Plane Windows That Dim

December 23, 2005
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ZEELAND — Gentex Corp. is taking its business to new heights by manufacturing passenger cabin windows that dim for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, set to take off in 2008.

"It's an opportunity for us to offer technology that has, to date, only been used in automotive (and transfer it) in to the aerospace industry," said Connie Hamblin, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications at Gentex. "It's a unique technology, and Boeing is the first aircraft manufacturer to take advantage of this."

Gentex will supply the window assembly as well as the electronics that control the dimming of the window to PPG Aerospace, a Huntsville, Ala., aircraft window manufacturer that has been awarded a contract by Boeing.

Boeing spokeswoman Lori Gunter said the dimming technology, also used in rearview mirrors, will improve the aesthetics of the cabin space by giving passengers more options than a too-bright window or a view-blocking shade such as they have now.

"Today's option is either open window or closed window, and somebody always ends up unhappy," she said.

Boeing wants to eliminate that issue with the 787 Dreamliner and provide a more enjoyable traveling experience through many changes in the cabin. Hamblin said the windows will be controlled by a switch adjacent to the passenger. All windows can also be controlled by the flight crew, in case the need should arise.

The windows are similar to auto-dimming rearview mirrors, but of course without the mirrored/reflective surface. The windows are constructed with two pieces of glass with transparent conductive coatings on the inner surface of each glass sheet. The coating comes in contact with the electrochromic gel, which, when electricity is applied, changes from clear to dark with various stages in between. Passengers on the aircraft will have five settings from which to choose.

While aircraft manufacturers have been looking for a solution to the window problem for a while, there has not been technology that fits the specifications until now. Hamblin said that Gentex has been working on the project with PPG Aerospace for more than a year and a half.

Though Gentex has been developing technology with the dimming glass for years, Hamblin said this is the first opportunity to expand outside of the automotive industry.

"We've always been looking for different opportunities to deploy this technology; this happens to be the first application that happens to present a very good business case for us," she said.

In the first five years, Gentex is expecting $50 million in incremental revenue to be shared between PPG and Gentex, with the Zeeland company receiving the majority. There are 185 Dreamliners ordered to date.

"We expect that we should have good margins on the product," Hamblin said. "The goal is to expand it, not only with Boeing as a customer, but with other aircraft manufacturers."

Hamblin said the new 300,000-square-foot facility that Gentex is building across from its headquarters on Centennial Street should suit the needs of the expansion. The company is not planning to hire new employees.

Hamblin said the new product is an example of the company's ability to grow and diversify.

"I think it shows people that we are creative and that we're able to do more than just one thing," she said. "We do have the capability to expand into other markets and we'll continue to look into other opportunities."

Though Gentex is expanding into other markets, it is not leaving behind the automotive industry. Despite hardships in other areas of the industry, Hamblin said Gentex has been increasing sales of the auto-dimming mirrors.

"It's a bright spot in the automotive industry," she said.    

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