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.