The 2017 Cucalorus Connect conference is now underway with several events happening at Cape Fear Community College’s Union Station over the next two days.
Michele Holbrook, Wilmington plant manager at Corning Inc., opened up the event with a keynote speech Thursday morning. The two-day business conference is a branch of the Cucalorus Festival, which also includes Cucalorus Film and Stage.
Cucalorus Connect leaders, including Dan Brawley, executive director of the annual Cucalorus Festival, has said previously that this is an evolutionary year for the conference. For the first time, the event is taking place under one roof, and an executive board was formed
earlier this year to help shape the conference.
Tom Looney, president of the Cucalorus Connect board, was joined by state Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover), to introduce Holbrook at the opening of the conference.
Holbrook followed with a speech focused on how Corning is connecting the world and the "digital economy," which is the theme of year's Cucalorus Connect conference.
Corning has a long-standing history in the area dating back to the 1970s, when three scientists invented the first optical fiber. The invention sparked the world’s first optical fiber manufacturing facility in Wilmington, Holbrook said.
Over the years, the 166-year-old company as a whole has had its share of successes and turmoil, but it has maintained a long-term vision focused on future needs and people’s appetite for connectivity, Holbrook said.
The year 2000 was a record year for Corning, mainly driven by optical fiber, Holbrook said. "Customers could not buy our product fast enough. We were making it around the clock,” she said.
But the market crash years later proved a frightening time for Corning. With the global economy crash and fall of Wall Street, business began to pull back.
"Orders essentially evaporated," she said. "Many of our customers went out of business. It was terrible. We still refer to that time in Corning's history as our near-death experience."
But the company also believed that the optical communication industry was "still in its infancy," she said. "We already had the biggest share of the optical fiber market and we were convinced that people's … appetite for communication was only going to increase.”
Corning continued to grow its reach through inventions in technology, such as LCD glass, which made it possible for thinner electronic devices. The company also focused on making manufacturing more cost-efficient.
By the next decade, Corning became so efficient, its optical fiber was brought down to a third of the cost from what it was back in the 2000s, she said.
The company has since partnered with companies such as Verizon and AT&T to bring fiber to the home and has come up with ways to connect wireless and optical for what Holbrook called the "one wireless platform.”
Optical is also playing a role in the creation and editing of high definition audio and video content with its optical fiber cabling, which has "particular application to the folks here at the Cucalorus Connect festival," she said.
Corning has celebrated high points in 2017. The company was honored by a Technology & Engineering Emmy award earlier this year. And in September, Corning celebrated at its Wilmington plant the milestone of delivering of its 1 billionth kilometer of optical fiber
"We really thrived on taking big problems and solving them. Given our knowledge of glass chemistry and optical physics. But fiber might have been one of our biggest challenges," Holbrook said.
That challenge remains evident today as the world transitions into a 5G network, something that optical fiber will be at the forefront of the technology, she said.
"We feel that optical fiber, now in its 47th year, hasn't even reached the midpoint of its life cycle," Holbrook said. "I pledge to you that we will keep investing in our inventions and producing a fiber to be able to make it a reality.
"Optical fiber, made right here in Wilmington North Carolina, is the ideal enabler of the way people do business, consume information, and entertainment today. And by every measure, our future looks absolutely amazing."
Festival organizers say about 150 have attended today's event. The Connect Conference continues with several sessions and keynotes Thursday and Friday. Check the full schedule here