Why would 3M Co., long known for pioneering products, spend more than two years developing a new home water filter? After all, consumers already have plenty of other devices from which to choose -- everything from under-the-sink and faucet attachments to pitchers with filters that can be filled directly from the tap.
3M's research told the Maplewood-based giant some people were looking for something else, specifically, a device to help them cut back on buying bottled water. After climbing for several years, sales of bottled water nationwide started turning down in 2008 as people got fed up with the cost and growing perception that it's environmentally unfriendly.
For 3M, the challenge was to come up with a product that could pull even more people out of their bottled-water habit. "It needed to be fast, convenient, easy-to-use," said James Cooper, marketing supervisor in 3M's construction and home improvement markets division.
The result is the Filtrete Water Station, which 3M launched onto the consumer market this summer. It's a device that filters water directly from the tap into four 16.9-ounce reusable plastic bottles. The filtering takes only about 30 seconds, several minutes faster than competing under-the-tap water pitchers with filters.
The 3M filter's valves open automatically when bottles are snapped into the station but stay closed otherwise, so water doesn't run out unless there's a bottle underneath. The bottles have attached snap-on caps and are dishwasher-safe on the top rack. Cooper said the development team assumed most people would detach filled bottles and keep them in their refrigerators, but the device is compact enough to fit on a refrigerator shelf.
3M wasn't entirely new to water filtration, having entered the market in 2005 when it bought Connecticut-based Cuno Inc. for $1.35 billion -- even today the largest acquisition in 3M's history. Cuno's products -- which can separate and purify both fluids and gases --are used in health care, industrial and consumer markets.
3M also has long-standing expertise in filtration, though mostly in air filters. Not long after taking the helm at 3M in 2005, CEO George Buckley targeted filtration as one of four emerging business opportunities that could fuel increased growth for the company.
But the water station is an advance because of the proprietary fast-working filter and the design, which 3M believes people will like enough to leave the device on their kitchen counters. 3M began selling an under-the-sink attachment under the Filtrete name in 2008, but market research told the company some people wanted an alternative.
"A lot of people don't want to mess around with their plumbing," said Kevin Kinzer, laboratory manager for the construction and home improvement markets division. That also includes other filters already on the market that attach to faucets, he said.
3M worked with two outside firms, Ohio-based Eureka! Ranch and California-based IDEO on developing and designing the product. Both have extensive experience with consumer products; IDEO is known for its design work on Apple Computer's first mouse. Cooper said the development team had dozens of prototypes for the filtraton station, some tested by consumers in their homes. Besides perfecting features such as the valves, the feedback led to a design that evolved from a boxy-looking prototype nicknamed "The Amazing Cube" to the final cylindrical model.
"There is an eternal debate in design wars in corporations," said Mauro Porcini, who heads Global Design at 3M. "Should it be driven by what consumers tell you or by the inspiration of the design team?" The danger of doing only what consumers say is averaging things down, he said. The goal here was to listen to feedback but also have a clear strategic direction about the look of the product.
Cooper said sales of the product, which has a suggested retail price of $42.99, have met expectations. The device, extra bottles and replacement filters can be found at Wal-Mart and some Target stores.
Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723