August 14, 2012      

Gorilla Glass, the diamond-tough, micro-thin window into every iPhone and iPad?as well as six hundred other electronic devices for thirty different companies?is made possible by a team of FANUC robots and humans at Corning?s sixty-year-old glassworks in the small town of Harrodsburg. KY.

The backstory

The backstory has Apple’s Steve Jobs meeting up with Corning CEO Wendell Weeks at Corning headquarters in 2006, a few months ahead of the iPhone?s January 2007 debut. Jobs challenged Corning to produce a thin, light-weight, damage-resistant glass to be used for the iPhone display screen. Weeks suggested a chemically strengthened glass originally compounded in 1960, as part of an initiative called “Project Muscle”. Dusting off forty-seven years from Project Muscle, Corning went to work and birthed Gorilla Glass in less than six months.

The Harrodsburg plant quickly went from making liquid crystal display (LCD) glass for products such as TVs and monitors to manufacturing 5-foot by 6-foot sheets of Gorilla Glass for iPhones, Smartphones, tablet computers and high-definition televisions, selling nearly $800 million worth in 2011.

The Corning plant, according to Manoj Shanker, a labor economist with the Kentucky Office of Employment Training, ?is an example of how American manufacturing is becoming more advanced, with automation performing repetitive tasks that used to be done by unskilled workers.

Retooling the process from LCDs to FANUC robots and Gorilla Glass

Fanuc robot at corning

Casey Duffy, manager of the Harrodsburg plant, said the real contribution of workers here was re-working their processes to show how it could be done. The glass is made mostly without touching human hands. Workers are in the background, such as the ones who monitor the robots that cut the glass and package it.

Wayne Reinsmith, president of the local chapter of United Steel Workers, which represents about 240 workers out the 400 employees at the plant, said in a CNN interview that being a sheet-glass operator means something much different now than it did 20 years ago.

Back in 1993, he explained, ?we had five or six people? cutting the glass and moving it along in the process. Today?s sheet glass operators ?are really watching and servicing the robots,? he said.

While that has meant fewer jobs for rank-and-file workers, it has meant opportunities for them to learn such skills as operating machines, which earns a better wage. Of the 80 new jobs Corning expects to add at the plant, the average wage is projected to be about $25 an hour ? far higher than the average wage in Kentucky, about $18 an hour.

About a quarter of the jobs at Corning will be engineers, while the remaining are production workers. Duffy said. A typical rank-and-file union worker makes about $20 an hour.

In the 1950s, young men who graduated Mercer County High School could get a job at the plant and make a middle-class career of it.

And the beat goes on

The net-net of being ready for a call to action from Steve Jobs was that Corning produced a remarkably new-age, high-tech glass which itself has now spawned a follow-on product in Willow Glass. Willow Glass is an ultra-slim flexible glass, which will enable thin, light and cost-efficient applications including the ability to ?wrap? it around a device or structure, as if pulled from a roll of plastic wrap.

The team at Harrodsburg is ready.