Gorilla glass is the kind of product that defines American innovation.
Two to three times stronger than other glass and resistant to dents and scratches, it's beginning to find its way onto screens for smartphones, tablet computers, and soon flat-screen high-definition TVs. Sales are expected to nearly quadruple from last year. Its inventor, New York-based Corning, expects sales to quadruple again next year into a $1 billion business as the flat-screen TV business takes off.
But don't expect a huge surge of American jobs as a result. Although production will be expanding in the United States, the big market potential lies with TVs, which are all made in Asia. That's why Corning is planning to locate there to remain price competitive.
At the moment, all Gorilla glass is produced in Corning's Harrodsburg, Ky., plant. On Tuesday, Corning is expected to announce a $200 million expansion in the facility that will add about 80 workers over time to the 300-odd work force already there. Although many of the smartphones and other portable devices using it are made in Asia, the size of the screens and the amounts needed are small enough that it's possible to export from the United States.
In July, however, Corning announced it had an agreement with an Asian manufacturer to supply Gorilla glass for flat-screen TVs that should appear in the marketplace early next year. So it is retrofitting a liquid-crystal display (LCD) plant in Shizuoka, Japan, to start manufacturing the special glass later this quarter.
The company is spending several hundred million dollars in the Japanese plant, which will employ several hundred workers. It's a signal that the company expects to ink similar deals with other TV manufacturers.
That's what happens when a country or region dominates an industry. Suppliers, even the most innovative ones, tend to locate near the manufacturers. Although it played a big role in creating the first LCDs, Corning never did any large-scale US manufacturing because the manufacturers in the 1980s were located in Japan. Over the decades, the company has followed the manufacturers to South Korea, Taiwan, and now China.
"If we hadn't been in Japan, we wouldn't be in the business," says company spokesman Dan Collins.
The TV manufacturers are interested in using the properties of the strong glass to create new styles of flat-screen sets.
"You will begin to see it around you these borderless design TVs and other devices that I'm not at liberty to talk about at this time," Wendell Weeks, Corning's chairman and chief executive officer.
If consumers flock to the new designs, the market for Gorilla glass could take off, even though it's more expensive than other glass.