4:00 PM AKST, November 17, 2012
HARRODSBURG — There is a famous scene early in the 1967 movie “The Graduate” where young Dustin Hoffman’s character, returning home after finishing college, gets a bit of unsolicited career advice from one of his father’s friends.
“I just want to say one word to you. Just one word,” the man offers. “Plastics.”
Casey Duffy would have begged to differ. The plant manager at Corning’s Harrodsburg facility likely would have told the young graduate: Glass is where it’s at.
“He was wrong,” Duffy said of the “plastics” man. “He just wasn’t looking far enough into the future.”
The Harrodsburg plant clearly has had enough foresight over the years so that it remains a vital cog in Corning’s global, multi-product glass and ceramics empire as the local operation celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. Since opening in 1952, the plant has been expanded five times as Corning has battled competition from plastics and other glassmakers, developing new products and manufacturing processes that have proved crucial the company’s overall ability to keep itself positioned as an innovator and leader in specialty glass technologies.
“We're in a sweet spot here, with both manufacturing and research and development," said Duffy, whose 30-year career with Corning began in marketing the company’s then hot properties like Visions cookware and Correll dishes. He came to Harrodsburg 8 years ago and was named plant manager in 2009.
The Harrodsburg plant’s current success story is Gorilla Glass, the thin, tough surface that is the preferred choice for 33 smart phone and tablet makers. The company recently announced that more than a billion devices featuring Gorilla Glass have entered the marketplace.
The Harrodsburg plant manufactures all of Corning’s Gorilla Glass and played a key role in its development. The company was already experimenting with a new, durable, scratch-resistant glass when Apple founder Steve Jobs requested that he needed such a material in six months for a new product he was preparing to launch. The year was 2007 and Apple’s new gizmo was the iPhone.
“In February, we started the manufacturing process here and by June we had glass in iPhones,” Duffy recalled.
The development of Gorilla Glass didn’t exactly save the Harrodsburg plant from going under, but it did make the facility indispensable when the global financial crisis hit in 2008 and Corning was looking to cut costs, Duffy explained.
“It was extremely beneficial to us to be the Gorilla maker at that time,” he said.
The Corning company was founded in a New York town of the same name in 1879 to build the glass envelopes to cover Thomas Edison’s just-invented light bulb. It has innovated its way into a global giant with facilities in several countries that employ about 29,000 people worldwide.
With its $186 million expansion last year to add more capacity for Gorilla Glass and develop the company’s next breakthrough product, Harrodsburg added 80 new jobs to bring its workforce up to 400. A quarter of those employees hold engineering degrees, said Terry Ott, the plant’s engineering manager.
When it started in 1952, the Harrodsburg facility made opthalmic glass used in eyewear, binoculars, periscopes and cameras. One of it’s innovations was the development of photochromatic glass used in the “transitional” lens in spectacles that darken or lighten depending on surrounding light.
In the mid 1980s, the plant began to manufacture fusion-formed glass for the Liquid Crystal Displays used in television and computer monitors, which has remained part its bread-and-butter product lines.
The fusion-forming process first installed in the 1960s requires continuous operation, which means the Harrodsburg plant operates around the clock, 365 days a year. Four rotating shifts keep the highly automated plant humming. A manufacturing line only shuts down when components wear out and need to be replaced.
To make its specialty glass using the fusion-forming process, workers mix various sands brought in from around the world with other secret, proprietary ingredients, which is then melted down to liquid form. The molten glass is poured into half-pipe troughs and flows over each side, joining together underneath in a continuous stream that cools as travels. Robots then score the glass into large sheets and move them along the line, untouched by human hands.
The smallest flaw in a sheet, likened to “a poppy seed on a football field” by Duffy, is unacceptable. The glass sheets are then shipped to China, South Korea and other Asian countries, where they are finished and cut to size for various devices.
“We have no North American based customers,” Duffy said.
Corning is highly protective of its trade secrets. As part of the Harrodsburg plant’s 60th anniversary, media members were invited in Friday for a very limited tour of the facilities and restricted on what could be photographed. Videographers, for example, were only allowed to film a few seconds of a robot handling Gorilla Glass for fear that competitors could use the footage to divine the plant’s capacity for manufacturing its prized product.
Variations of the phrase, “If we showed you that, we’d have to kill you,” were used on more than one occasion by company executives during the tour.
Gorilla Glass II, a thinner, more durable version of the original, began production in Harrodsburg in January. In June, the company announced the development of what it expects to be its next break-through product, Willow Glass, which it hopes will be used in electronic devices beginning in 2014.
Willow is a paper thin, durable, bendable glass that can be processed much like newsprint is run through a printing press and stored and shipped in large rolls instead of sheets. Engineers in Harrodsburg are still fine-tuning Willow and its manufacturing process, and company executives are excited about the possibilities for such a product even if they are not yet sure what they will be. Its thinness should make it ideal for touch screens and its flexibility will allow for more curvacious designs.
“A lot of our customers will define where it will lead us,” Ott said. “It’s a fast-moving environment. It will be interesting to see where it goes.”
Jason Alexander was looking at a career in fast food management when he got a job offer from Corning with starting pay of $12.75 an hour in 1999. It was an offer Alexander said he’s glad he didn’t refuse.
“I won’t lie to you; it was the money that first attracted me,” said Alexander, 38, of Junction City, a maintenance mechanic who was recently elected president of United Steelworkers Local 1016T, which represents the company’s hourly employees.
Though Harrodsburg is a union shop, Alexander described the relationship between management and workers as “healthy,” with relatively minor squabbles involving discipline, attendance and overtime worked out in monthly meetings.
“We’re like a big, happy family,” he said. “Well, at least we’re like a big family. We have good days and bad days here just like anybody else, but we’re all working together as a team.”
Alexander met his wife, Katrina, at Corning when she came in late one day and he had to cover for her. Combined, they’ve got 28 years invested in the company. His son worked there as an intern this summer before heading off to college.
The success of Gorilla Glass provided a big boost for company morale that is still felt. More than half of the floor workers use iPhones, Alexander said, not only because they’re cool but because of pride in knowing their work helped contribute to the device’s success.
“It feels good to see what we make in everyday products,” he said. “It’s good to know we played a part in that.”
When Alexander came aboard 13 years ago, the Harrodsburg plant was phasing out its opthalmic glass division and transitioning over to LCD glass. He has been there for the triumph of Gorilla Glass and the ongoing development of Willow glass, and he expects to be there for whatever the next big thing comes down the Corning pipeline to Harrodsburg.
“When I first started, we still had the opthalmic division and were moving on to the flat screen LCDs,” he said. “We evolved from that on and on, and I have no doubt we will continue to keep evolving in the future. I expect to retire from here, no doubt.”
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