“We sat with Gorilla Glass’ VP to understand Corning’s plans for the future, its various product lines and more”

While most companies stay usually relevant only for a few decades, New York-based Corning has been able to stay with the times since its inception back in 1851. In fact, it’s among the very few brands which have consistently been able to rank among Fortune 500 companies. So how does it do that? What are Corning’s plans for the future? Along with select journalists from India, we managed to ask these questions and more to Gorilla Glass VP Scott Forester. Read on to find out what we learned.

On foldable smartphones

Considering foldable phones are creating all the buzz these days, and with Samsung’s Galaxy Fold facing some serious display issues, it was but natural for us to know what exactly the brand is planning for this nascent category.

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As per Scott, “I think the future is really just about touch interfaces. And wherever there’s touch, we spend most of our time thinking about that. So the foldable space is an interesting category, but I think it’s still very nascent and new. And we’ll kind of see how it all plays out. But we have strong relationships with all of the leading OEMs, and through those relationships and dialogues, we continue to talk about all sorts of different technologies. So we are working on developing and solving the foldable glass challenge that’s in front of all of us, and it’ll probably take a year or two to kind of get there.

On challenges for creating a protective glass for foldable smartphones

Since there are multiple engineering challenges for creating foldable form factors, we wondered what kind of issues Corning would potentially face for making protective displays for them and how it’ll solve them.

Forester stated: “you know, many a times when you launch things are that are so new, you’re trying to bring all these boundary conditions at play to solve for those things that you aren’t really understanding to know what’s going to resonate with consumers both in terms of use case and form factor. And so it’s natural to think that plastic is a really easy, simple way to prototype that until you kind of lock those boundary conditions in. But you know, many of the boundary conditions aren’t really in the glass yet, per se and they’re really beneath the glass, and the touch. So we need to know the device lamination on displays, what type of displays are being used, what’s the thickness of the panels, what’s the radius (for folding and unfolding)? What’s the software behind that? What’s the hinge design? All these questions and more haven’t been answered properly yet. And I think when those start to kind of reshape, then it’d be easier to think through how to use glass as that material to solve it. But at the end of the day, we’ve come accustomed to a level of performance for all of our touch devices, both from a premium touch to the way glass feels. But also from a display perspective. And to date, the markets really have spoken. And they’ve chosen that the way consumers want to see their displays. So we’ll continue to deliver the same performance with protective layers for foldable devices.

On making Gorilla Glass more affordable to penetrate deeper in emerging markets like India

Considering many smartphones in the Indian market still lack any sort of display protection, we wondered how the Gorilla Glass maker is aiming to solve that issue.

To which Forester replied: “of course, we are trying to solve the economic challenges for all of our customers, right? You know, you do that through economies of scale and driving performance in higher volumes through your factories and things like that. But at the end the day, glasses are a fairly small component of the overall cost of a device. If it (smartphone) costs, you know, $100 to make, glasses constitute less than 1 percent of that. So there’s always so much of a lever that we can actually influence. There are many other factors that play into those cost decisions. But that is one of the areas we continue to work with our customers on to continue to drive the best performance to deliver the best experience for their consumers, so they can have the best devices out there.

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And the fact that you could get Gorilla Glass 5 on both the Redmi Note 7 (front and back) and Redmi 7 (front only), which are priced under Rs 10,000, is just fantastic,” he added.

On scratch vs drop resistance

While the first few generations of Gorilla Glass focused on the scratch resistance, lately, the company is focusing on protection against drops. In fact, the Gorilla Glass 6 is said to be able to endure up to 15 consecutive drops from a height of 1m onto rough surfaces. This made us curious to understand how the brand is balancing the scratch and drop resistance.

Scott has an interesting and detailed answer as he mentioned: “as you saw today, we spent a lot of time developing the tests to evaluate materials, it’s a key component because then you can differentiate between materials. So for scratch performance, we’ve developed the tumble test and we’ve partnered with all of our customers to help demonstrate that and really proven it as a valid test. It’s the best proxy for everyday use what’s in your pocket or purse, or wherever you’re putting it. And when you do that test, what you’ll see is that Gorilla Glass outperforms any of our alternative options. Of course, it’s way better than, say, soda lime glass. So from that perspective, we’re delivering a clear advantage.” 

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So how do you balance them out? So I think we always want to have the best scratch performance material on the market. And I think that’s what Gorilla Glass provides. And then the attributes that we work on really come from our customers, and we’re really answering, how do they prioritise? And what are the attributes that they really value to then create either differentiated designs, or create whole different form factors. So you’ve seen devices get thinner, and they’re looking for thinner glass, or they want to shape glass, then we’ve looked at how to create the shaped glass that will still maintain the durability. So it’s a much broader set than just trying to trade off one versus the other,” he explained further. 

