wrotten, a glassblower working on a Saturday, came over to us and asked if we had any questions. I asked him if he was trained by the company or started trained and he said, "No, that's one of the many great things about Simon Pearce. They took me on untrained six years ago and taught me everything." I also asked about the owner, Simon Pearce. He replied, "He's a good guy. When he visits, he always talks to us." (If only more American CEO's did that, maybe our manufacturing base would still be the envy of the world.)
Click the triangle at the base of each video window below to show a part of the glass blowing process.
Composition: The glass comes from pellets composed of silica sand, lime, potash and barium.
Melting: The raw pellets are fed into the furnace where they are heated to approximately 400 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the glass turns to a liquid state, which is then ready to be worked. The furnace runs 24 hours a day.
video video
Melting: The raw pellets are fed into a furnace where they are heated to approximately 2400 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, the glass turns to a liquid state, which is then ready to be worked. the furnace runs 24 hours a day.
Gathering: The glassblower places the heated end of a blowpipe into the molten glass and gets a "blog" of glass...called a gather...by turning the pipe. The temperature coming out is 2100 degrees Fahrenheit.
video video
Blowing and Shaping: The glassblower brings a gather of glass on he blowpipe to the workbench where it is shaped using wooden tools called blocks. Once the glass is symmetrically shaped, he blows air down the blowpipe to form an air bubble into the glass. The glass is then blown into a graphite form or mold to give the piece its initial form. At this point, a stem and foot are attached if these are parts of the piece being made.
video video
Finishing: Once an initial shape has been formed, a second pipe with a small amount of glass, called a pontil, is attached to the bottom of the piece. the piece is severed from the original blowpipe. The glass is then reheated in an oven called a glory hole, and the rim of the piece is finished by hand.
video video
Pontil Mark: In the last stage of flowing, the piece is transferred from the blowpipe to the pointo iron and, in so doing, a small mark is formed...in this case, the Simon Pearce symbol...on the base.
video video
Annealing: Once a piece is finished, it is broken off the pontil and placed in a special oven called a Lehr. The temperature in the Lehr starts at 950 degrees, gradually decreasing as the belt moves. The glass must be cooled very slowly to avoid cracking and to relieve any stress in the glass. This is called annealing and takes about twelve to twenty-four hours."
As the Simon Pearce Catalog (page 17) further describes the miracle of crafting glass:
"To the onlooker, the finished vessel almost seems to have been conjured from the glowing lump of glass with which the work began. But the wine glass, the bowl, or the pitcher are no illusions, and neither are the care and long apprenticeship that allow the glassblower to perform his seeming miracle. Readers are invited to visit the Simon Pearce glassblowing shops and witness the miracle for themselves. This ancient craft survives today...indeed, it shrives.. as a celebration of skills patiently acquired and painstakingly applied, and of the beauty and utility of the objects they create."
Michelangelo, when asked once why he was carving into stone, replied: "I'm trying to bring the angel inside out." Watching the artisans blow glass at this Simon Pearce plant, it was a pleasure to observe the workers there try, and succeed, at bringing out the light (angel) in the glass. They make a great product carefully, honestly, creatively and openly. So, try to take the tour.
Visit one of their glass workshops, especially with your children if you can get them away from their computer games, and see the miracle of glass and light forged into products that create light and spirit for years for your family.

800 774 5277

Vermont
The Mill
1760 Quechee Main Street
Quechee, VT 05059

109 Park Road
Windsor, VT 05089
802 674 6280

Simon Pearce also has two restaurants featuring their products and good food at:

The Mill
1760 Quechee Main Street
Quechee, VT 05059
802 295 1470

On the Bandywine
1333 Lenape Road
Route 52 North
West Chester, PA 19382
610 793 0949

My wife, who is a corporate travel agent, was so impressed with the glass work she brought back information on the Simon Pearce corporate gifts and awards products. Her company currently hands out a European glass makers awards and she sees no reason why they should not buy better, more artistic, higher quality, American-made glass in the future. So, if you need corporate gifts and awards, here is that link.

Simon Pearce represents all that is best in manufacturing: a unique, high-quality, durable, innovative, creative, beautiful, and useful product, made by a well-cared for and gifted work force, offered at a fair price. All the company employees we met, from the glass blowers to the sales people in the showroom, spoke very highly of the company and of Simon Pearce himself.
This was once the traditional American Way. It is good to see it surviving, prospering, and innovating still in pockets of excellence. Simon Pearce can teach much to American manufacturers, most critically that good manufacturing has more to do with the light inside people and the product than the numbers inside the process.

"I've always said that the customer service is as important as the product."
Simon Pearce

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