Makers of computer chips and other electronic components aren’t the only ones trying to extend their products to the automotive market. Corning is moving to put its light but tough Gorilla Glass into windshields and other glass parts of autos.
Gorilla Glass has been a breakout hit for the 165-year-old company since the product hit the market in 2007. Billions of people get in touch with Gorilla Glass when they tap the screens of their smartphones or view the LCD displays of their computers and the big screens of their flat-panel TVs.
Corning’s business that includes Gorilla Glass accounts for 12% of the company’s revenue, which totaled $9 billion in 2015 (revenue was off 6% from 2014). Gorilla Glass is the leader of a group of Corning research-and-developed products that have produced $1.5 billion of revenue streams in new markets over the past several years.
Getting Gorilla Glass into a new market would provide a shot in the arm for Corning. While the display market has been good for the company, prices have flattened, if not fallen, for some types of displays. Corning would also like to expand its customer base. The company’s 10 largest customers accounted for 45% of its sales in 2016.
The company sees a big market in automotive uses — for windshields, rear windows, touch displays, heads-up displays, and acoustics. Corning reckons that the automotive industry represents a potential glass market larger in square feet than the current LCD market.
The worldwide automotive glass market is expected to grow at about 6% a year to reach about $66 billion, according to a report from Research and Markets.
Gorilla Glass has a big benefit for carmakers and a drawback.
Besides being stronger, Gorilla Glass weighs less than conventional materials used for windshields. Every ounce counts as auto manufacturers try to shed weight to meet increasingly stringent standards for miles per gallon.
The high-end Ford GT (sticker price of $400,000) saved about 12 pounds by using Gorilla Glass in the windshield, the rear window, and an acoustic separator.
On the downside for Corning, Gorilla Glass, at this point, costs more than conventional glass, which is one of the lower-cost parts of a car. The Corning product could add up to $48 to the cost of a car. That might not matter much to a car like the Ford GT, but the higher cost adds up for more conventionally priced cars.
Gorilla Glass also is in BMW’s i8 sports car, another pricy vehicle at $140,000, in which the glass is used as a sound barrier.
The best bet Corning has for getting Gorilla Glass to more competitive price comes from its partnership with Saint-Gobain Sekurit, a French company that’s made automotive glass for eight decades.
The companies this year formed a 50-50 joint venture to develop, manufacture, and sell lightweight automotive glazing solutions. The venture will go beyond R&D and build glass factories around the world.
Corning will contribute its Gorilla Glass and glass expertise, and Saint-Gobain Sekurit will bring its know-how in making glass for autos and its manufacturing capabilities.
By working together, Corning and Saint-Gobain Sekurit should be able to more effectively compete with companies such as Asahi Glass and others that also are moving into automotive markets. Asahi, based in Japan, has opened a factory in Mexico to make automotive glass.
Saint-Gobain Sekurit is a unit of Compagnie Saint-Gobain, a materials company marking its 350th year in 2016.
As a corporation, Corning should get credit for being open to collaboration and avoiding the not-invented-here syndrome. The company also works with Pittsburgh Glass Works on automotive glass products.
Corning will maintain its own research, pumping $10 billion into R&D, capital expenditures, and acquisitions through 2020. It will look for advances in products for optical communications, mobile consumer electronics, displays, automotive, and life sciences vessels.
Tim Green has covered business, technology and science at newspapers and in higher education. At Hoover’s he covers computers and telecommunications. Follow him on Twitter.