From masking tape to cable

The inventor of Post-It notes is playing for big stakes in fibre optics, writes Roger Trapp

As A company whose name is synonymous with innovation, 3M has grown used to making big bets on the future. But in the coming weeks the inventor of sandpaper, masking tape and Post-It notes will be calling in one of its biggest gambles since it was founded early in the century.

3M's "Volition" project aims - as the company puts it - to "change the basis of competition" in the telecommunications and information technology industry by offering a cheap, simple method of installing the fibre optic cable that is replacing copper wire. The initial product will be an interconnector linking lengths of cable. But the company envisages a range of offerings covering all aspects of installation and maintenance for a market expected to be worth about $3bn (pounds 1.9bn). As Daen Wombwell, the Briton who as global development manager of the project is charged with making it happen, says: "If we only get 10 per cent of that it will be okay."

But with the January launch approaching, it is clear there is little room for complacency. The project is under intense scrutiny from 3M executives, who were convinced by those working on it that it should be one of a few programmes allocated extra resources on account of their potential benefit to the company. Such programmes - there are about 25, with another 25 identified - form part of the "Pacing Plus" initiative launched early last year to pep up the company's innovative record after a sluggish period. To qualify, a technology should be felt capable of delivering hundreds of millions of dollars of sales as well as fundamentally alter the industries to which it is being applied.

One of the most successful of these technologies is "microreplication", a method of coating materials with raised surfaces. It began in the screens of overhead projectors, and has since been applied to a range of products, from nappy fasteners to computer mouse pads and, most recently, a new abrasive called Trizact, which takes the company back to its roots.

In the fibre-optics case, the stakes are higher. If it succeeds the project stands to put 3M's operation in Austin, Texas, on the map. Though now spread throughout the world, the $14bn turnover company is still largely associated with the first part of its original name - Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing.

The Texas facility was set up in the 1980s as a deliberate attempt to stay close to the electronics customers in an area now known as Silicon Hills and also to diversify the workforce of the company by attracting - from colleges such as the University of Texas that specialise in high technology - recruits who were different from the mid-Westerners traditionally hired.

Although the project is based in Texas it is a prime example of how 3M draws people from different operations around the world as required. The complexities of this market have also shown the company's willingness to set up alliances and partnerships to achieve its goal. "This approach has changed the basis of who our competitors are," says Mr Wombwell. "Some who weren't competitors will be, and some who were won't be."

The origin of this line of products goes back four years, to when he and a scientist colleague were sitting in a whirlpool bath "dreaming up things" 3M could produce. For several years previously 3M had been trying to work out how, having followed others into the fibre-optic market, it could move up the chain.

The first ideas were developed in the precise wiring group of which Mr Wombwell was then a member in the UK. When the project moved to Austin he went with it to lead a team that has grown to about 120.

The team's challenge has been to win over sceptical customers to a new fibre-optic system. The answer was partnerships and alliances. Some members of the telecommunications industry have played a minimal role, wanting only to be aware of what was going on, while others - notably Honeywell - have been more involved. Mr Wombwell is confident that this involvement of others will pave the way for the new concept.

The project team sought to live up to 3M's aim of ensuring that products are as durable as possible and satisfying itself that "the worst installer that could be found" could handle the task without extensive back-up. Refinements have been sought to make the products as cost-effective as possible.

But the trickiest task was winning over the executives who juggle various interests in spending a research and development budget of $1bn a year. They are effectively 3M's bankers, or venture capitalists. With rigorous prioritisation, that is unlikely to change. But, as Mr Wombwell and his colleagues say, if you can sell something internally, selling it outside the company is easier.

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