From post-it notes to privacy filters and floating concrete: PCR tours 3M's Innovation Centre

What other products does 3M have – and what does its business focus on?
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The average person comes into contact with a 3M product 17 times a day, as the company has manufactured over 60,000. But other than its well-known post-it notes and screen privacy filters, what other products does 3M have – and what does its business focus on? Dominic Sacco explores 3M’s Innovation Centre to find out more…

When you see the 3M logo, what do you think of? We’ll be honest – for me it was just post-it notes and privacy filters. That was up until my visit to the firm’s impressive new UK head office in Bracknell, however, which opened in September 2014.

While there’s solid demand for these products (resellers can make between 20 to 40 margin points on sales of privacy filters on average), 3M has some 60,000 products in total, leaving me puzzled as to what they could be.

After stepping into 3M’s Innovation Centre, I’m greeted by a set of circular reflective panels in a large, dark room. I step forward and the panels light up in a flourish of different colours. Walk around them and take a look from a different angle, and the colours change completely. It’s a type of special reflective sheeting used on objects like road signs.

As I walk around the room, other lights switch on, highlighting different products and areas. There’s a screen on the right playing an intro video to 3M’s business.

I learn that it operates in 70 countries, generated just shy of $31.8 billion in worldwide sales during its most recent financial year (with $1billion coming from the UK) and has some 8,500 researchers. It’s also conscious of the environment, having prevented nearly four billion pounds of pollutants since 1975 through completion of more than 11,800 Pollution Prevention Pays (3P) projects.

Check out PCR's image gallery of 3M's Innovation Centre: 

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There are several pillars and tables highlighting all manner of inventions. To name a few there’s a film solution that increases the battery life of electronic devices, an ACCR overhead conductor used by the likes of Scottish Power to double the capacity of an existing line, dental spray and a Paint Preparation System, which eliminates the need for car paint sprayers to use traditional mixing pots.

There’s even a type of concrete that can float.

After being led into a room resembling a small science lab, I’m encouraged to pour 3M’s Novec 1230 Fire Protection Fluid (also known as ‘dry water’) onto some lit candles. As I move to tip the fluid from the test tube onto the candles, they are put out immediately before a single drop touches them, just from the vapour. 

This fluid is also used across the world to submerge datacentres and keep them cool, clean electronic devices, protect Benjamin Franklin’s library and even preserve a 24ft squid displayed in a tank at Washington’s museum of natural history.

All these innovations are reflective of 3M’s ‘15 per cent rule’, which allows staff to spend 15 per cent of their working time on their own projects. This encourages staff to take time out to come up with new ideas and products which could in turn become one of 3M’s fully mass produced goods.

So what other products are there? After 3M was founded in 1902, it went on to sell sandpaper, surgical tape, shatter-resistant window protection and more. It even made the synthetic rubber used to create astronaut Neil Armstrong’s boots, which left a footprint on the moon’s lunar dust.

In terms of tech products, today 3M has goods ranging from screen privacy filters to ergonomics such as special mice, as well as headsets and even passport scanners.

Finally, I’m shown around a mock retail store which displays a holographic store assistant, as well as a variety of 3M’s better known brands sold in shops, including its Post-it notes, Scotch tape, Command picture hanging strips and more. 

I leave the building feeling a little dumbfounded. At the start of the day I was asking myself what else 3M actually works on, but now I’m left wondering: is there anything it doesn’t make?

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