3M-inent thinking

Giving focus to his company’s research activities in the UK seems like a dream job for 3M’s research director, Christiaan Persoon. Jon Excell reports.

It’s an auspicious day in 3M’s calendar: the 25th birthday of the Post-it note, and Christiaan Persoon, the company’s UK research director is both delighted and relieved to meet The Engineer.

Having spent most of the morning chatting to the BBC about what is perhaps his firm’s most iconic product, he’s glad of the opportunity to remind someone that while it may enjoy legendary status, the humble Post-it is but a tiny part of an organisation with tentacles in pretty much any industry you care to mention.

3M has come a long way from its roots. Originally known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company, it was founded in 1902 to mine deposits of corundum, a mineral used in the manufacture of sandpaper. After an early setback the founders switched from mining to manufacturing and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today 3M is an $18bn (£9bn) multinational developer and manufacturer of adhesives, abrasives, tapes and host of other materials that are used by everyone from space agencies to medical equipment designers.

Browsing through the previous issue of The Engineer in the gleaming fortress of 3M UK’s Bracknell HQ, Persoon, an amiable Dutchman, hammers home this message with relish.

‘This road sign on your front cover is made from 3M products, this car uses our structural adhesives, these reflective jackets contain our technology — there’s something of ours on every page.’

Persoon — a former lecturer in biochemistry in his home city of Amsterdam— has been spearheading the UK R&D effort for almost two years now. He joined 3M around 18 years ago and prior to his current position he headed the organisation’s medical laboratories in Europe. His remit now is far wider, and it’s a challenge he relishes.

‘I’ve been involved in the medical side of things for so long I know the business inside out, but this job is wonderful. I have the opportunity to peek at every business and technology, and at the moment I’m interested in everything but medical,’ he said.

Persoon heads a team of several hundred research scientists working in seven specialist laboratories scattered around the country. His job is to make sure these highly-specialised and disparate groups don’t get too carried away with their creative dreams and stay focused on developing products with customers in mind.

This approach, he said, has long been at the core of what 3M does: ‘For instance, Henry Ford came to 3M and said: “I want to paint my Model T in two colours but have no idea how to do it.” So we developed masking tape.’

One of the keys to this approach, he explained, is having a large number of skilled technicians at his disposal with experience in their respective fields. For instance, he recently hired several nurses for the medical side of the business. As well as helping familiarise hospital teams with 3M products, they are able to feed back design issues to the research laboratory.

This close working relationship with the customer also helps uncover what Persoon refers to as unarticulated needs, whereby technicians are able to identify problems customers didn’t even know they had. A good example is 3M’s Paint Preparation System (PPS), a spray paint device developed in the UK at the company’s automotive aftermarkets lab.

Persoon’s field engineers noticed technicians involved in spray painting cars took around 20 minutes to clean the spray guns after each job, using about two litres of soap in the process. So his team developed a throw-away liner for the paint gun that means there is no need for cleaning, which not only saves 20 minutes on every paint job, but also reduces human exposure to volatile compounds.

The solution sounds ridiculously simple, but the automotive industry had apparently never spotted the inefficiency of the old approach. The liner system is now widely used in car paintshops across the UK, and Persoon revealed that it’s also being trialled by a major aerospace company.

Another key to the firm’s product development process is a pick-and-mix approach to existing technologies. Persoon explained that, having identified a customer problem, his engineers first take a look at existing technologies to see if anything can be borrowed.

This cross-fertilisation is perhaps best exemplified by 3M’s micro–replication process, a technology developed for the manufacture of lenses for overhead projectors. The process enables the creation of tiny, precisely-shaped structures that can be used to tailor the physical, chemical and optical properties of a surface.

These perfectly replicated structures, which range in size from nanometers to millimeters, have since been used to create reflective prisms on safety clothing and light enhancement films for display screens, as well as in structural adhesives and a number of abrasive products.

Perhaps one of the most exciting applications is in 3M’s so-called microfluidic technology, which uses microreplicated channels and gutters to control the flow of fluid across surfaces. The company is currently investigating applications for this system in a range of biomedical applications.

However, not all 3M’s product development is customer driven. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that the Post-it note has a very different provenance, with the adhesive researcher responsible for it touting his ‘repositionable adhesive’ unsuccessfully round the company for six years before an enterprising colleague spotted its potential.

‘The success rate of technology-driven projects is minimal but we don’t want to completely let go of that route of innovation,’ said Persoon. To this end there is a long-standing company policy that permits employees to spend 15 per cent of their time working on projects of their own choosing.

Persoon was pretty tight-lipped about specific future products, but gave some indications about markets on 3M’s radar. For instance, the company recently completed the biggest acquisition in its history, shelling out $1.3bn for water filtration specialist Cuno.

Persoon said water filtration is expected to be a big emerging market for 3M. ‘Clean water is an increasingly scarce commodity — there’s huge pressure on supplies.’ He confirmed that he expects to begin discussions with water utility companies in the near future.

Another growing area for the company is security, specifically biometrics. It recently backed up this commitment with another acquisition, this time of US fingerprint recognition specialist AIT. Persoon said that he will be investing heavily in this area and hopes to be involved in any national ID card scheme.

Though he was cagey when it came to talking specifically about forthcoming products, he did reveal that the company will launch a range of products designed for the UK market later this year.

Such a systematic approach will mark something of a departure for 3M, which has in the past developed products for a wider, international customer base.

Persoon has the air of a man in his dream job — yet nobody in 3M tends to stay in the same place for too long. So where next for the Dutch chemist who has given such focus to the company’s UK research? Asked about his plans for the future Persoon said let me put it this way: ‘Every chief executive before the current incumbent has had a degree in chemistry, 35 years on the clock and has been a technical director.’