1962 glass could be Corning’s next bonanza seller

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CORNING, N.Y. (AP) - An ultra-strong glass that has been looking for a purpose since its invention in 1962 is poised to become a multibillion-dollar bonanza for Corning Inc.

The 159-year-old glass pioneer is ramping up production of what it calls Gorilla glass, expecting it to be the hot new face of touch-screen tablets and high-end TVs.

Gorilla showed early promise in the ‘60s, but failed to find a commercial use, so it’s been biding its time in a hilltop research lab for almost a half-century. It picked up its first customer in 2008 and has quickly become a $170 million a year business as a protective layer over the screens of 40 million-plus cell phones and other mobile devices.

Now, the latest trend in TVs could catapult it to a billion-dollar business: Frameless flat-screens that could be mistaken for chic glass artwork on a living-room wall.

Because Gorilla is very hard to break, dent or scratch, Corning is betting it will be the glass of choice as TV-set manufacturers dispense with protective rims or bezels for their sets, in search of an elegant look.

Gorilla is two to three times stronger than chemically strengthened versions of ordinary soda-lime glass, even when just half as thick, company scientists say. Its strength also means Gorilla can be thinner than a dime, saving on weight and shipping costs.

Corning is in talks with Asian manufacturers to bring Gorilla to the TV market in early 2011 and expects to land its first deal this fall. With production going full-tilt in Harrodsburg, Ky., it is converting part of a second factory in Shizuoka, Japan, to fill a potential burst of orders by year-end.

“That’ll tell you something about our confidence in this,” said Corning President Peter Volanakis.

Investors are taking notice. In June, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York raised Corning’s projected share price, predicting Gorilla would be its second biggest business by 2015.

“There’s a wide range of views on how successful this product will be,” said Deutsche Bank analyst Carter Shoop. “But I think it’s safe to say that, in aggregate, people are becoming much more bullish. It’s a tremendous opportunity. We’ll have to see how consumers react.”

DisplaySearch market analyst Paul Gagnon said alternatives “obviously scratch easier, they’re thicker and heavier, but they’re also cheaper.” He estimates that a sheet of Gorilla would add $30 to $60 to the cost of a set.

It remains to be seen “whether this becomes a hit trend that propagates to other models and sizes or remains in the confines of a premium step-up series of products,” Gagnon said.

“This is a fashion trend, not a functional trend, and that’s what makes (the growth rate) very hard to predict,” said Volanakis. “But because the market is so large in terms of number of TVs _ and the amount of glass per TV is so large _ that’s what can move the needle pretty quickly.”

Based in western New York, Corning is the world’s largest maker of glass for liquid-crystal-display computers and TVs. High-margin LCD glass generated the bulk of Corning’s $5.4 billion in 2009 sales.

By ramping up volume production quickly in a budding market, Corning is pursuing a well-worn strategy designed to keep rivals from gaining ground. Its patience is also well practiced. Executives know too well the gulf between inspiration and application is sometimes decades-wide.

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