Optical fiber demand drives Corning plant

Mention the name "Corning" to most people around here, and their only reference may be the Corning Corelle Revere Factory Outlet at Concord Mills and that charming set of dishes they found at a bargain price.

But Corning is more than that, and its influence on this region is, too.

In Midland, the Corning Inc. facility makes the optical fiber necessary for you to troll the Internet for celebrity gossip, listen to Uncle Jack in Chicago describe his hip surgery or even purchase that handbag you coveted from a faraway land.

Opened in 1998 to much hoopla, the sprawling facility on U.S. 601 had grand hopes of mass-producing optical fiber for the world right out of the gate.

By 2002, however, the facility was mothballed, kept alive by a skeleton crew until the telecommunications market - soured by a 50 percent downturn in sales during the dot-com bust of 1999, 2000 and 2001 - worked itself out.

Fast forward six years, and you'll find that while so many other businesses were just beginning to suffer in the recession of 2008, Corning Inc.'s optic fiber program was bouncing back, thanks to emerging growth in other countries. It now employs about 200 people at the Midland plant.

"At that time, the Chinese government was investing in 3G network buildout," said Monica Sofio, spokesperson for Corning Inc.'s optical fiber division. Since then, growth in Africa, India and the Middle East have followed, continuing the push for optical fiber production at the Midland facility.

"As there has been more and more demand for bandwidth, there has been a greater need for optical fiber to serve those requirements," said Sofio, "because it is the product of choice for telecommunications groups."

The invention of optical fiber for use in telecommunications began in Corning Inc.'s research and development facility in 1970. Optical fibers, simply put, are strands of glass no bigger than human hairs, capable of transmitting digital data rapidly over great distances.

"I don't think we envisioned what it would mean, how it would revolutionize telecommunications," Sofio said of the brand-new discovery back then. "It made possible the ability to share high-definition video and photos and information through the Internet, and all the data-center traffic and financial transactions. It's been made possible in part by optical fiber."

This is not the first time Corning Inc. has invented a cutting-edge technology before it could be widely used. In the 1960s, Corning scientists toyed with a chemically strengthened glass they envisioned would one day be used for telephone booths and automobile windshields. Back then it was shelved, deemed not a high-demand product at the time.

"There was really no viable applications for it within that time period," said Kelli Hopp, corporate spokesperson for Corning Inc.

"The technology itself was just ahead of its time."

Today, a reformulated version of that glass probably rests at the bottom of your purse or strapped to your side.

Known as Gorilla Glass, it's the damage- and scratch-resistant screen on today's smartphones and laptops.

"We probably haven't had this level of recognition for a Corning product since our Corningware and Corelleware days," said Hopp.

Corning has seen its sales of Gorilla Glass triple each year since it came on the market in 2008. "Everyone has one. It's a part of who we are, of our culture."