For something that you touch for more than two hours everyday, the smartphone screen probably gets more TLC than any of your other loved ones, inanimate objects or not.
That means it has to wear many hats and sustain many blows, drops and other forms of torture. Gorilla Glass has been synonymous with durable glass on modern smartphones since the past decade but in that ensuing time, the consumption pattern of mobile devices has changed considerably and so has its form factor.
As glass is now the most commonly used material for the screen and also the backs on premium smartphones, Corning, the 167-yr old specialist and inventor of Gorilla Glass has managed to increase scratch resistance and drop damage to a point where we don’t even think before slipping our phones into a pocket full of coins, keys and other hostile elements.
Using their knowledge of material science and process-development expertise, Corning displayed jaw-dropping examples of laptop and smartphone backs that not only look different but also feel different, all using just glass. Their vibrant ink-jet printing technology allows photorealistic images to be printed directly on the back of the glass layer, thus making it an inherent part of the device while actually increasing the glass stiffness. But today was the celebration of something else...
A new breed of Gorilla
Announcing the launch of Gorilla Glass 6 at their Silicon Valley base in Sunnyvale, California, the biggest talking point of this new generation glass is improved resistance, both in the height of drops and the number of drops. 1mt drops are now handled without drama and Corning say that the Gorilla Glass 6 can sustain 15 such drops on an average. Under similar situations, soda lime or aluminosilicate glass compositions don’t even survive the first drop and demos were shown to testify these claims. Testing their research is the key to Corning’s confidence and during the course of the launch day event, I was taken around various areas of the facility to witness different forms of torture tests. These included pressure, slam, drop and of course, scratch tests over a variety of surfaces and angles. Usually sticking to 180 grit sandpaper to simulate everyday abrasive surfaces, Corning has gone to even rougher 120 grit sandpaper for the development of the Gorilla Glass 6 and the resulting compound is now twice as stronger as Gorilla Glass 5 while retaining all the scratch resistance. There is usually a compromise between the two but scientists at Corning seem to have managed a sweet spot!
Technically, there is no limitation to the size that Gorilla Glass 6 can be implemented into. While it’s already being tested by “major” brands for release on their devices by the third quarter of 2018, Corning say there is nothing that stops Gorilla Glass from being used by larger devices like tablets or even TV-sized displays. With smartphones turning to glass for several reasons such as wireless charging, better RF performance and even aesthetics, Gorilla Glass 6 comes in at a ripe time when durability of glass requires to be at its peak.
Another announcement made alongside Gorilla Glass 6 was that of the DX and DX+, the two glass materials made specifically for wearables. Both offer improved optical clarity, 50% better contrast and 75% reflection reduction compared to the previous-gen SR glass that was last seen on the Samsung Gear S3. The DX+ adds scratch resistance to the mix that is comparable to luxury cover materials like sapphire but at a cost that is less prohibitive while maintaining a high level of drop resistance, something sapphire doesn’t do well at all.
John Bayne - VP and General Manager, Corning Gorilla Glass
What are your thoughts on recycling the millions of old devices that close to end-of-life?
We believe strongly in the idea of recycling and do it regularly in our facilities during R&D stage and strive to do so in the value chain as well. The challenge is in maintaining the purity of glass and we cannot mix a Gorilla Glass 3 with a Gorilla Glass 5 so there are logistical challenges in doing that but I’m a big advocate of being a good corporate citizen. Fibre optic cables, catalytic converters and so many other innovations were driven by reducing the footprint on the environment.
What is the next evolution in scratch resistance, now that the focus is on drop performance?
It’s a constant trade-off between scratch and drop performance and we don’t want to see regression in either parameters. A solution to achieving both in equal measure is to introduce a composite material that offers both the optical clarity and scratch resistance and great drop performance and the DX range of products that we have announced approaches that are ideal. Our challenge is to make it more economically viable for handheld devices. Strangely, customers spend a lot of money on buying after market screen protectors but manufacturers hesitate in adding a fraction of that cost in building in a better screen material so we have to find the right way to market it and price it.
Would you consider manufacturing in India?
We want to be as close to the people who use our glass and they’re called “finishers”. They cut our glass sheets and finish the Ion-exchange process. Most of that happens in China with a little bit in India so it would not make sense to put glass melting tanks in India and ship that glass to China to turn in into Gorilla Glass and bring back the finished product. It may help in the goodwill with the country but we would be overcharging the customers, which is counterproductive. We have invested in a fibre optic facility in India and will continue to increase our investments in the country.
Does competition stand a chance to catch up with Corning?
Our competitors are typically other glass makers. But our focus is to make the best and offer products at various price points. Now, almost every major manufacturer has turned to glass with very few, almost microscopic number using plastic still on the smartphones. There are only a handful of big glass makers in the world and we are by far the largest in the space but we’re in the space of exponential innovation so you can’t stand still even for a second. We are obsessed with innovation. Until phones still break and until phones still scratch, we will keep striving for the next best thing.
Do you think Wireless charging will propel the market for glass-backed phones?
With the networks and manufacturers moving to 5G, there is very little choice but to use glass backs on phones to pack in all the antennas. There have been a couple of patents to make it work with a metal back but it’s such a difficult process, most brands won’t bother with it. So once again, glass will emerge as the material of choice for those who want to do 5G or wireless charging or just use it for aesthetic purposes. You can put ink on it, give it a satin finish or decorate it any number of ways. It gives us a chance to keep working on the next version of Gorilla Glass and other new composites!