What do your smartphone screen, the Pyrex dishes in your kitchen, the ceramic essential for your car’s catalytic converter, the optical fiber that connects you to the Internet or a vial of vaccine against Covid-19 have in common? All of these products were invented by a century-old company… which you have probably never heard of: the American Corning. A global giant with 50,000 employees and $ 11 billion in sales, whose 108 factories around the world supply the main telecom operators, NASA, Mercedes, Apple and Pfizer.
Corning is also the name of a small town of 10,500 inhabitants, a five-hour drive from Manhattan, in a part of New York State best known for its lakes and vineyards. Ever since an entrepreneur, Amory Houghton, relocated his glassworks from Brooklyn there in 1868, the destinies of Corning (the city) and Corning (the company) have been intertwined. The group employs 7,000 people in the region, where it still has its head office and main R & D laboratory. At the entrance to the city, a huge glass museum is the main attraction. Every day of the week, a mermaid marks the start and end of the working day, as a reminder of the golden age of American industry.
In 1879, a young inventor, Thomas Edison, asked the company to develop a glass suitable for its latest creation: the electric bulb. Corning Glass Works will be its main supplier for years to come, as the electricity fairy begins to conquer the world. The manufacture of bulbs, at the time blown by glassmakers, then became the main activity of Corning, which supplied both General Electric of Edison and its main competitor, Westinghouse. Thanks to an innovative signaling lens, invented and patented by one of Amory Houghton’s sons, the company also equips another emblematic sector of the late 19th century, the railways.
The largest glass museum in the world
In Corning, a small town of 10,500 souls located between New York and Lake Ontario, you can admire works by Robert Rauschenberg or Jean-Michel Othoniel, a 3,500-year-old Mesopotamian pendant, superb stained-glass windows from Tiffany studios and even … blowers glass in action! The Corning Museum of Glass, opened in 1951 to celebrate the company’s 100th anniversary, claims the title of the largest museum dedicated to glass in the world, with a collection of more than 50,000 pieces and 150 employees, including a dozen master glassmakers. It is also the main attraction of the region, with nearly half a million visitors a year just before the pandemic.
Inspired by German Otto Schott
These first products will forge Corning’s strategy: to apply the latest scientific discoveries to an ubiquitous material, but at the time very artisanal. Alongside glassblowers, the company hires chemists and engineers. In 1908, she opened one of the first private research laboratories in the United States.
Inspired by the work of German Otto Schott, inventor of borosilicate glass, the laboratory director adapts the formula to create fire-resistant baking dishes. The Pyrex brand, launched by Corning in 1915, will experience worldwide success and will even lie under the pen of Serge Gainsbourg. The company will produce tableware until the end of the 1990s, before giving up its general public activities.
In more than a century of existence, the Corning laboratory has grown into an R&D giant, with 3,000 researchers and eighteen research centers in America, Asia and Europe, where its main site is in Avon ( Seine-et-Marne), on the edge of the Fontainebleau forest. Corning spends nearly $ 1 billion a year on research, or 8% of its revenue, when the industry average is around 3%.
“Corning is quite unique, because it is both a very high-tech and very industrial company,” said Martin Yang, analyst for Oppenheimer & Co. “The core of its business, materials science, is also unique. : Corning has over a hundred years of experience handling glass and ceramics, which are very unstable materials. “
Optical fiber operational
After having produced light bulbs, dishes or cathode ray tubes, Corning transformed from the 1970s thanks to two of its innovations, for optical fibers and catalytic converters. In both cases, they are not strictly speaking inventions, but advances allowing emerging technologies to impose themselves on a large scale. Thus, the idea of replacing copper cables with optical fiber, to boost the speed of telecommunications, was first born in Germany, in the mid-1960s, in a laboratory in Telefunken.
But this technology remained confidential for several years, because of the impurities of the glass and the production costs of the fiber – two barriers successively lifted by teams at Corning between 1970 and 1983. Ultra-efficient, optical fiber opened up. the way to the revolution of the broadband Internet, and temporarily made the stock market fortune of Corning, whose share price was multiplied by fifteen at the end of the years 1990, in full bubble of the “dot.com” – before to collapse after its explosion.
Fortunately, the tech glassmaker has always taken care to diversify. In particular with ceramics for catalytic converters, another technology developed in the 1970s at the request of General Motors. “We were in a meeting with GM, where we were trying to sell them a windshield glass,” Corning researcher George Beall said in a 2016 interview.
