As technology advances and flashier products hit the market, it becomes easier to overlook the simple evolution in the basic building blocks that have allowed for such changes to take place. Just as skyscrapers could not have come about without the conversion of iron into steel, simple process changes and characteristic upgrades can often allow for revolutionary change in the products that use them. We no longer have computers that take up the space of entire floors, nor do we have phones that weigh as much as a brick. All of these advances were made possible through the upgrades of underlying technologies.
In recent months, progress to three such building block technologies were announced from the humble glass manufacturer Corning (GLW). Corning is a global leader and technology-based corporation that specializes in glass production and innovation. The bulk of the company's profits are derived from its Display Technologies segment primarily made possible through its joint venture with Samsung Electronics (GM:SSNLF). Yet the company is well diversified into several other fields including Telecommunications, Specialty Materials, Environmental Technologies and Life Sciences.
On January 9, 2012, Corning introduced its new glass composition named Gorilla Glass 2. Building on the already-popular brand of Gorilla Glass, the new glass allows for up to a 20% reduction in glass thickness while still maintaining an equivalent degree of toughness when it comes to damage resistance. This allows for greater touch sensitivity, slimmer devices, and brighter images without a sacrifice to the scratch resistance customers have come to expect from their mobile devices. Such advantages allows designers greater flexibility derived from these characteristic improvements that can translate into less weight, space and energy usage.
Gorilla Glass has already set the industry standard for mobile devices. Since its introduction in 2007, the brand has found itself incorporated into more than 575 product models used by over 30 major brands since 2007. The new Gorilla Glass 2 is sure to top its predecessors for mainstream adaptation. It's not hard to imagine the next generation of Apple's (AAPL) iPhones & iPads incorporating Gorilla Glass 2 into their structure. The same goes for phone manufacturers that utilize Google's (GOOG) Android platform. As it stands, Microsoft (MSFT) appears to be one of the first to tout the new line of glass as it incorporates it into new Windows-based PCs that will be introduced early this year.
On February 1, 2012, Corning announced the first commercial sale of its photovoltaic glass substrates, a product well suited for thin-film photovoltaic modules. This product is able to increase module efficiency by withstanding higher temperatures, by being produced with half the thickness, and by still being 50% stronger than conventional glass used for thin-film PV modules. This technology should vastly improve the operations of thin-film solar producers like First Solar (FSLR), which is already a leading manufacturer of thin-film solar panels utilizing Cadmium Telluride (CdTe). In the future, this should also benefit General Electric (GE), which has plans to build a $600 million CdTe thin-film plant and eventually enter into the solar market.
For the solar industry, the ability to increase efficiency is the measurement of success. Yet such efficiency has also shown to be very difficult to improve. Early this past January, First Solar announced that it set another world record for 14.4% module efficiency, an average it hopes to have in its production modules by 2015. The company has deployed proven production efficiencies of 11.4% in 2010, 11.7% in 2011, and expects to have 12.7% in 2012. By utilizing Corning's pv glass substrates, Corning says that its products are able to increase current thin-film module efficiency rates by 20-30%, a large boost for existing technology.
On February 2, 2012, Corning announced the formation of a new equity venture with partner Samsung Mobile Display Co. to manufacture specialty glass substrates for organic light emitting diode (OLED). The partnership will combine Samsung's OLED display expertise with Corning's Lotus Glass substrates, a new product it unveiled in October 2011. Corning claims that the Lotus brand of glass is able to support the demanding manufacturing process required of OLED displays. Additionally, by having greater intrinsic stability, the glass is able to withstand thermal cycles better than conventional LCD glass. Thus, the Lotus glass is able to better retain its shape and surface quality during the high-temperature processing that helps prevent against sagging and warping of the glass while integrating components onto it. Corning also boasts of advanced thickness control and surface quality, which ultimately allows for thinner devices with superior image quality that consumes less energy.
As the OLED market rapidly expands, Corning's partnership with Samsung in this evolving industry appears to be a beneficial pact that will help the two companies gain a comparative advantage for the oncoming wave of innovation. Corning imagines a world that utilizes an abundance of OLED technologies, a future that is very reminiscent of scenes in the movie "Minority Report." Yet regardless of whether this can become a reality, this initial partnership further extends the ongoing relationship that Corning has with Samsung, which has proven itself to be so successful in its recent history.
When one takes a step back to look at the bigger picture evolving, it's clear that innovation is driven by the slightest improvements of technology on all scales of the production chain. Corning appears well-positioned to capitalize on the advancements of its customers, and to even retain brand name loyalties in its respective industries. While the company may appear to be performing below average for some investors who focus on recent declines in display technologies, the underlying foundation of persistent growth is showing strength in many other fields. Undoubtedly, many of these advancements are not close to contributing significantly to the company's earnings in the near future. Yet for patient investors who recognize value when others see decline, Corning may stand as a long-term value proposition that is difficult to pass up.