I am excerpting on this blog roughly 10% of my next book, The New Technology Elite due out in February (and available for pre-order on Amazon – see badge on left) . Chapters 6 through 17 cover 12 attributes of what I call the elite. Each also has a case study. Here is the excerpts from case study, Corning Gorilla Glass for Chapter 15 which focused on Speed. Note: the text is going through the publisher’s edits and subject to change.
“The Auto industry has four-year design cycles. Consumer electronics, in contrast, are moving to four-month cycles. And they need a much wider range of shapes and sizes. In 2007 we had one device using Corning Gorilla Glass. Now over 400 products have it.”
Dr. Nagaraja Shashidhar (who goes as “Shashi”), business development manager at Corning, is describing a few of the demanding dimensions of one of the most successful product launches the 160-year-old specialty glass and ceramics company has ever had. In 2011, Gorilla in its third full year is on track to reach $800 million in revenue.
“Specialty Glass and Ceramics” may be a misnomer. Corning has repeatedly influenced technology markets. The Generations of Corning24, a book written in 2001 to celebrate the company’s 150th birthday, says, “Very few companies have made inventions that have affected humankind profoundly. Corning has been involved with at least three: electric lighting, television, and fiber-optic communications. Glass is the hidden but essential material that makes all three work.”
Now Corning can claim a fourth. Corning explains the functionality and the fashion appeal of Gorilla Glass as “Scrapes, bumps, and drops are a fact of life, but Gorilla Glass enables your device to resist damage from the abuses that come with everyday use. Gorilla Glass also has strong aesthetic appeal. It’s thin, lightweight, and cool to the touch—enabling the sleekest designs.”25
American Tourister made a name for its hard-shelled luggage with commercials that showed a gorilla throwing around its products. Corning is bringing out the gentle, protective side of the gorilla.
Continues Shashi: “We keep getting customer stories like the one whose device got run over by a truck. The device was a write-off but our glass survived intact!”
That magic calls for a chemistry lesson. Ion exchange is a chemical strengthening process where large ions are “stuffed” into the glass surface, creating a state of compression. Gorilla Glass is specially designed to maximize this behavior. The glass is placed in a hot bath of molten salt at a temperature of approximately 400°C. Smaller sodium ions leave the glass, and larger potassium ions from the salt bath replace them. These larger ions take up more room and are pressed together when the glass cools, producing a layer of compressive stress on the surface of the glass. Gorilla Glass’s special composition enables the potassium ions to diffuse far into the surface, creating high compressive stress deep into the glass. This layer of compression creates a surface that is more resistant to damage from everyday use.26
It also calls for a legal lesson. “We have device-specific NDAs (nondisclosure agreements) with many of our customers,” says Shashi, which means that Corning employees wouldn’t be able to confirm all brands that use Gorilla Glass.
Corning has repeatedly shown an impressive memory and ability to go back into its decades-old vaults and pull out technology to create products as markets mature. An example: Dr. J. Franklin Hyde, a Corning chemist, invented a process in the 1930s for making an almost-pure glass used today in fiber-optic technology. A market for that product only took off in the 1990s as telecoms internationally started moving away from copper in their networks.
Gorilla Glass has its own story of such institutional memory. In the 1960s, Corning launched “Project Muscle.” According to company lore, then-President Bill Decker told the Research Director, Dr. Bill Armistead, “Glass breaks. . . . Why don’t you fix that?”
Project Muscle led to a new ultra strong glass material called Chemcor, designed to stand 100,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. There are films of it being bombarded with frozen chickens and it would not chip, let alone crack and break.
This is not the old Chemcor. As Shashi points out. “We drew on the company’s prior expertise with strengthened glass. However, Gorilla Glass is a different product and glass composition than Chemcor.”
Gorilla Glass draws on Corning’s proprietary “fusion-draw” manufacturing process. Molten glass is fed into a trough called an “isopipe,” overfilling until the glass flows evenly over both sides. It then rejoins, or fuses, at the bottom, where it is drawn down to form a continuous sheet of flat glass.
Even though Corning knew it had a winner, it took plenty of customer coaching to think about glass, instead of plastic, in their product design in the 2007 and 2008 time frame. Shashi talks about several customer visits where Corning taught the basics of strength of glass and how to design components with glass, affectionately called as Glass 101. Part of the education also involved visits to the famous Corning Museum of Glass, where industrial designers could get inspiration to design products with glass. The Corning Museum of Glass is an entity legally separate from the company and does not specially feature Gorilla Glass or related products.
Glass is supposed to be brittle (as President Decker had expressed much earlier), so one of the most impressive sales techniques to combat that image is the ball-drop test—an industry standard test for glass durability. A 1.18-pound iron ball is dropped from 1.9 meters. The Gorilla Glass gives and then returns to its original position—still in one piece. At trade shows attendees were invited to scratch, pierce, and otherwise torture a piece of Gorilla Glass. It survived just fine.
The social buzz started growing as YouTube videos of the ball drop and the trade show tortures started circulating. Corning also put out its own “A Day Made of Glass” video, which shows futuristic architectural, automotive, 3D TV, and large-panel displays such as highway signs, all made from glass. That is one of the most-watched corporate videos ever produced.
Photo Credit: Corning