3M chemist Andy Ouderkirk and his team are world famous for inventing the 3M multilayered mirrored “optical films” that brighten cellphones, laptops and tablets all over the globe.
But getting there was anything but easy.
His team of 12 “was pretty spread out,” said Ouderkirk from his lab office in the drab 3M Building 209 on 3M’s sprawling 400-acre campus in Maplewood.
Teammates working in his 3M Electronics Materials Solutions Division were split up in two buildings, were in other states or in the very same building but separated by long cinder-block hallways that divided offices from the cluttered labs.
That lack of physical proximity made collaboration challenging.
No more, 3M hopes.
Ouderkirk and hundreds of fellow 3M scientists on Friday will pack up their prototypes, optical films, computer models, physics projects and thousands of patent certificates and move to a new home: 3M’s new $150-million, 400,000-square-foot research-and-development building that opens Friday in Maplewood.
The move will bring together up to 700 3M scientists across several divisions now scattered across locations. The new lab building also will serve as a magnet for commercial customers looking for 3M’s help to improve products or launch new ones.
“Collaboration is what this building is all about,” said Ouderkirk two weeks ago as he was taking a peek at his new home. “The cool thing about 3M is you can find a world expert here at any moment. It’s amazing. The new building makes it much easier to work together. We need to be able to talk to one another. We are constantly bouncing ideas off each other.”
The new center “is an investment not only in our own research and development, but also in the state of Minnesota,” said 3M spokeswoman Fanna Haile-Selassie.
3M is holding a grand opening Friday where scientists will showcase their discoveries to business partners and dignitaries, including Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
The four-story research lab is airy and light-filled. Cubicles, carpets and conference spaces enjoy splashes of aqua, mustard and magenta. The building has minimal walls that are mostly glass.
“It’s pretty cool,” said Maplewood City Manager Melinda Coleman, who toured the research facility a few weeks ago. “The work spaces are more open but then there are places you can go and talk and where you can go and get coffee. They are trying to create a work environment where people can interact.”
It took three years to plan and build 3M’s new Building 280, and 3M received $9.6 million in local tax increment financing, plus state sales tax relief.
“With this new state-of-the-art research lab employing nearly 700 scientists, 3M will continue developing great new products and attracting even more talent to Minnesota,” Klobuchar said in an e-mail. “The workers at 3M are top-notch innovators.”
Kevin Earley, the Mairs & Power portfolio manager who regularly researches 3M, likes the move.
“As investors, we like to see this R&D investment because it will help drive earnings growth in the future,” he said. “And with it also being a Minnesota company, we like to see them driving growth and creating jobs right here in the local economy.”
The maker of Post-it notes and Scotch tape has moved into several high-tech sectors such as electronics, automotive and health care because of its research capabilities and has grown from $18 billion in revenue in 2003 to more than $30 billion today.
Years ago, 3M bought a optical film technology so Ouderkirk’s team could study its manufacturing techniques. After altering film properties, changing the film’s layers, employing computer modeling and collaborating across 3M divisions, Ouderkirk’s team scored big, creating the better light-brightening film that is used globally today.
Last week, a towering pile of patent certificates, most still in their boxes, stood in a corner of Ouderkirk’s still-packed-up office. Barrels were stuffed with scrolls of his optical films. On his desk sat the motorcycle headlights he redesigned using the mirrored films to reflect more light and reduce the number of motorcycle crashes in Mumbai.
Also on its way to the new building is his latest baby: virtual reality headsets he’s determined to shrink to eyeglass size and weight, so calming virtual landscapes can be part of patients’ pain control treatments.
If they follow the path of his candy bar-sized digital projector, skylight tubes or film-imbedded credit cards, there will be a market for the headsets.
Many have cheered 3M CEO Inge Thulin’s mission to boost 3M’s research profile, an area that sagged 15 years ago in the midst of big cost cuts.
Since 2012, “Thulin challenged the organization to be a little bit more successful in commercializing their R&D efforts and this lab investment speaks to that,” said Earley from Mairs & Power.
Thulin pledged to boost 3M’s R&D spending from 5 percent of sales to 6 percent by 2017, Earley said.
Calling innovation investments like the new lab “a lever,” Thulin recently told Wall Street analysts, “Research and development is the heartbeat of 3M,” Thulin recently told Wall Street analysts. Innovations like the lab are levers.
“It fosters a constant stream of unique and cutting-edge products, which drives organic growth,” he said. “R&D is also a key to sustaining our company’s premium margins and return on invested capital. That is why we continue to invest in R&D. [It] strengthens our ability to leverage insight from both customers and the marketplace.”
A long-held 3M rule allows its scientists to spend 15 percent of their time on a project of their choice and provides the resources to spur creativity. That should eventually lead to innovation and new products like the virtual reality glasses he is working on, Ouderkirk said.
“That’s very much what our group is focused on,” he said.