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Published: Wednesday, 8/11/2010

1962 glass gets big role in future at Corning


CORNING, N.Y. - 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 Inc.

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's been biding its time in a 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 wall.

Because Gorilla is very hard to break, dent, or scratch, Corning is betting it will be the glass of choice as TV-set manufacturers in search of an elegant look dispense with protective rims for their sets.

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.

DisplaySearch analyst Paul Gagnon said alternatives "obviously scratch easier, they're thicker and heavier, but they're also cheaper." He estimates that a sheet of Gorilla would add $30 to $60 to the cost of a set.

"This is a fashion trend, not a functional trend, and that's what makes [the growth rate] very hard to predict," said Corning President Peter Volanakis. "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."

Corning, based in western New York, is the world's largest maker of glass for liquid-crystal-display computers and TVs.

High-profit LCD glass generated the bulk of Corning's $5.4 billion in 2009 revenues.

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.

In 2006, when demand surfaced for a cell phone cover glass, Corning dug out Chemcor from its database, tweaked it for manufacturing, and renamed it Gorilla. Designers are again exploring using it in unexpected places such as like refrigerator doors and car sunroofs.

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