On the idea behind Corning DX and DX+

In July last year, Corning announced the launch of DX and DX+ cover glasses which brought features such as anti-reflection and better scratch resistance. We wondered why the brand chose to launch a new series altogether and how the new lineup will co-exist with the main Gorilla Glass series. 

In Scott’s words “I think from a step change technology, if you stay the start with just plastic to glass, you see this huge quantum leap in performance, where we’ve been kind of taking that next step is in our DX family of products, we’re now getting even better scratch performance. That is, it’s almost like Sapphire… like it’s a whole different category of material sets that brings you to a higher level of performance. It’s the DX composition or composites that allow customers to really tap into the whole step change and performance. And you’re seeing that today on the Samsung Gear, or the Samsung watch wearables.” 

On Corning DX vs Sapphire Glass

Sapphire glass has been said to be even stronger than Gorilla Glass, so we were interested to know if the brand’s DX Glass is directly aimed at that. He said “Corning’s DX Glass allows it to be more easily shaped and formed which you can’t do with Sapphire – you’d have to kind of hog it out or grind it out. It’s also has a much higher transmission. While Sapphire allows 86 percent transmission, it’s 92 percent for DX and DX+ is at 97 percent transmission. So you get a whole different transmission perspective from that as well. So typically, it’s going to come down to you know what the feature set is. And then that helps drive the economics.

On whether the trend of under-display fingerprint scanners change anything for Gorilla Glass

We also wondered if the cover glass on phones impacts the performance of optical under-display fingerprint scanners. However, Forester told us that’s not the case as he stated: “it really hasn’t. Like I’d mentioned earlier glass is a dielectric. It has a very good dielectric constant, which allows for really good touch versus, say, plastic or other materials. So to date, under-display fingerprint scanning performance hasn’t played into it. But we continue to work with our customers and understand that technology, make sure that we can enable what they’re trying to go after.

On the next big thing for Corning

With the smartphone market showing signs of saturation, we asked Corning how it’s planning for the future or what’s the next big thing for the Gorilla Glass maker in the consumer tech space. 

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So I think, the way Corning looks at it is we don’t tend to look at growth based on the underlying growth of smartphones. Instead, we look at how do we continue to drive more and more value to our customers. So some of that’s done through just designing Gorilla Glass going forward, or also adding more value. So we actually make the part for our customers as well, and deliver service that they can’t get elsewhere. We’re also delivering value-added technologies like our DX families of composites, or in our vibrant technologies or anti-glare technology. So if you’re delivering all added feature sets, it delivers added value. And that’s how we kind of think about the smartphone market and kind of our growth. I think what’s interesting though, is when you look at countries like India, there’s kind of still a fairly high potential for growth, given the mix of smartphone versus feature phone versus zero penetration. I think it’s still only about one-third of the population that has a smartphone. So that’s significant, untapped growth potential there. And then you look at Africa, that’s kind of the offering a big growth opportunity as well. So I think we still feel comfortable with the market growth in general in terms of the adoption,” Forester commented.

Upon prodding further about what Corning is working on for the future, he pointed out “We talked about foldable as an opportunity that we’ve looked at. We’ve also got engaged with customers around augmented reality and virtual reality. And I think you’re starting to see the space around automotive, as you know, where your digital life comes out of your pocket and starts to immerse you in the content of your car. So it’s really interesting to see not only new advancements in tech, but also just taking what we know and love in our phones today and kind of have that everywhere around – in our car or home smart home. And the quality of the displays that are there, they should be good.

On maintaining a laser focus on just offering the protective layer for displays

To end the session, we posed an interesting question about how Corning just continues to offer display protection and nothing else. For instance, when it’s showcasing the anti-reflective properties of the DX for improved visuals, then what’s stopping it from creating display panels itself. 

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Forester said: “At Corning, we just look at what do we do best. And the thing we do best is we invent materials, but not any kind of materials, but glass ceramic type materials, and that’s our core strength. And we’ve demonstrated over 168 years that the recipe has worked well. We also invent the manufacturing processes to create those materials. And it’s a subtle point. But that’s a key point as when you can create something in the lab, and if you can scale it up to at low cost or attractive economies of scale for sufficient supply, to basically change some of these markets, then you can succeed. So, it’s the combination of those two things. Those two are heavy lifts, as it is, so I think that keeps us busy. There’s this little attention trying to go and try to expand beyond that.” 

Disclosure: this writer attended the lab tour in San Francisco on Corning India’s invitation