When you think of the name 3M, you usually think of Post-it notes and packing tape, but recently at the Milan Furniture Fair, the company made their first foray into the world of high-end design. The exhibition, Infinite Innovation, is meant to show 3M's foundational innovations, that stand behind everything from interaction design to architectural interiors. "Of course, it's safer for us in the long run to control the whole product. But we're already innovating, people just don't know it's us," said John Olfelt, a 3M architect and project manager.
The company is making a big push to change all that. They want consumers to know what they're capable of, and are partnering with designers like Italian architect Martino Berghinz, to push concepts, create speculative products, and showcase their own goods, beginning to end.
3M's exhibit was a little like walking through a concept car show. A lot of the innovation was in the form of new applications for materials like lightweight metal and plastic sheeting for large lighting installations and easily molded materials for vacuuforming unusual shapes. One of the most exciting products delivered sunlight into cavernous interiors: "Daylighting technology" works by capturing light from the roof of a building and moving it through an HVAC-like network to provide natural light to, potentially, the basement of a hospital or a windowless field of cubicles.
Will it ever get made? The answer seems to be yes. The daylighting system is in the protoyping phase, and kinks are being worked out, which is where student projects leave off, and companies with resources pick up. "We've already made this, we've lived with it. This isn't just theoretical." says Olfelt. "We may not make a million of them, but we're making them." Which is perhaps another way of saying that the marketing benefit isn't lost on 3M, even if its bottom-line impact is small for a Fortune 500 company that manufactures 75,000 different products, employs 75,000 people worldwide, and has operations in more than 65 countries.
"I?m spending 80 percent of my time on pushing concepts, not on designing Post-it notes," says Byron Trotter, a design manager we talked with in Milan. The company is clearly committed to making the experimental actual. Yes, it will help them in the long run with new markets and new consumers, but the real game seems to be letting designers spread 3M's message for them, by using their proprietary materials in gee-whiz designs that grab the world's attention.