Turning glass into gold is a trick that Corning Glass Works has been performing for 131 years, but now there is another group of corporate alchemists on the block by the name of Furukawa, Sumitomo and Fujikura.
Those three companies are determined to gain a major share of the biggest new glass market since the invention of the light bulb: superpure Fiberglas communications cable, annual sales of which are projected to reach billions of dollars by 1990.
This has given rise to a battle of tactics pitting Corning against its Japanese rivals. Technology is at the root of the conflict.
Although Corning developed the first process for making the ultrapure glass fiber needed to transmit laser light waves, it has been thwarted in efforts to sell the fiber to Japan. At the same time, Corning has refused to license them to use Corning's patents to make fiber for sale here and has made known that any company selling fiber in this country must obtain a license or face a patent infringement suit.
The Corning process, called chemical vapor deposition (CVD), was invented in 1970. Heated gases were put into a chemical reaction with a revolving cylinder of quartz. This produced sooty deposits that were heated and drawn out from an extruder like strands of warm taffy. The hair-thin strands of glass then were coated, cooled and wound on reels.
In 1974, Bell Laboratories announced a modified version of the Corning process. "There's no question that Bell publishing the details helped everybody all over the world," a Corning executive was to say later. While Corning was carefully guarding its invention, Bell licensed its patents widely.
This appears to have undercut Corning's efforts to preserve its technical lead. Furukawa and Fujikura, which are among the companies that have broad patent licenses from Bell, soon began using the Bell process. Bell officials estimate that half of the fiber being produced in Japan is made with it.
Meanwhile, Corning's efforts to sell its own glass fiber in Japan were thwarted.
When Corning attempted in the mid-1970s to sell its fiber to Nippon Telephone and Telegraph, Japan's public phone company, NTT advised Corning that it purchased communications equipment only from Japanese firms. NTT also refused to buy from a Japanese-American joint venture proposed by Corning.
Finally, in December, 1977, Corning licensed Furukawa to use its patents but only to make fiber for sale in Japan.
By this time, however, Sumitomo was ready with a process of its own. This development, industry sources said, was aimed at "getting Japan out from under the Corning patents."
Sumitomo was subsequently granted a U.S. patent for its invention, and Corning patent specialists acknowledged that it uses different manufacturing procedures than does Corning. However, Corning officials maintained that the Sumitomo process relies on know-how developed by Corning in the 1970s in that it also uses the same materials and lays down a sooty deposit on the outside of a quartz rod.
Corning recently filed suit against Canada Wire and Cable, which bought fiber from Sumitomo, claiming that the imported fiber infringed on Corning's patents.
Japanese companies are also fighting Corning at home.
Corning's license agreements in Japan call for Japanese companies that use the invention to pay royalties to Corning. But one Corning official said, "I'm not aware of any royalties being paid." Although one Japanese patent has been issued to Corning, Japanese companies are challenging Corning's applications for several other patents.
Bell has had problems, too. Seven Japanese companies, including Furukawa and Fujikura, are opposing Bell's 8-year-old application for a Japanese patent.
In 1981, American Telephone & Telegraph was jolted when four of seven bids to install optical-transmission systems between New York City and Cambridge, Mass., came from Japanese companies. The low bidder was Fujitsu, but it was rejected in favor of Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of the Bell System and an AT&T subsidiary.
Corning executives plainly are in a mood to fight for what they view as their rightful share of a potentially huge worldwide market.
"The Japanese will target and protect until they no longer need to," Corning chairman James R. Houghton said. "Once they've driven out the competitors, they raise prices like everybody else. But we're fighting them on the patents. We're going to go down the cost curve with them and come out on top."