It has been almost a year since John Banovetz was promoted to 3M chief technology officer and senior vice president of research and development (R&D), where he oversees 8,000 scientists. Banovetz started at 3M in 1995 as a research chemist studying acrylic adhesives and tapes. The Minneapolis native eventually led that division, then the corporate research lab before being promoted into his current position. As 3M marches toward 2020 — after divesting from some high-profile businesses and acquiring behemoths such as Capital Safety and Scott Safety — Banovetz talked about future trends, products and growth opportunities for the Maplewood giant that boasts $31 billion in annual sales and factories, labs and businesses in 70 countries. His responses have been edited for clarity and space.
Q: Are 3M’s growth drivers changing? A few years ago, 3M touted its high-tech ceramics, its radio frequency ID technology, its library book tracking and passport security products as industry game-changers. Today, many of those businesses have been sold. What products and technologies are high on 3M’s radar today?
A: Auto electrification is huge. It is a great area that we are very, very excited about.
Q: In what other technology areas is 3M investing?
A: One area to think about is air quality and respiratory health. It’s a huge issue around the world, particularly in emerging markets like China, India and Southeast Asia. As a science-based company, we actually have quite a bit of technology behind preventing respiratory problems. That is in our airborne-contaminant exposure reducing respirators, powered respirators and disposable respirators. That is in our filter technology. These can really improve people’s air quality. And we make things like metered dose inhalers for COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]. This is one of the new areas where we can have a big play. We have the technology and capability. We have the global reach and can really address issues that are a tough problem for the world and for people. We have launched a new respirator designed for children in China that is through our consumer division. We are starting to realize what a big opportunity this is and what impact it can have on people.
Q: 3M has been in the respirator business for a long time. What changed?
A: In the past, it would have been one 3M business or one area of our company looking at global respiratory issues. But I think we are starting to dig into it holistically, and from across all our businesses. To be honest, it’s early to know where that goes. We are starting to look at this across the spectrum to learn the total impact that we can have on people’s lives. When we do that, we tend to bring new technologies into new areas, which then results in new products. I’d say that is probably the biggest change.
Q: How so?
A: It is a lot like our auto-electrification business in a way, because the approach to expanding respiration solutions is to make sure it crosses a bunch of our businesses. We want to make sure we go after the opportunity and not let anything internal stop us from doing that. The critical part of 3M is that we are able to take expertise and technology from one business and transfer it to another. And because of that, we can get into these spaces that fall between our businesses.
Q: Do you have an example of a product created using technology from across 3M’s five units?
A: For instance, the child respirator. That requires a science of fit, so we know how a respirator fits on a face. And so we start using unique techniques around facial recognition and artificial intelligence from our other businesses to design a better respirator fit. That’s important, especially when you are talking about children. And facial characteristics are not the same globally for all people, so when we are dealing with children in China, you have to really understand the science of fit. And that is where we as a science-based organization can really bring a lot to it. We can actually bring our technologies from across an entire spectrum, from our prevention and mitigation work to protection. To develop a new product, we use technologies from other areas of the company, regardless, whether we are talking about cleaning air through a room air purifier and Filtrete filters to things like inhalers for COPD sufferers and child respirators.
Q: We have heard that 3M’s auto-electrification products give auto-making customers tools such as self-cleaning sensors, water-repellent sensors so that automatic cruise control in cars works better and so that the sensors in autonomous vehicles can detect the difference between a snowflake and a person in the road. We also understand that 3M is developing optical films to display dashboard information right on the windshield. Is that right?
A: Yes. That it right. Auto electrification helps enhance an auto’s sensors and digital capabilities and machine learning and other things. We are trying to balance between those as much as we can. The goal is really about getting back to that science-based piece — and using science to improve everyday life for drivers and protecting them as well.
Q: In your new role as the head of technology and R&D, you recently hosted the first 3M and Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative in the United States. What was that like?
A: We were extremely excited to hold the first event ever in the United States and to host it here in the Twin Cities. This is great. We have hosted Nobel around the world in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, India and Japan. These symposiums are just fantastic. And to have it here is great. Because it really does bring a lot of inspiration to the community, to the 3M community and engages the young scientists from around the world. It’s fantastic. It raises the dialogue.