Glass once used in windshields and space crafts reborn into cell
phones and electronics
CORNING, N.Y. – More than 40 years ago Corning Technologist Bill Decker told Bill Armistead, in classic Corning folklore style, “Glass breaks… Why don’t you fix that?” Armistead launched “Project Muscle,” leading to a new ultra strong glass material called Chemcor™, which withstood 100,000 pounds of pressure per square inch and could be bombarded with frozen chickens at high rates of speed and not so much as chip, let alone crack and break.
Chemcor was slated to be Corning’s next big thing, showing up as the windshield in Ford Mustangs, in windows for space crafts and even as a new line of unbreakable tableware. But the glass was too strong for some applications and never truly took off as expected in 1960s, according to The Generations of Corning.
Fast forward to present day industry -- the muscle-bound glass of the ‘60s had been on a shelf for the past few decades when calls began to trickle in from cell phone manufacturers looking for a replacement to the easily scratched plastic lens that had been used on the phone’s displays for the last 10 years or so.
“There was this market pull for a strong, protective glass covering for use on cell phones and it kind of trickled into an exploratory project and then a bigger project,” said James Hollis, program manager for the latest glass development from Corning’s emerging technologies sector.
As cell phone manufactures challenged Corning to find a glass to meet their specific product needs, Corning scientists looked on their invention and innovation shelves, their eyes falling on Chemcor – the chemically strengthened glass that was still awaiting its perfect market niche.
With the internal project name of “Gorilla® glass,” denoting the abnormal strength of this glass, the project team scrambled to find a way to make the glass the proper thickness to serve as a protective cover to liquid crystal displays, including those displays with touch technology.
The project began with phone calls and some basic research in 2005. By 2006 it had become a formalized project moving full speed ahead as an innovation project driven by market demands for not just cell phone covers – which had been plastic (easily scratched) or soda lime glass (easily chipped and then broken) – but also for notebooks, GPS devices, portable music players, smart phones and more.
The team tried to shed it’s jungle identity for the highly durable, scratch-resistant liquid-crystal display cover glass in favor of something more rocky or picturesque -- think mountains -- and began to market this new, old glass as “Ruggedized Glass.” But the name didn’t stick like Gorilla glass – and that is how it has become known as the team takes it out to conferences and shows and introduces it to the media, analysts and potential buyers.
When you think of a gorilla, you probably imagine the banana-eating, chest-beating, tree-swinging mammal known for its ferocious strength and stocky build. While Gorilla glass mirrors its namesake’s strength, it doesn’t have to be bulky to get the job done. Gorilla glass can be produced in the svelte thinness of less than one millimeter, according to the product team. It provides added protection for personal electronic devices and is especially valuable for those devices featuring touch-screen technologies.
“Everyone is looking for smaller, thinner handheld devices with more and more functionality crammed into one device,” explained Jessica Baker, of the demand to produce the thinner-than-a-fingernail layer of glass for the protective glass lens on the display glass.
In order to get to that combination of high volume, Hollywood-esqe thinness and sheet quality, the team had to develop a new composite of the glass formula that would allow them to do the fusion-draw production in Harrodsburg, Ky., instead of the slot-draw production the project had started with in Danville, Va.
From February of 2007 to May of 2007 the team sprinted through trials and research to develop the new composition that, amazingly, worked on the first try, according to Hollis, who noted that out-of the-gate success virtually never happens with new glass composites. Since that time, another composition has been developed in order to meet demand for extra-green glass. Now, after two innovative composition developments in less than 18 months, the environmentally friendly alumino-silicate glass, produced with the fusion draw process, can be produced in uniform, thin sheets with a pristine surface.
The pressure mounted on the team – placed there by market demands from manufacturers clamoring to bring high-end, high-quality products to the public with a dare-not-fail attitude.
Despite the pressure and the recent hype around Gorilla glass at the Society for Information Display (SID) conference in May in Los Angeles, where in just a few days more than 90 customers inquired about the capabilities of the product and requested more information on its usage, Hollis is still reluctant to talk about expectations for Corning’s newest pet business – Gorilla glass.
“It could be a decent-sized business,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “It’s not a display-size business, but it could do alright.”
Gorilla’s evolution from 40-year-old technology to market-ready product challenged Corning’s usual path to production.
“It’s been the hardest project I’ve ever worked on because of the time line,” Hollis said.
“It’s the fastest moving project I’ve ever worked on,” added Abbie Liebman, the product line manager.
The speed of the project and reality that team members could see their product appearing on a device on market shelves in several months time helped to drive the excitement and momentum of the work, Jessica said.
“Developing a composition and having it be production ready in three months …. that’s very impressive,” she said.
At SID, Corning hosted a Gorilla Glass Suite, a media breakfast, and a booth containing displays. Roughly 7,500 people attended the show and Corning hosted 30 to 40 members of the media for a breakfast where Hollis delivered a presentation on the characteristics and applications of Gorilla glass.
“It went well, but I could have just showed the (ball-drop) video and sat down. That would have been enough,” he said of the media’s reaction to the presentation.
A brief movie clip within the presentation shows a ball dropping from a given height onto identical pieces of soda lime and Gorilla glass. The soda lime glass shatters. The Gorilla glass gives and then returns to its original position – still in one piece.
“Are you sure that’s glass?” asked one reporter to Hollis after watching the presentation video.
The speedy development of what may be a lucrative business for Corning taught the team and Hollis some valuable lessons.
“If we want to, we can move faster than our typical size or bureaucracy lends itself to. We can move a lot faster than we think we can,” he said.
Right now Hollis and his team don’t want to move very fast at all, though. After spending the past 18 months at a dead sprint to get to the finish line in time to meet market demands and deliver the quality product Corning is known for, the team wants to take a minute and relish the glow of a job well done.
But with 90 customer inquiries to return and more requests and challenges coming in virtually every day to take Gorilla glass to new levels and new markets, it doesn’t look like this team will slow down anytime soon – nor will the growth potential for this Gorilla … Gorilla glass, that is.