Volume 90 Issue 2 | pp. 25-26
Issue Date: January 9, 2012

How 3M Stays Tech Savvy

Firm uses an internal technology network to drive innovation and keep up with the pace of change
Department: Business
Keywords: research, technology, innovation, R&D management
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STICK-TO-ITIVENESS
Greener Post‑it Notes were developed because of 3M’s research network.
Credit: 3M
3M Post-it notes made with renewable plant-based adhesives.
 
STICK-TO-ITIVENESS
Greener Post‑it Notes were developed because of 3M’s research network.
Credit: 3M

Among the 13 chemical companies to make Thomson Reuters’ recent Top 100 Global Innovators list was 3M. The St. Paul-based firm also ranked third, after electronics giant Apple and software designer Google, in Booz & Co.’s 2011 Global Innovation 1000 ranking of the most innovative companies as judged by senior R&D executives.

Eighty-five of the companies surveyed by Booz spent more than the $1.4 billion 3M spent on R&D in 2010. They include chemical industry stalwarts DuPont and Dow Chemical, each of which spent about $1.7 billion. Yet 3M was judged to be among the most innovative.

The outside recognition validates 3M’s decades-long commitment to creating a climate for innovation, says Frederick J. Palensky, 3M’s chief technology officer. And he credits 3M’s own Tech Forum, a technology-oriented social-networking program that just celebrated its 60th anniversary, for many of the firm’s new product development successes.

Many companies puzzle over how to form networks among inventive employees to advance research, says L. Louis Hegedus, a retired senior vice president of R&D at specialty chemical maker Arkema. Researchers at many large chemical companies these days work for individual business units. The challenge is to find a way to keep them connected to each other, as well as to the firms’ overall technology organizations.

In 3M’s case, many new products have come into being because Tech Forum programs help scientists “make uncommon connections,” Palensky notes. The forum has spurred innovations such as a fluoropolymer film to protect the back of photovoltaic modules and an adhesive made from renewable materials for the firm’s popular line of Post-it Notes.

Making those connections is important to 3M’s success, Palensky says. The firm, which had sales of $26.7 billion in 2010, introduced 1,200 new products in 2010 alone. Most 3M products draw on between four and 11 core technologies nested among 3M’s many businesses, Palensky tells C&EN. Those technologies include adhesives, fluorinated materials, and films.

New products—five years old or less—accounted for 31% of sales in 2010, and when 2011’s new products are included in the tally, they are likely to account for 33% of sales, Palensky says. 3M’s goal is for new products to reach 40% of sales. The company’s businesses won’t grow at all if new product sales don’t reach at least 25%, he says, so a high-functioning R&D organization is critical for survival.

“Research cultures take a long time to build,” Palensky says. “Ours has been building now for 60 years.”

The Tech Forum offers a way to share technology across 3M’s six business segments and more than 35 business units. Organizers are members of 3M’s research community of about 7,300 who work at 73 labs worldwide. The largest lab is at 3M’s headquarters in St. Paul. They get support and a “modest” budget from management, Palensky says.

Forum activities include 37 special-interest “chapters” that focus on technologies such as solar energy and filtration. The chapters come and go depending on researchers’ interests and corporate needs, says Joel Gardner, a senior design engineer and the 2011 forum chairman.

Chapter leaders arrange poster sessions, set up training classes, and invite speakers from 3M and academia to give talks. An annual corporate-wide technology review event, a spring symposium, and grants to employees to support research outside the normal focus of their business units further enhance the forum’s goal of sharing technology among 3M scientists.

The Tech Forum program got under way a few years after 3M’s 1948 shift to a decentralized management structure that serves multiple, diverse markets, Gardner explains. Special-interest chapters soon emerged to help break down the barriers to communication among scientists sequestered in 3M’s various businesses. Today about 800 forum meetings each year attract as many as 2,800 people to the annual technology event or as few as 10 to small chapter meetings.

A network of forum-based contacts helped Thomas J. Blong, a scientist in 3M’s renewable energy division, and colleagues develop a fluoropolymer-based film to protect the back of solar modules. Drawing on experts in adhesives, polymer surface modification, and weathering whom they met at forum events, Blong and coworkers developed a multilayer film made of fluoropolymer, polyester, and ethylene vinyl acetate.

Dubbed 3M Scotchshield, the film has the moisture protection, electrical insulation, heat resistance, and ultraviolet light stability properties needed for a solar module expected to last 25 years or more. 3M started selling the film in 2006.

About eight years ago, Blong also organized a solar chapter. The chapter’s first event was a poster session that attracted 30 presenters and about 400 attendees from 3M’s science community. “People participate because they are curious, inquisitive, and want to learn,” he says. “Many get hooked on the forums early in their career because it gives them a way to see what’s going on inside the company.”

3M’s Post-it Notes got a new lease on life only because Ying–yuh Lu, a corporate scientist in the firm’s office supplies division, happened to see a poster on renewable adhesive building blocks at a forum session.

Lu says he obtained monomer samples and worked with them over three years to develop and help scale up production of a proprietary naturally sourced acrylic material that replaces 67% of the Post-it’s petroleum-based adhesive. In 2010, 3M began selling the “greener” notes.

The Tech Forum has become an effective way to disseminate technology and intellectual property across 3M’s many businesses, Palensky says. “It has become fundamental to our collaborative model.”

 
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