Coming Soon – Willow Bends The Rules

8/23/2012 9:40:45 PM

Had it not been for Corning Glass, the original iPhone might have had a plastic screen. Until Steve Jobs sat down with Wendell Weeks, Corning’s CEO, and listened to him explain the process invented by the US company for making incredibly tough ‘Gorilla’ glass, he hadn’t been able to find anyone capable of making a screen scratchresistant and tough enough for a phone.

Description: New launch from inventor of ultra-tough Gorilla Glass can be wrapped around devices

New launch from inventor of ultra-tough Gorilla Glass can be wrapped around devices

The problem for Corning was that the process had been developed in the 1960s and the company had long since given up on finding a commercial use for it. By 2006, Corning no longer even made glass. And without Jobs’ remarkable powers of persuasion, Weeks might never have agreed to convert the company’s LCD factories for the task. ‘Get your mind around it. You can do it,’ Jobs told Weeks. And he did.

Of course, the prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars in orders from Apple probably also helped to focus his mind. Now Corning has launched the next version of Gorilla glass, known, rather less dramatically, as Willow. In addition to being tough and scratch-resistant, Willow has two properties that will make it attractive to today’s mobile device manufacturers: it’s thin very thin – and it’s flexible. ‘Corning Gorilla Glass will enable thin, light and cost-efficient applications including today’s slim displays and smart surfaces of the future,’ the company said in a statement. ‘The thinness, strength, and flexibility of the glass has the potential to enable displays to be “wrapped” around a device or structure.’ Manufactured at a thickness of 0.05mm, Willow glass is currently being produced using a conventional ‘sheet to sheet’ method, but Corning says it’ll eventually be made using a new ‘roll to roll’ process that the company calls ‘Fusion’. Heated to 500˚C, the material will be rolled out in a continuous sheet, in the manner of a web printing press, making mass-production easier and quicker – and thus, no doubt, cheaper.

Description: It’s glass?

Willow glass

Willow’s flexibility could see it adopted in a wide range of devices. Much has been written in recent years about the possibility of screens that would fold or roll up. Although some ‘e-paper’ technologies promise pliable displays, Willow, which can be hermetically sealed and so is suitable for use with organic LED (Oled), would provide a way to build high-quality colour screens that are flexible and tough, suitable for building into premium multi-purpose devices like iPhones rather than more disposable e-readers.

Corning has said Willow will ‘support thinner backplanes and color filters for both organic light emitting diodes (Oled) and liquid crystal displays (LCD) in high performance portable devices such as smartphones, tablets, and notebook computers [and for] mounting on non-flat surfaces.’

Current TFT LCD and LED screens have two layers of glass, one in the middle and one at the front. It’s those layers that prevent the display flexing, and act as a weak link in the chain if the screen is damaged. That prompted Samsung, which currently uses Gorilla glass in its Galaxy smartphones, to develop what it calls Youm, a glassless and flexible Amoled display with film-based layers where the glass would usually be. A year ago, the Korean Times reported that Apple had been in discussions with Samsung about using its Amoled displays in the iPad. But the third-generation iPad shipped

with a conventional IPS panel.

If Apple decides it wants a curved display on a future mobile device, or even a flexible screen, it would seem it now has two options. It could stick with Corning and use Willow as the glass substrates in an Oled display, or choose Youm and remove glass altogether.

Description: Gorilla Glass is the hardest, thinnest, most durable glass that the iPhone uses for its display and it has defined the future of tactile interaction with mobile devices

Gorilla Glass is the hardest, thinnest, most durable glass that the iPhone uses for its display and it has defined the future of tactile interaction with mobile devices

Whether Apple, or anyone else, can come up with a curved or flexible display that actually makes sense is another matter. Remember when ‘flat’ was a selling point? Samsung’s prototypes for smartphones with curved screens look like the last word in form over function: a phone shaped like a ‘U’ or a shepherd’s crook would hardly slip easily into a pocket. Intriguingly, Corning also refers to ‘immersive viewing’, perhaps suggesting a concave ultra-widescreen desktop display.

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