August 2, 2010

Gorilla Glass Emerges After 40 Years Of Hibernation

A glass that was invented in 1962 is expected to finally become a multibillion-dollar industry for Corning Inc. after years of not having a use.

The 159-year-old glass pioneer is producing what it calls Gorilla glass, expecting it to be the hot new face of touch-screen tablets and high-end TVs.

The glass failed to find a commercial use in the 60's, but 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 smartphones and other mobile devices.

Gorilla glass is hard to break, dent or scratch, so Corning is hoping it will be the glass of choice as TV-set manufacturers dispense with protective rims or bezels for their sets.

Company scientists say that Gorilla is two to three times stronger than chemically strengthened versions of ordinary soda-lime glass, even when just half as thick.  Its strength also means that Gorilla can be thinner than a dime, saving on weight and shipping costs.

DisplaySearch market analyst Paul Gagnon told The Associated Press (AP) that 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.

It remains to be seen "whether this becomes a hit trend that propagates to other models and sizes or remains in the confines of a premium step-up series of products," Gagnon said.

"This is a fashion trend, not a functional trend, and that's what makes (the growth rate) very hard to predict," Corning President Peter Volanakis told AP. "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 is the world's largest maker of glass for LCD computers and TVs. 

The company is pursuing a well-worn strategy designed to keep rivals from gaining ground by ramping up volume production quickly in a budding market.  Executives know too well the gulf between inspiration and application is sometimes decades-wide.

Corning ran the sheets of glass through a "tempering" process that set up internal stresses in the material in order to make gorilla glass.  The same principle is behind the toughness of Pyrex glass, but Chemcor was tempered in a chemical bath, not by heat treatment.

Corning hoped Gorilla glass would be the material of choice for car windshields, but British rival Pilkington Bros. intervened with a far cheaper mass-production approach.  And another Chemcor adaptation in photochromic sunglasses also fizzled in the retail market.

Gorilla glass is used in 100-plus devices, such as Motorola Inc.'s Droid smart phone and LG Electronic's X300 notebook.  Whether Apple Inc. uses the glass in its iPod is a much-discussed mystery since "not all our customers allow us to say," said Jim Steiner, general manager of Corning's specialty materials division.


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