Once known primarily for rugged kitchenware, such as casserole dishes, Corning Inc. (Corning, NY) is now the world's leading producer of optical fiber, which it pioneered more than 30 years ago. The $4.7 billion company spun off its famous cookware business in 1998 to focus on the booming fiber optics industry.

Corning is one of the oldest manufacturers in the United States. During the last 150 years, the company has eagerly embraced new technology and transformed itself to keep up with the changing times.

Corning traces its roots to the mid-19th century, when it produced handheld lanterns and colored signal lights for the burgeoning railroad industry, which was the technical marvel of its age. As the early 21st century unfolds, the company is a major manufacturer of the latest marvel: photonic devices, such as amplifiers, filters and pump lasers.

Through the years, Corning has played a key role in several technological revolutions. For instance, in 1879, engineers at the company developed a thin globe of glass suitable for packaging a bright new idea from an inventor in Menlo Park, NJ, named Thomas Edison. A team of glassblowers made more than 100 sample light bulbs by hand. Soon after, the company began mass-producing bulbs to meet growing demand for incandescent lighting.

In 1915, Corning developed a special form of glass called Pyrex, which was less apt to break when subjected to intense temperatures. The material was essential for making beakers, test tubes and other laboratory instruments used for countless experiments that spawned breakthroughs in medicine and biotechnology.

During the late 1920s, Corning made glass tubes for the early pioneers of television. The high-speed ribbon machine, invented by Corning engineers in 1926, enabled mass production of picture and sound tubes.

In 1934, Corning engineers created a 20-ton, 200-inch mirror for the Hale reflecting telescope--the largest in the world at the time--at the Mount Palomar observatory in Southern California, where scientists later made key astrophysical discoveries that contributed to the U.S. space program.

Speaking of outer space, when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, his "Friendship 7" spacecraft was equipped with special windows made by Corning. That tradition continues today with the space shuttle.

A group of Corning researchers designed and produced "optical waveguide fibers" (U.S. patent #3,711,262) in 1970 that were made of fused silica. The discovery, based on research conducted 14 years earlier at the University of Michigan, was a crucial milestone that opened the door to the commercialization of fiber optics.

Corning, which is celebrating its sesquicentennial this year, has been riding the optical superhighway ever since. During the next 12 months, the company plans to boost its capital spending by $700 million. Much of that money is earmarked for state-of-the-art technology, such as automated assembly equipment.

Corning is upgrading its manufacturing facilities to meet huge demand for fiber optic components. Investments include:

*$150 million to add additional capacity at the Benton Park, PA, plant. During the next 2 years, Corning intends to increase its capacity in amplifier modules by more than 50 percent and dispersion compensation modules by more than 200 percent.

*A new, $225 million photonic components manufacturing plant on a 56-acre site in Nashua, NH.

ASSEMBLY recently asked Windsor Thomas, business manager of micro-optics components, to discuss his company's manufacturing automation strategy.

How has Corning changed the way it manufacturers optical components?
"We have taken the manufacturing process from a highly manual, labor intensive, low yield, high cycle time situation where many highly specialized technicians sit at rows and rows of benches, and have turned it into a streamlined, automated environment resulting in high yields, low cycle times and high-quality DWDM components. Corning, along with our partner, Samsung, has focused on meeting expectations to supply the needs of the industry by implementing mass production automation techniques. This radically improves the quantity, as well as the quality and uniformity, of the devices that we are selling to the market today."

What prompted this radical change?
"The demand for everything in the entire optical layer has grown at an extraordinary pace. The root cause is that bandwidth traffic continues to grow at a rate at which nobody had anticipated. It is not that the companies out there actively selling components are unable to produce equipment, it is that demand for these components far outstrips the current ability of the industry to supply it."

What are the benefits to automating the assembly process?
"The ability to mass produce passive optical components for DWDM gives Corning a significant advantage in the marketplace. Automation increases yield and improves product quality and uniformity. This cost-effective approach enables us to ship products in ever increasing volume and provides our customers with high quality products and shorter lead times."

What specific benefits has Corning achieved because of automation?
"One specific benefit is that we are able to provide better repeatability and uniformity, product-to-product, and increased yield for high-quality DWDM components. Automation has enhanced our ability to meet customer demand with devices that provide higher performance at a more cost-effective price."

What's the biggest difference between assembling components by hand vs. automation?
"One of the processes that Corning has automated involves soldering. The soldering machines use optical power peaking measurements to align parts perfectly before they are attached. In the new packaging line, the soldering process takes just 45 seconds per device. The older soldering method required 45 minutes per device and needed a highly skilled technician to precisely align and solder the package manually. Manufacturing yields from the old process were in the 60 to 70 percent range. The new process has resulted in a 25 percent improvement in manufacturing yield. Cycle times also have been significantly reduced.

"A second process that we have automated is adhesive delivery. This process provides the exact amount of adhesive necessary and prevents the excess from spilling into the optical path. In the past, the delicate alignment of filters was a much slower, manual operation that offered lower yields and considerably less uniformity from product to product. With today's automated processes, cycle times are significantly reduced, and product uniformity, repeatability and availability are greatly increased."