Over the last 160 years, specialty-glass and ceramics manufacturer Corning Inc. (IW 500: 136) has learned a thing or two about innovation.
For one thing, Corning -- which in the late 1800s developed the glass encasement for Thomas Edison's incandescent lamp -- has learned that manufacturers must be "nimble" in today's cutthroat global economy, says Jim Clappin, president of Corning Glass Technologies.
Case in point: When mobile-phone makers challenged Corning to develop a cover glass that would be more durable than soda-lime glass or plastic, Corning came up with its popular Gorilla Glass in about three months.
"That's three months from the thought of making a product to actually introducing it into the supply chain," says Clappin. "That's the nature of the markets that we're in."
Launched in 2007, Gorilla Glass today is found on more than 600 million consumer electronic devices, and is climbing toward $1 billion in annual sales.
While Clappin acknowledges that the timeline for the development of Gorilla Glass was "faster than anything we'd ever done to date," Corning's stage-gate innovation process is structured to enable that kind of nimble response.
The involvement of senior leaders enables quick decision-making and "ensures that everything gets an intense vetting," Clappin adds.
That's not to say that every decision is going to result in a homerun -- or even a single. But over the past century and a half, Corning has learned that "if you're going to innovate, you have to expect a fair amount of failure."
"And you try to be smart enough to know when to shoot something in the head, so to speak, so you don't waste your valuable innovation dollars," Clappin adds.
Based on the Patent Board's annual ranking of corporate innovation, Corning is spending its R&D dollars wisely. The board's Patent Scorecard has ranked Corning No. 1 in the industrial materials category for five years in a row.
Fusing the Future
Corning funnels about 10% of its annual revenue into R&D. The company, which reported record revenue of $7.9 billion in 2011, sees innovation driving the march toward its goal of $10 billion by 2014.
Corning isn't just counting on product innovation to fuel its growth. The company is leveraging its patented fusion-glass manufacturing process to develop new products -- such as its Lotus Glass for high-performance displays -- and to make improvements to its existing products.
Gorilla Glass 2, for example, introduced in February, is 20% thinner than the current Gorilla Glass, while offering the same performance characteristics as its predecessor.
Corning says fusion-glass manufacturing will enable it to produce glass that's five times thinner than standard display glass -- and potentially will enable device makers to shift from batch manufacturing to a continuous roll-to-roll process.
"Ultraslim glass creates the opportunity to manufacture devices using the same techniques as plastic films, while providing all the advantages of glass in terms of transparency, encapsulation and high-temperature tolerance," CEO Weeks said in February at Corning's annual investors meeting.
Corning in August 2010 announced a $186 million expansion of its Harrodsburg, Ky., manufacturing facility to boost production capacity for Gorilla Glass. The expansion also will make room for the plant to produce specialty glass for thin-film photovoltaics, using the fusion-glass manufacturing process.
Corning's push into the solar-energy market is an example of what might be the most important lesson that the company has learned about innovation over the last century and a half.
"If you want to survive another 160 years," Clappin says, "you're not going to do it on the current product suite."