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3M's Strategic Focus

Whether it is abrasive material used in paint shops or filters cleaning the air coming into the cabins of vehicles, 3M technology is there. The company has long been a supplier to the auto industry—to both OEMs and other suppliers—and the executive director of the firm's Automotive Industry Center, Tom Beddow, is interested in increasing its role.
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"We need to capture the long-term needs of our automotive customers and align them with 3M's technical capabilities," says Thomas F. Beddow, executive director, 3M Automotive Industry Center (AIC; Southfield, MI). 3M, of course, is well known with regard to its technological developments and is often cited as an important benchmark when it comes to product development. But Beddow explains that they are sharpening their focus when it comes to what the AIC will bring to the auto industry. It is part of a program called "Pacing Plus." This is a technological initiative that, ideally, leads to developments that change the basis of competition. "When we identify opportunities with global potential that are well defined in terms of requirements," Beddow says, "we will resource them more than we would have historically."

Beddow elaborates, "As a technology company, things tend to bubble up because they can, not because there is a market for them. We know how to invent. But we need to do things with global impact." This is not to say that the 3M scientists, engineers and researchers in St. Paul, Minnesota, Austin, Texas, and in other facilities around the world are going to stop inventing. Rather, Beddow maintains that there can be great advantage for all concerned with a specific focus on how they can address specific needs in the auto industry with (a) existing 3M technologies applied in new and different ways or (b) newly developed products.


Changing the Playing Field

One of the things that Beddow emphasizes about the development of products or technologies is that they must actually change the way things are done within an operation. Sometimes these effects may be local. For example, he cites a development of adhesive tape that comes in pre-cut sections and are held in a container in a manner like that used for some Post-It notes. Beddow suggests that the container could be attached to a wrist band and filled with a tape that would be appropriate for wrapping wiring harnesses. This could have a great benefit to those who are involved in that assembly operation, and would change the way that operation is performed.

Then there are the cases that have an effect on various aspects of a product development and manufacturing operation. For example, he cites the use of Thinsulate as a material for acoustical damping in doors and around stereo speakers (yes, the same patented 3M material that is often found in gloves and winter coats). Ordinarily, a material that's an amalgam of felt and rags is used in this application. On a material-to-material cost basis, the Thinsulate would be more expensive. But looked at from the point of view of the implications on a platform or other type of team, there could be benefits with going with it that far outweigh the initial cost:

  • There could be a marketing benefit from the standpoint of being able to promote the fact that Thinsulate, a material familiar to many consumers, is being used in the car.
  • There is an engineering benefit in that the non-woven material actually "traps" the noise; it works better than the felt and rags.
  • There is a benefit in the assembly plant in that it can be easier to apply. Beddow says that the current practice is to spray an adhesive on the inside of the door where the felt/rag material is to be placed, then to stick it on. But Thinsulate mats with a pre-applied low-tack adhesive on the order of that used for Post-It notes could be stacked in the assembly plant and peeled off the stack and placed on the door, onto which it would stick. The need for applying an adhesive to the door would be eliminated (as would, naturally, the equipment needed to do it).
  • There is even the after-sales benefit: In the case of an accident, the Thinsulate could be peeled off the inside of the panel; the panel could be repaired and the material reapplied.


Tale of the Tape

One actual example of changing the way things are done—it's being used by Chrysler on the Town & Country minivan and GM on the Safari van—is attaching injection-molded cladding to the lower areas of door exteriors with 3M Acrylic foam tape. Mechanical fasteners would be the typical approach. But this common method involves multiple operations, both in attaching the fastening devices to the cladding and in attaching the cladding to the door. Downstream, after the vehicle has been on the road for some time, there are possible corrosion problems.

But assuming that the part is designed to accommodate tape attachment, it is a fairly straightforward operation: Tape to cladding and cladding to vehicle body. According to 3M analysis, this approach is low cost, durable, and presents no corrosion problems down the road.

"We're moving towards structural applications daily," Beddow says of work that the company is doing in the area of adhesives. "We think that we will be able to replace some welding, which will simplify assembly." Once again: it is about changing the basis of competition.

There is a copy of The Discipline of Market Leaders on the credenza behind Beddow's desk. The authors of that book argue that a company must pick one value proposition from the three primary ones that they identify, then work to be superior in that rather than trying to be all things to all people. One of the value propositions is to be a technology leader; another is to be close to the customer; and the third is to be a price leader. So is Beddow's strategy to go after technology leadership?

"No," he answers, "we have programs to address all three aspects." In addition to the Pacing Plus program, which is on the technology track, there are two others. One is called "Earning Customer Loyalty," which deals with being close to the customer, and the other is "Supply Chain Excellence," which works the efficiency of logistics and manufacturing, which can help reduce costs.

"Right now," Beddow says, "the auto industry represents about 10% of 3M's sales. If we execute it right, the auto market could be the size of another 3M."


 3M Building Commitment

Next year, the 3M Automotive Industry Center will be located in a new 60,000-ft2 facility in Livonia, Michigan. Tom Beddow says that the building will be multifunctional. One aspect will be to showcase the various offerings of 17 different 3M product divisions that supply the auto industry. He says that there will be a virtual reality theater in which these products—as well as those from even other 3M divisions—will be illustrated.

There will also be work areas for platform teams.

The windows will be covered with 3M film that helps manage heat load. Lighting will be via 3M "light pipes." They'll be using what they recommend.

"We want to create a place where customers are all the time," Beddow says. 

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