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First in Glass

Jim Clappin ’80 was once a small-town Rhode Island kid with dreams of becoming a chemist. Today, as president of Corning Glass Technologies, he helps manufacture the glass screens that make our touch-enabled lives possible. He and his wife, Doreen, split their time between Japan and two homes in the United States, including one in South Kingstown, not far from his alma mater. Here, his thoughts on following in the footsteps of Thomas Edison, his enduring relationship with URI, and what’s next for your smart phone.

When did you know you wanted to become an engineer?

I decided at the end of my freshman year to change majors from chemistry to chemical engineering. I felt the applied side of chemistry was a better fit with my affinity for industry. As it turned out, that was a pivotal decision.

Outside of the classroom, what were your interests at URI?

Sigma Chi Fraternity was a big part of my URI community. We ate together, cleaned together, and managed the frat’s finances and the rush process together. Recently, I reconnected with several of my Sigma Chi brothers and we are funding construction of a new on-campus house.

Which professors had the greatest influence on you?

The summer before my senior year I had the pleasure of working with Dr. Thomas Rockett, then a professor of Chemical Engineering, helping to create a glass-based hermetic seal between titanium and Macor, a machineable ceramic used in heart pacemakers. Keeping body fluids from penetrating the electronics within a pacemaker was a must, and we tested several different glass compositions before  developing one with the right characteristics.

I loved it all, and decided then that I wanted to work for Corning, the company that made Macor. Dr. Rockett and I still exchange emails on a fairly regular basis. I owe my choice of career largely to him.

What was it like to work for Corning in Central Falls in the 1980s?

While very different from our glass plants today, I enjoyed working with the technology, initially as a process engineer and later as a manufacturing department head. At the center of Central Falls’ technology was the Corning Ribbon Machine, which the company invented in the mid 1920s—and which is still considered state-of-the-art today—to produce glass casing at very high speeds. It dramatically reduced the cost of manufacturing light bulbs and made them affordable to households the world over. Prior to that, glass casings were largely made by hand, going all the way back to the late 1800s and the casing that Corning made for Thomas Edison’s first long-lived incandescent light bulb.

Central Falls wasn’t too far from my hometown of Cumberland, and the workers on the factory floor were my friends. We played softball and flag football together, and I got to know them as people in a way that would be difficult today. I carried away from Central Falls my management philosophy: leadership, trust, and respect must be earned.

Did you ever imagine as a kid that you would live in Japan?

“The simple answer is no. When I began my career with Corning, the company’s manufacturing base was largely centered in the U.S. I moved to Japan in 1996 to run our Shizuoka Plant, just prior to when the demand for LCD glass began its meteoric climb. As demand grew, so did our manufacturing footprint, and we now have a total of seven LCD glass-making facilities located in the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Mainland China. I was fortunate to be involved from the start.

Now we concentrate on products like Corning Gorilla Glass, which is used as a protective cover on most touch-enabled devices. It covers more than two billion devices worldwide, including the iPhone, iPad, and Samsung’s Galaxy line of products.

And it’s only the beginning. Corning Willow Glass is on track to enable the evolution of thinner and lighter “next generation” devices—and it’s flexible! Imagine glass so thin it can be produced like you print a newspaper, in a continuous roll-to-roll process. It’s yesterday’s science fiction.

What advice would you offer students graduating from URI today?

Intellectual curiosity is the secret to success—this is what I tell my daughters (Allyson, a Northeastern University graduate; Andrea, attending college in Annapolis, Maryland; and Emily, a freshman at URI studying sociology). Many of my colleagues, unlike me, have MBAs from places like Harvard, Tuck, and Wharton. I believe the reason I head up our largest business is because I am open to continually learning. You will be judged for your capability, knowledge, and results. Look at your degree as a beginning.

—Melanie Coon

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