Corning's Journey From Cookware To Gorilla Glass

Originally published on March 14, 2011 8:01 pm

The shift-change whistle still sounds four times a day in Corning, N.Y. But these days, the whistle mostly reminds Corning's office workers and researchers that it's time for lunch, because almost all manufacturing is done elsewhere.

Corning Inc.'s glass products used to be in most American kitchens. The 160-year-old New York manufacturer was known for glassware so tough, it was guaranteed. Corning sold off the Corelle line along with Pyrex and its other kitchen products in the 1990s, but the company is still developing some of the toughest glass in the world. Its latest rising star is the superthin and tough Gorilla Glass.

A Gorilla Test

Don Clark, who works in a lab that runs performance tests on Gorilla Glass, has a particular demonstration he likes to show off: He has rigged up a device to shoot a Wii remote control into a pane of Gorilla Glass.

The remote hits the glass at around 60 mph, and it bounces right off.

Demonstrations like this one seem to have convinced manufacturers of everything from cell phones to televisions to buy Gorilla Glass. The glass was used on some 200 million phones last year. Though managers at Corning coyly say they can't confirm what Apple uses in its products, it is widely reported that much of the Gorilla Glass went to iPhones.

This year, Gorilla Glass sales could reach $1 billion — almost one-sixth of Corning's total sales last year.

"My iPhone was actually run over, and although the back of the case was really pitted from being run over, the glass itself did not break," says Jim Kelleher, a senior analyst for Argus Research.

Not every iPhone owner is so lucky, but Kelleher says there is no doubt that Corning's glass lines are strong.

Corning has had bubbles burst before. But this time, Kelleher says, the company has a number of products that are in demand.

Keeping Its Domestic Operations Thriving

Jim Flaws, Corning's chief financial officer, says Corningware was a product of the company's longtime investments in research and development at its headquarters.

"We spent money on R&D, and people at the top of the company would talk about it almost as if it was a religion," he says.

And while a lot of glass production occurs overseas, 40 percent of Corning employees are still in the U.S.

Flaws, who got his start working in the company's housewares division, says there are no plans to move the research operation elsewhere. He says the benefits of having Corning's technical resources concentrated at its headquarters outweigh costs.

Even during the recession, the company didn't cut back on its research and development, he says, because it's the company's future.

Corning makes ceramic filters in upstate New York. The company is also expanding its domestic operation in Harrodsburg, Ky., to make more Gorilla Glass. And it has begun testing what it hopes will be its next big advance — glass so thin and flexible that it will be rolled up and sold on spools.

This story was produced as part of the InnovationTrail project.

Copyright 2013 WSKG Public Radio. To see more, visit http://wskg.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There is one reason that Corning glass products have been in American kitchens for more than 160 years. They're guaranteed not to break.

Unidentified Man: Until Corning invented Corelle Livingware, no dishes that were so much like china could take everyday pounding.

(Soundbite of clanking)

MONTAGNE: The New York manufacturer sold off some its better-known lines - like Pyrex, in the 1990s - and started making most of its remaining products overseas.

But Emma Jacobs reports it is one company that's doing well by reinventing itself, while still making some of the toughest glass in the world.

(Soundbite of whistle blowing)

EMMA JACOBS: The shift-change whistle still sounds four times a day in Corning, New York. Though these days, the whistle mostly reminds Corning Incorporated's office workers and researchers that it's time for lunch, since almost all manufacturing is done elsewhere.

Jim Flaws, the company's CFO, works out of the firm's soaring glass headquarters. He still has a lot of the old Corning cookware in his basement from his days in housewares. But he says even CorningWare was a product of the company's longtime investments in research in Corning.

Mr. JIM FLAWS (CFO, Corning): We spent money on R&D, and the people at the top of company would talk about it almost as if it was a religion.

Mr. DON CLARK (Corning): So I hit the drop button.

(Soundbite of beep and crash)

JACOBS: Don Clark works in a lab that runs performance tests on the company's latest rising star: super thin, tough Gorilla Glass. Clark has a particular demonstration he likes to show off. He's rigged up a device to shoot a Wii that's the game remote - into a pane of Gorilla Glass. The Wii hits at around 60 miles an hour.

Mr. CLARK: Hopefully, this doesn't break, but here it goes.

(Soundbite of crash)

JACOBS: Oh, yeah.

And it bounces right off.

Demonstrations like this one seem to have convinced manufacturers of everything from cell phones to televisions. Gorilla Glass was on some 200 million phones last year. And though managers at Corning coyly say they can't confirm what Apple uses in its products, it's widely reported that much of that Gorilla Glass went to iPhones.

This year, Gorilla Glass sales could reach a billion dollars. That's almost a sixth of Corning's total sales last year.

Mr. JIM KELLEHER (Argus Research): My iPhone was actually run over, and although the back of the case was really kind of pitted from being run over, the glass itself did not break.

JACOBS: Not every iPhone owner is so lucky, but Jim Kelleher of Argus Research says there's no doubt Corning's glass lines are strong. Corning has had bubbles burst before, but this time, he says, the company has not just Gorilla Glass, but other projects, too, that come out of solid research that meets companies' needs.

And while a lot of glass production happens overseas, 40 percent of Corning's employees are still in the U.S. The company's CFO, Jim Flaws, who got his start in dishes, says there are no plans to move the R&D operation from home. He says the benefits of having Corning's technical resources concentrated here outweigh any costs, even in a downturn, he says.

Mr. FLAWS: We didn't cut back on the research and development, because we view that as really our future.

JACOBS: Corning makes ceramic filters in Upstate New York. And the company's expanding its onshore operation in Harrodsburg, Kentucky to make more Gorilla Glass. Corning has also begun testing in Kentucky on what it hopes will be its next big advance: glass so thin and so flexible it will be rolled up and sold on spools.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.