Corning: Driving Innovation in Optical Fiber, Glass and Connectivity

Sudhir Pillai, Corning India

Backed by more than 165 years of rich experience – Corning is driving a lot of meaningful innovation in the optical communications, mobile consumer electronics, display, automotive, and life sciences space.

The company’s products such as damage-resistant cover glass for mobile devices; precision glass for advanced displays; optical fiber and connectivity solutions for communications networks and helping its customers achieve greater level of success.

Sudhir Pillai, Managing Director, Corning India speaks with Zia Askari from about the company’s current strategy, the fast emergence of 5G and its future plans for India.

What are the key priorities for Corning in India for the coming year 2021?

India is a key focus market for Corning, for all the businesses we operate here. Corning entered the Indian market in the late 1980s and has expanded its operation to meet growing industry demand for over 30 years. Over the years, Corning’s presence in India has grown significantly with market leadership in Telecommunications, Life Sciences, Environmental Technologies, and Specialty Materials industries.

Today, Corning’s markets include optical communications, mobile consumer electronics, display, automotive, and life sciences. Corning’s industry-leading products include damage-resistant cover glass for mobile devices; precision glass for advanced displays; optical fiber, wireless technologies, and connectivity solutions for state-of-the-art communications networks; trusted products to accelerate drug discovery and delivery; and clean-air technologies for cars and trucks.

Building on Corning’s unparalleled expertise in three materials science realms – specialty glass, ceramics, and optical physics, we’ve been collaborating with customers to solve tough technology challenges with products that transform people’s lives.

Corning succeeds through sustained investment in R&D, a unique combination of material and process innovation, and close collaboration with customers to solve tough technology challenges.

How does Corning look at the optical fiber market in India today? And what is your go-to-market strategy here?

Corning has played an industry-defining role in shaping the telecommunication industry since the 1970s, with the invention of low-loss optical fiber. Since 1970, Corning has delivered over a billion fiber kilometers and operates several optical fiber plants globally.

India is one of the fastest-growing telecom markets globally. Increasing penetration of smartphones and a young demographic are driving India’s data consumption to among the highest in the world. Our Prime Minister has been emphasizing the importance of a truly digitally connected world and his vision is to have high-speed internet in all villages of India in the next three years.

Corning’s investments in India align well with emerging market trends in the region. Corning’s Optical Communications business, offering optical fiber, cable, and connectivity solutions, has played a key role in India’s growing telecommunications market.

In our journey to become a connected country, we must start by laying a robust telecom infrastructure and that we can only achieve by focusing on the importance of fiberisation. The choice and quality of optical fiber plays a critical part in the network cost and network performance. India’s telecommunication industry is capable of meeting this growing demand for bandwidth which can only be supported by dense fiber networks. India has about 600,000 telecom towers providing voice and data coverage to urban and rural India – however, the real challenge is that less than 30% of the towers are fiberized.

And the most powerful thing to note is that optical fiber is the fundamental building block of telecom networks – and yet accounts for less than 1% of the network cost. However, the efficiency of the remaining 99% of network investment depends on the choice and quality of the optical fiber. The return on investment on the network depends a great deal on the choice of this 1% component.

Our mission is to support the industry with high-quality optical fiber solutions that are designed to help our industry move closer to the vision of a truly connected nation.

What kind of market innovations is the company bringing out in the space of optical fiber technology?

Optical fiber is the fundamental material connecting today’s world, from submarine networks to terrestrial networks and fiber to the home. Fiber is a quintessential technology. We are innovating across the application stack, and we are focused on enabling high data rate applications from end-to-end. That necessitates us to push the limits of science and deliver products that are smaller and better, solve real-world problems. Our innovations enable lower-loss fibers with superior bend performance that enables high density, light-weight optical fiber cable designs. That, in turn, supports today’s telecom networks and data centers’ need to deliver higher bandwidth. We constantly need to challenge status quo and deliver future-proof network connectivity to the world.

The need for data continues to skyrocket, doubling every few years, but current infrastructures have not kept pace with consumer demand. Corning’s optical fiber-based solutions keep communication flowing for consumers and businesses who want fast, reliable connection to the world anywhere, anytime. Because of these optical communications technologies, people have greater access to video, voice, and information than ever before.

But it’s not enough. Consumers want to exchange data in the blink of an eye, especially as they do more virtually and online than ever before. Corning is responding with market-leading innovations for 5G-ready networks and powerful hyperscale data centers, making slow speeds and dropped calls a thing of the past.

Today, many are preparing for 5G. Corning has been preparing for 5G networks for the last 50 years. Since the invention of optical fiber in 1970 by three Corning scientists, Corning has been on an innovation path to realize the faster and more reliable connectivity that today’s networks require. The future of 5G networks depends on the fiber-optic technology invented by Corning.

The shift from 3G and 4G to the 5G future requires densification – the deployment of more and more optical fiber. To meet this need, Corning engineers have developed Evolv™ Hardened Connectivity Solutions with Pushlok™ Technology. These innovative 5G-ready terminals and connectors are miniaturized to help network operators deploy more fiber connections in smaller spaces.

Our prime minister has already given a clarion call for enabling connectivity across the country and fiber plays an important role here. How do you look at this as an opportunity?

