An ultra-strong glass that has been looking for a purpose since its invention in 1962 is poised to become a multibillion-dollar bonanza for Corning, which is expanding its Harrodsburg plant that produces it and is adding 80 jobs.
The 159-year-old glass pioneer is ramping up production of what it calls Gorilla glass, expecting it to be the hot new face of touch-screen tablets and high-end TVs.
Gorilla showed early promise in the '60s but failed to find a commercial use, so it has been biding its time in a hilltop research lab for almost a half-century. It picked up its first customer in 2008 and has quickly become a $170 million-a-year business as a protective layer over the screens of 40 million-plus cell phones and other mobile devices.
Now, the latest trend in TVs could catapult it to a billion-dollar business: Frameless flat screens that could be mistaken for chic glass artwork on a living-room wall.
Because Gorilla is very hard to break, dent or scratch, Corning is betting that it will be the glass of choice as TV-set manufacturers dispense with protective rims or bezels for their sets, in search of an elegant look.
Gorilla is two to three times stronger than chemically strengthened versions of ordinary soda-lime glass, even when just half as thick, company scientists say. Its strength also means Gorilla can be thinner than a dime, saving on weight and shipping costs.
Corning is in talks with Asian manufacturers to bring Gorilla to the TV market in early 2011 and expects to land its first deal this fall.
The company announced last week that it is planning a $187 million expansion at the Harrodsburg plant that will add 80 jobs to the several hundred already there.
The Harrodsburg expansion was recently awarded as much as $4.5 million in state tax incentives and as much as $1 million in tax rebates related to construction costs.
Corning also will build capacity in the plant to begin producing specialty glass for thin-film photovoltaics. That thin glass can improve a solar module's electricity-conversion efficiency and reduce weight while maintaining product strength and long-term reliability.
Corning's Harrodsburg plant is undergoing is third major product transformation since opening in 1952. The plant originally made various ophthalmic products.
In the mid-1980s, the plant became the focus of its liquid crystal display glass, which is used in flat-panel TVs, desktop monitors and cell phones.
With production going full tilt in Harrodsburg, Corning also is converting part of a second factory in Shizuoka, Japan, to fill a potential burst of orders by year-end.
"That'll tell you something about our confidence in this," Corning president Peter Volanakis said.
Providing stock boost
Investors are taking notice of Gorilla's promise. In June, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York raised Corning's projected share price, predicting that Gorilla would be its second-biggest business by 2015.
"There's a wide range of views on how successful this product will be," Deutsche Bank analyst Carter Shoop said. "But I think it's safe to say that, in aggregate, people are becoming much more bullish. It's a tremendous opportunity. We'll have to see how consumers react."
Corning's Volanakis said that because it's "a fashion trend, not a functional trend" the growth rate is "very hard to predict."
"But because the market is so large in terms of number of TVs — and the amount of glass per TV is so large — that's what can move the needle pretty quickly," he said.
Based in western New York, Corning is the world's largest maker of glass for liquid-crystal-display computers and TVs. High-margin LCD glass generated the bulk of Corning's $5.4 billion in 2009 sales.
By ramping up volume production quickly in a budding market, Corning is pursuing a well-worn strategy designed to keep rivals from gaining ground. Its patience also is well practiced. Executives know too well that the gulf between inspiration and application is sometimes decades wide.
Corning set out in the late 1950s to find a glass as strong as steel. Dubbed Project Muscle, the effort combined heating and layering experiments and produced a robust yet bendable material called Chemcor.
Corning thought Chemcor sheets would be the material of choice in car windshields, but British rival Pilkington Bros. intervened with a far cheaper mass-production approach. Another Chemcor adaptation, in photo chromic sunglasses, also fizzled in the retail market.
In 2006, when demand surfaced for a cell phone cover glass, Corning dug out Chemcor from its database, tweaked it for manufacturing in LCD tanks, and renamed it Gorilla. "Initially, we were telling ourselves a $10 million business," researcher Ron Stewart said.
With relatively low startup costs, Gorilla should generate its first profit this year. And now that production is back on, designers are again exploring using it in unexpected places, including refrigerator doors, car sunroofs and touch-screen hotel advertising.
Among the 100-plus devices with Gorilla are Motorola's Droid smart phone and LG Electronics' X300 notebook.
Since the Civil War, Corning has turned out a glittering array of innovations, from railroad signals to Pyrex; from auto-pollution filters to optical fiber. Allotting 10 percent of revenue to research keeps promising projects brewing at its research hub outside Corning, N.Y.
In his office lobby, Jim Steiner, general manager of Corning's specialty materials division, showed off a 400-foot-long spool of flexible, 16-inch-wide glass that's as thin as a sheet of paper.
"Kind of like Chemcor was back in the '60s," he said. "We're not sure what we're going to do with it, but it's cool, isn't it?"