3M’s products are everywhere. In fact, you’re never more than 10 feet away from 3M technology. The materials science company has created a dizzying array of products—Scotch Tape®, cleaning products, respirators, water filtration systems, dental composites, sanding abrasive discs, and reflective sign materials—that fulfill a wide variety of needs.
The company’s approach to innovation is at once simple and hard to replicate, and trusted in the hands of its employees. It combines market and customer insights with deep technology expertise and a collaborative culture to create products that improve lives. This strategy has helped 3M evolve from a small-scale mining venture in Northern Minnesota, to a materials sciences company with more than 90,000 employees across 87 countries. It also earns 3M a spot on Fast Company’s “Best Workplaces for Innovators” list.
Space to invent
As interesting as 3M’s long product list is how it generates creative ideas. For more than 70 years, 3M employees— “3Mers”—have been encouraged to spend 85 percent of their time working on day-to-day tasks, including projects that reflect market and customer needs. The other 15 percent is spent pursuing their own “homegrown” ideas. The market may not be demanding these concepts outright, but 3M employees recognize them as impactful, explains John Banovetz, senior vice president of research and development and chief technology officer.
The program works because of 3M’s collaborative culture. Employees with diverse viewpoints partner on projects, sharing ideas and findings across locations and teams. This cooperative spirit transforms would-be failures into steppingstones. An experiment gone sideways is a lesson learned that benefits other arms of the business. But the program is more than a teaching ground. Since its launch in 1948, it has created many commercial successes, including window films that block harmful UV rays and reduce heating and cooling costs, and even the Post-it Note®, the poster child for inventions consumers didn’t know they needed but now can’t live without.
Banovetz believes all 3M technologies can be traced back to the 15 percent culture program and innovative 3Mers. Every product sprung from a seed of an idea, and the 15 percent culture program is where those seeds get planted. Those seeds contribute to the diverse list of consumer and business markets and products that make 3M science ubiquitous.
Innovation across technology platforms
3M products are based on in-depth customer knowledge and vast but synergistic technology specialties. These specialties are summarized in its Periodic Table, a chart that includes 51 technology platforms and processes. Just like the table of elements on which it’s modeled, short abbreviations symbolize the concept; Ab for abrasives and Ro for advanced robotics.
The unique intersection of these elements, which range from molding and radiation processing to accelerated weathering and thermal management, allows 3M to invent differentiated products. For example, its work in nanotechnology (Nt), the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale, permeates various technology platforms, including adhesives, wound management, and ceramics, and is reflected in multiple product lines, including hard coatings, dental restoratives, and brightness-enhancing optical films.
Regardless of industry, 3M technologies and the 3Mers behind them help solve tough problems, from air quality to connected roadways to food safety. Banovetz says when you focus on creating impactful products and make room for employees to innovate, the business success follows. For 3M, that means continued growth, profitability, return on investment for shareholders, and amazing career opportunities for 3Mers.