Corning recognizes that India is focused on building out its telecommunications networks and providing high-speed bandwidth to its people. As an industry leader in optical fiber, cable, and connectivity solutions, Corning’s technology can play a key role in helping the Indian government achieve this objective.

In 2012, with its investment of over $100 million, Corning established a state-of-art optical fiber manufacturing facility in Chakan, Pune which further confirms Corning’s commitment to India’s connected future. Corning remains committed to address the growing demand for high-speed optical communication through strategic investments. As we are inching closer to making our country a true Digital-first nation, advanced state of the art optical communication backed by a well laid out low-loss fiber network will continue to play a crucial role and bring to life great and unique experiences.

Bringing fiber closer to the end-user is not the only challenge. With 80% of mobile traffic originating or terminating indoors, 5G wavelengths must penetrate physical barriers – like walls. Corning has gladly accepted the challenge and is bringing to market its elegant 5G small-cell solution. Furthermore, the data centers of tomorrow also rely on our fiber optic cabling solutions, and we’re developing glass technologies that make switches, routers, and servers with optical-to-the-chip a reality.

Corning is also quite well established in the ‘smartphone glass’ space. What are some of the innovations that we can look forward to in the coming months from the company here?

The mobile consumer electronics industry moves quickly and we expect the pace to continue into 2021 with India continuing to be one of the largest market for smartphones. Smartphone brands have continued to raise the bar with design improvements over the last decade – making devices thinner, smaller bezels and 3D-curved displays.  While we believe that the current smartphone form factors have become ubiquitous, and the industry will continue to explore new form factors for foldable designs in 2021 and beyond.

In addition, with the emergence of 5G and proliferation of wireless charging, you’ll find that many of these devices will have glass backs, as opposed to aluminum, metal or plastic.  The RF transparency of glass makes also makes it an obvious choice for the next generation of mobile devices.

All of these trends are exciting for Corning as we continue to expand the potential of glass as a material set with our customers. And while it’s hard to predict exactly what the future will bring, we believe our innovations will continue to play a critical role in smartphones in 2021 and beyond.

There are vendors who are playing with multiple ideas of bending glass and coming out with bendable/flexible phones. What is your opinion on this? How do you look at the future of glass in smartphones?

 In general, we believe today’s material sets of plastic options and glass options do not meet all of the desired attributes of a bendable device. It’s also important to note that many foldable products in the market today have a bendable material on the inside but still require a piece of traditional glass on the outside for protection. We continue to focus on innovations that we believe can help solve some of the technology challenges facing the first generation of foldable products. Our bendable glass solution is in the final stages of development and we believe that we will be commercializing this product in 2021.

In terms of the future of glass in smartphones – throughout Corning’s Mobile Consumer Electronics platform, we are continuing to look at new manufacturing platforms and processes for our high-quality glass products and will continue to focus on incorporating more of our best-in-class glasses into smartphones, laptops, wearables, tablets, and the most advanced microchips. We are also focused on developing solutions to support next-gen semiconductor manufacturing for more compact packaging of memory chips to enable smarter consumer devices. We believe that future product roadmaps will likely incorporate more glass-based materials and optical solutions as well as enhanced touch capabilities and longer battery life, all areas where Corning can offer its industry-leading products and expertise.

Corning is also playing an important role in the COVID-19 vaccine space. Can you elaborate on the product and technology that Corning is driving in this segment?

Collectively, Corning Life Sciences and Corning Pharmaceutical Technologies offer a comprehensive range of innovative, high-quality products and solutions for life science research, bioproduction, and packaging. Corning provides the world’s most comprehensive line of drug discovery and packaging solutions to support researchers and pharma companies. We have been continuously working with ICMR, the National Institute of Virology, and our research customers to support COVID testing.

As the market evolves, we are expanding and working closely with established academia, pharma/biotech government, and private institutes as well as CRO and CMOs. Corning solutions have been instrumental in facilitating Indian companies in the development and packaging production of vaccines.

We recently introduced Corning Valor® Glass, a revolutionary packaging solution purpose-built for the pharmaceutical industry. This new container technology has several important attributes that help to improve pharmaceutical quality and reliability. It offers superior chemical durability, significantly reduces glass particulate generation that can lead to contamination, and resists breakage and cracks which may lead to loss of drug sterility.

Valor vials demonstrate superior performance compared to conventional borosilicate vials during low temperature processing required by many vaccines. Specifically, it demonstrates up to 10X more strength than conventional borosilicate vials and enables breakage rates that are 100X lower under extreme temperature cycling applications. Corning’s glass packaging technology is uniquely suited to survive freeze thaw conditions as it’s chemically strengthened.

Additionally, speed to market during a pandemic is important. Valor Glass can enable drug/vaccine manufacturing fill lines to run at much higher speeds while maintaining 80+% efficiency and higher yields than are possible with conventional containers. Increased speed improves capacity for producing COVID-19 counter measures. Corning’s new technology helps to enhance the storage and delivery of drugs, provide more reliable access to medicines essential to public health, and optimize manufacturing efficiency.

Please share your growth plans for the coming year. Where is this growth going to come from?

Corning believes in growing with the market. We are confident that with our innovative and state-of-the-art solutions, we will continue to scale up our business operations and contribute to building a strong business ecosystem.

We firmly believe in the power of the strong Indian economy and the immense potential it has in telecom, pharma, and automotive segments and would like to focus on catering to the growing demands in each of these industries.