“The CEO told us they were not interested in our windshield at all, but GM had a problem with the emissions from its engines. Congress had just passed the Clean Air Act, which required manufacturers to make cars less polluting, and GM was looking for an efficient and inexpensive ceramic to put in catalytic converters, which its engineers had just invented. But they had neither the material nor the process to make it. “
Commissioned by Steve Jobs
Corning will take less than four years to find the answer – the first cars with catalytic converters will hit the market in 1975. This close collaboration with manufacturers has become Corning’s preferred modus operandi, whether in automotive, healthcare or flat screens. “We do very different things, but our approach is always the same: inventing and manufacturing innovative materials and processes, and targeting industries that have strong growth, where we can be a technological leader and where we can co-innovate with our clients, ”says Jeffrey Evenson, Corning chief strategy officer.
The best-known example of this co-creation is Gorilla Glass, an ultra-resistant glass developed for the first iPhone, at the express request of Steve Jobs, who did not want a plastic screen. The New York glassmaker had indeed perfected, in the 1960s, a process that made glass incredibly strong. But this product had flopped; its production had ceased in the 1990s. In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson recounts how the CEO of Apple struggled to convince that of Corning, Wendell Weeks, to restart production in record time: “The factory Corning in Harrodsburg, Ky., Which produced LCD screens, was converted overnight to make Gorilla Glass full time. “
When glass is exhibited on Netflix
Imagine “Top Chef”, but with glassblowers instead of cooks, decanters or sculptures instead of dishes, and ovens capable of reaching more than 1,500 degrees: welcome to “In glass and against all” ( “Blown Away” in original version), a Netflix reality show, in which ten glass artisans compete against each other in a huge workshop. The idea may seem preposterous, but the result is spectacular – glass being a particularly fragile material, competition can quickly turn into a drama. For Corning, in any case, it is an excellent showcase: the museum is a partner of the show, of which it exhibits certain works. And the winner of the second season, which aired in January 2021, received among its awards a stay in residence among the glassmakers of Corning.
From smartphones to cars
Fifteen years later, Gorilla Glass is a blockbuster. “Corning has a very special relationship with Apple, as it develops custom versions of its glasses for the iPhone,” notes Martin Yang. But it acts similarly with Samsung, which means that it helps the two market leaders to differentiate themselves! And, at the same time, the basic versions of Gorilla Glass are used by most other manufacturers – they don’t have the latest version, but it costs less and is enough for them. So Gorilla Glass is everywhere! “
Since 2007, this foolproof glass has been included in more than 8 billion devices from 45 different brands. The story is not over, since the iPhone 12, released last year, marks the appearance of a new transparent ceramic even more resistant … also manufactured by Corning.
“What we’re trying to do is develop deep knowledge in one industry and then push it into other areas,” says Jeffrey Evenson. When we made a breakthrough in fiber optics, for example, we were thinking about how we could apply it to glasses for electronic products. Currently, the group is working to adapt its lenses to glasses for augmented reality, or its ceramics to CO2 capture installations. As for Gorilla Glass, it is now available in an XXL version, intended for the automobile. Mercedes will use it for its Hyperscreen, a 58-inch (1.47-meter) touchscreen unveiled last January, which hugs the entire dashboard of the vehicle.
Foolproof vaccine vials
Corning’s latest notable achievement is a much smaller object: a vaccine vial made from a new type of glass, dubbed Valor. It was invented at the request of the pharmaceutical industry, urged by the American health authorities to find a material more resistant to shocks and temperature changes than the usual vials. Valor was approved by the Food and Drugs Administration in October 2019 … three months before the discovery of Covid-19.
The pandemic has acted as an accelerator for Valor, which is particularly suitable for vaccines that must be stored at – 70 ° C, like that of Pfizer. This allowed Corning to be part of Operation Warp Speed, launched by Donald Trump in May 2020, and to receive $ 204 million from Barda, the US agency responsible for organizing the mass production of vaccines. For Jeffrey Evenson, “Barda’s investment was a win-win: it increased the volumes of a rare and essential product, the bottles, and this enabled us to speed up our production capacities”.
At the end of March, Corning received an additional $ 57 million to further increase production. It plans to deliver 150 million vials in 2021, enough to contain 1.2 billion doses of vaccine. While waiting for the opening of a factory in North Carolina, next to those of Pfizer, the group has already produced tens of millions of bottles in a pilot installation, on the outskirts of Corning. A few kilometers from the factory where Thomas Edison had his first bulbs manufactured …