Memo to self: create more blockbusters as good as this

The company behind the Post-it note and sticky tape has gone back to its labs in search of the next big thing. Clayton Hirst gets a glimpse of 3M's top three inventions
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The Independent Online

3M invents things. Best known for its ubiquitous Post-it notes and the Scotch brand adhesive tapes, the company spends $1.1bn (£627m) a year researching and developing new products. And along the way it has broken a few laws. It recently, for example, tore up the 200-year-old Brewster's Law of physics, governing the way in which light reflects off minerals. 3M's discovery is now being used in materials in interior lighting.

The company's chief lawbreaker is Larry Wendling, a 3M veteran of 28 years who heads a team of 700 research scientists based in Maplewood, Minnesota. In September 2003, the company underwent an overhaul of its laboratories that elevated Mr Wendling to vice-president of corporate research and led to more resources being funnelled into long-term R&D.

"We had sort of lost a handle on technology development," admits Mr Wendling. "But we have now gone through an extensive period of figuring out what are the future technologies and high-growth markets. We are going to develop technology faster than before. We have aggressive growth targets. Quite simply, our business model is to create things that didn't exist before."

Mr Wendling and his team have come up with a list of 12 technologies on which 3M will focus its research dollars (see facing page). Of these, Mr Wendling believes that nanotechnology offers the biggest potential to produce the next Post-it-style blockbuster for 3M.

Much of what 3M does is shrouded in secrecy for fear of its competitors stealing the march on new inventions. But ahead of the company's second-quarter results, out tomorrow, Mr Wendling has revealed for the first time the three inventions that he predicts hold the potential to become the next big thing for 3M.

The first is in the area of drug delivery. 3M believes it has discovered a painless way of injecting drugs into the body using a system called microneedles. It comes in the form of a special patch, around 1cm square, containing 1,000 microscopic needles. They are coated with a drug that, when lightly pressed on the skin, is absorbed by the body. "The drug delivery is pain free. The needles are so small, you don't notice them."

It is understood that 3M will begin clinical trials of the microneedles this year. "We are well down the path. We are aligning with vaccine providers and are involved in tests. We think that microneedles will be applicable for a broad range of vaccines and it could be available in less than five years," says Mr Wendling.

The second area causing much excitement in 3M's labs is its work in the energy sector. Here, the company has two inventions that it believes could become moneyspinners.

One is known as the composite conductor. The growing demand for electricity is putting a strain on distribution companies, which have to install more overhead cables in areas of high use. 3M's scientists have responded by inventing a cable capable of transmitting two to three times more electricity than a traditional one with a steel core.

The inner core of 3M's cable is made of alumina, a ceramic material. "By controlling the nanostructure of the material, we have made something that normally would be brittle very strong," says Mr Wendling. "We are involved in field tests with a number of companies and the product could be launched in the next year or two."

He refuses to say which power groups 3M is working with, but they are thought to include Hawaiian Electric Company, Xcel Energy (based in Minnesota) and Western Area Power Administration (North Dakota).

3M is also working on ways to make consumer lithium batteries last longer. It has already made a new type of electrolyte fluid, contained in some re- chargeable batteries, and is now developing new materials for cathodes and anodes. 3M believes these innovations will increase the typical battery capacity by 50 per cent. The company is now in discussions with manufacturers in Japan and Korea.

The technology for the third potential moneyspinner is fully developed. In fact, it has been in American libraries for years. Called RFID, or radio frequency identification, this is a system for electronically tracking goods and products via a tiny microchip. In libraries, it is used to keep tabs on the books.

RFID is regarded by many in the IT industry as the next big thing. Already, many British supermarkets are considering using the system for stock control and automated checkout facilities.

Rivals such as IBM and Fujitsu are also developing RFID systems, but Mr Wendling is confident that 3M will be a leader in the field. "We have got some really advanced systems. This is a big growth area. But I really can't comment further as it is very confidential." It is thought that 3M is developing RFID products for use in the office.

All this is a long way from 3M's roots, which go back to 1902 when five businessmen set up Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing to make sandpaper products. The company's breakthrough came in 1925 when it developed the famous Scotch masking tape, and five years later the first Cellophane tape.

Not all 3M's products have been a success. In the late 1990s it was caught up in the controversy over breast implants. 3M agreed to make one-off payments ranging from £2,000 to £33,000 to settle personal injury claims from British women who had received implants made by the company. The offer was made without admission of liability.

3M is perhaps still best known for its Post-it note. Introduced in 1980, the yellow sticky label was invented almost by accident. In 1968, a 3M chemist, Dr Spence Silver, developed the glue that is on the back of the note today. It lacked adhesive power and never dried, and the company didn't find a use for it until the arrival of another 3M scientist, Art Fry. A choir director in his spare time, he came up with the idea of applying the glue to bookmarks as a way of labelling the pages in his hymn books. Thus the Post-it was born.

But in the 25 years since, it has sometimes proved a curse as well as a blessing. "Sometimes we suffer because people only know us for our consumer products. You must remember that this only makes up 18 per cent of the business," insists Mr Wendling.

3M's current strategy of investing in areas such as nanotechnology was devised by its former chief executive, James McNerney. Last month he was named the new boss of Boeing, and 3M is searching for a new head. Mr Wendling claims this will not affect the research programme: "McNerney was a great leader - we have all the plans in place. But we can live without Jim."

"And anyway," he quips, "we expect that Boeing will be a great customer in the future."