A culture of invention

3M is a global innovation company
 that never stops inventing. Founded in 1902 at the Lake Superior town of Two Harbors, Minnesota, five businessmen set out to mine a mineral deposit for grinding-wheel abrasives.

The deposits proved to be of little value, and the new Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company moved to nearby Duluth to focus on sandpaper products.

Like many others in the early 1900s, 3M’s founders incorporated first and investigated later. In the face of failure, they persevered and turned their investment into a lucrative venture. 
New investors were attracted to 3M, such as Lucius Ordway, who moved the company to St. Paul in 1910. Early technical and marketing innovations began to produce successes.

3M’s Corporate Research Laboratory was founded in 1937, recently celebrating its 75th anniversary in St Paul. We spoke to 
Dr Larry Wendling the global Research Laboratory’s Vice President, who joined 3M because of its reputation in science and technology. He pointed out: “The principles of 3M are the same today as they were from the beginning. It’s a business, not a university. Our solutions are not ivory tower solutions.” And he refers to the researchers as ‘blue-collar scientists’.

“3M is fundamentally a science-based company. We produce thousands of imaginative products, and we’re a leader in scores of markets — from healthcare
 and highway safety to office products and abrasives and adhesives. Our success begins with our ability to apply our technologies — often in combination — to an endless array of real-world customer needs. Of course, all of this is made possible by the people of 3M and their singular commitment to make life easier and better for people around the world.

“Over the years, our innovations have improved daily life for hundreds of millions of people all over the world. We have made driving at night easier, made buildings safer, and made consumer electronics lighter, less energy intensive and less harmful to the environment. We even helped put a man on the moon. Every day at 3M, one idea always leads to the next, igniting momentum to make progress possible around the world. Technology and R&D are right in the middle of the business, and the 3M business model is innovation, that’s what creates value in the company."

As Dr Wendling says “Our culture helps us to stand apart, especially the mutual respect between our scientists and laboratories and the rest of the business. Networking is a huge factor. We set up a professional society in 1951 to connect all the labs, and there are over 800 events a year to link the groups together. We cover all areas of science including nanotechnology and biotechnology. Our senior researchers hand down expertise to newer staff, who add their own individual contributions to their technology platform, advance the technology and then pass it on to the next generation. It’s all about balance, an ecosystem of scientists connected by innovation to manufacturing, customer service, supply chain and other parts of the business. We work years ahead in development, and we thrive on the diversity of the product range. We’re always looking for breakthroughs in new ideas and the reinforcement of existing ideas and products — making them stronger, longer lasting.”

A key part of the culture at 3M is their Bootlegging Policy, which allows their technical employees to spend up to 15% 
of their time developing their own creative ideas for the company — where they can explore ideas for innovative products or services that might benefit the company. This is central to 3M’s global innovation, and is supported by their Genesis Grant programme, to take ideas forward — if any ideas generated in Bootlegging time look viable, the next step is to assess if for funding through the Genesis Grant programme. There are many successes from the Bootlegging Policy, the most famous is the Post-it note, but they include clear bandages, optical films that reflect light, designing a way to make painter’s tape stick to wall edges, all of which are on the market now. And Dr Wendling himself still uses his 15% time.

The investment in R&D at 3M is mighty. “We have a metric on new product development.” Dr Wendling told us “initiated in 1988, this measures new product revenues as a percentage of total revenues, we call it the new product vitality index. Our target is 35 to 40% of revenues, short cycle (eg electronics) is higher, long cycle (eg healthcare) is lower, but averages are spot on.”

Dr Wendling also told us a couple of stories that demonstrate development opportunity in action. 3M tackled the challenge of transmitting more electrical power over existing high voltage towers by developing new high voltage power cables based on ceramic fibers versus conventional steel cables. The standard cables sag more from heating than the ceramic as more power is transmitted through the cable. The new ceramic cable can transmit two to three times the electrical power of conventional cables. The core is stranded from wires of high purity aluminium reinforced with alumina fibres.

The outer, current carrying wires are a hardened aluminum zirconium alloy. The resulting conductor has the same strength as similar size steel core conductors, but is much lighter and sags less. It also retains its performance over decades of high temperature use, and is stable in a wide range of environmental conditions. The ACCR cable has been installed to solve challenging issues around the world, including long-span river crossings and extra high voltage and renewable energy installations.

“We also make glass spheres, used in things like reflective coatings, the paint in road markings etc. Every so often we would accidently produce a hollow ball. We tried to think of ways in which these little balls might be made useful. It turns out they are really useful for insulation, used to insulate deep sea oil pipes Another example is the use of microrepliction technology to develop brightness enhancement films used in LCD displays. When microreplication technology was first developed in the 1960’s, we had no idea that it would be put to such a use. 
It is deeply gratifying to see research and technology applied to real world problems. Scientists and engineers are motivated by applying their technological achievements to problems. In order for that to happen, you need to know the problems you are solving - I think that is where the curiosity comes in.”

Dr Wendling sees the biggest challenge and opportunity for 3M is retaining the balance of leading-edge innovation and sustainable business for the future, and maintaining this through an extensive corporate memory attitude where values are handed down, added to and built on. From what we know about 3M, they can do this through their thirst for solutions and the culture of encouraging challenge that their employees seem to thrive on.

We’ve identified five hallmarks of beautiful business and explored stories from an array of companies from all over the world. Today, we continue to talk to businesses with an alternative approach, which you can read more about here.