How A Superbulb Massively Brightened 3M's Innovation Pipeline

The LED Advanced Lightbulb is a unique product. Here's the story of how Tom Simpson and his team brought an idea into the light.

Every few months, a lightbulb in Tom Simpson’s office would burn out and someone would have to change it. In fact, that’s what we all do: It’s become almost standard office procedure to be constantly swapping out dead bulbs. They just don’t last that long: A 60-watt incandescent is good for 800 to 1,000 hours, about five months of 40-hour work weeks. Fluorescents are worth at least double that, but neither factors in the additional burn from overtime, second shifts, and after-hours cleaning crews.

Simpson didn’t realize how wasteful that was until one day in June 2009, when a coworker named Ray Johnston approached him with a new idea. They could combine several technologies including the same mirrored film that helps light most laptop and cell phone screens and channel it, creating a "light guide" for bulbs that managed output from a low-wattage LED. The result would be a sort of superbulb that burned brighter, stayed cooler, and lasted way longer than traditional offerings. It also would emit light in a natural way—a shortcoming of other LED offerings which act more like lasers than lightbulbs.

If all that sounds bit brainy for your standard water cooler conversation, it is: Simpson works at 3M, the $29.6 billion global manufacturer of technological, office, and industrial innovations, including the ubiquitous Post-it note. In 2008, he was manager of the Advanced Concepts group within 3M’s Display and Graphics Lab, a team with 20 engineer and scientists, in charge of spotting and bringing bright new ideas to market. "My direction was to find something that provided new options for the business," he says. The result, the 3M LED Advanced Lightbulb, costs $24.88 and was released exclusively through Walmart last August. It burns for 27,500 hours—that’s more than 13 years of all-day office life. (Appealing to a bigger market, the company touts it as actually good for 25 years’ worth of standard home use.)

The Advanced Lightbulb may be unique, but the way Simpson’s team created it isn’t. First, they talked to other engineers and scientists around the company to figure out what tech might have additional applications. Then they adapted it for another use. Advanced Concepts is one of a handful of small incubators the company has formed in recent years in order to spot and harness existing intellectual property in new ways, but that’s all possible because of a broader internal innovation pipeline that harnesses two internal programs—15 Percent Time and the Tech Forum—to let all engineers find new ways to explore, understand, and piggyback off each other’s ideas.

Incubators aside, 3M employees are already known for launching wildly creative side projects that turn into actual products. In the 1920s, for instance, Scotch brand Masking Tape famously spun out of a sandpaper division after an engineer realized that the sticky adhesive he used to keep grit on paper might be toned down to give the paper itself other purposes. Forty years later, another engineer realized that a seemingly failed low-tack adhesive could be added to scraps of paper to make peel-away notes in office reports. That’s the origin of the Post-it note. In recent years, one re-engineered product turned the solid reflective glass bubbles used on street signs into hollow glass bubbles to make both lightweight car parts and as an insulation additive necessary for deep sea oil pipelines. Another transitioned a fire protection fluid developed to protect data centers to preserve the world’s largest squid in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. (Seriously.) Prior to its use in the superbulb, a variation of their reflective film was re-geared into a protective window film that blocks UV rays to help protect art installations.

At 3M all of those breakthroughs happen in much the same way: Like many ubiquitous "percent time" programs, 15 Percent Time gives researchers some flexibility in their work week to explore concepts beyond their traditional work that interests them. At the same time, the Tech Forum is an annual product fair to let developers show off their division’s breakthroughs. Both started more than 50 years ago. "When you are looking around for new ideas, seeing materials with different properties can be a good place to start," says Joel Gardner, the current forum chairman. In 2012, there were 1,200 employees at the Tech Forum Spring Symposium.

Since the company has grown, the Forum also makes it easier for employees to connect outside that show by creating specialty chapters; all of the company’s 80,000 employees worldwide are broken into roughly 40 divisions ranked by area of expertise—say, health care or electronics—in addition to their formal product teams. Chapters have their own breakout sessions—there are about 800 informal gatherings where workers meet to talk shop annually. They also let anyone seeking advice or collaborators easily find an in-house expert. "The model for the Tech Forum is innovation through interaction," Gardner says. "You might not get the answer on the first call but someone will know within three phone calls what the answer will be."

Employees with the best pet projects are picked by their division heads to present to committees where they vie for grants for future development. The company won’t share more details about that but on average it spends more than a billion dollars annually on R&D. In December 2010, Simpson and his team presented their superbulb idea in front of the Tech Council, a group of executives who meet quarterly for company updates. There, they showed off a 3- to 4-inch plastic hemisphere that proved the basic theory behind the concept in order to win another three months, plus funding, to create a prettier prototype. "They are pretty hideous," Simpson says of his early prototypes. "It’s just fun to see the evolution from something only the inventor and his mom can like to something that is beautiful."

The next step included simultaneously drawing up a business plan for how each bulb would be produced, distributed, and marketed. That led to critical insight: To be recognized as an improvement by consumers, the light would still need to look very similar to its competition, the standard A19 bulb.

For Simpson, the financial payoff is directly tied to the success of the product. Because the company owns all inventor patents, he and his team won’t be paid directly for the tech they helped develop. If employees hold stock options, though, that might contribute to their eventual reward. "The reality is that if a product sells well, the money out of stock options will work out as well," Gardner says. For inventors whose products earn more than $1 billion in sales, there is a prestige factor, too. They may be inducted into the Carlton Society, an honorific group named after former company president Richard Carlton, who in 1921 became the first technical employee with a college degree to get hired. There are currently around 200 society members.

Though 3M won’t disclose exact numbers, Simpson says that sales and business teams are pleased with the Advanced Lighbulb's performance so far. Today, he and his group are tinkering with more applications of ultra-efficient lighting tech. Their offices, meanwhile, remain lit by their own invention.

[Base Image: Flickr user Kurtis Garbutt]