I recently spoke to Mike Roman, the head of 3M’s Renewable Energy Division to ask how it came to pass that the company “is more than post-it notes.” He indulged my bad joke, something he’s probably heard 1,000 times already. But all kidding aside, 3M is a lot more than sticky notes and Scotch tape, and now it’s in the renewable energy supply chain, with a new division to build the brand and coordinate product lines. That’s not entirely accurate; the company has been in various pieces of renewables for decades, but it hadn’t decided to put it under one umbrella until February. As one indication of how seriously 3M considers the venture, it’s the first new division the chemicals giant has created in nine years.
The division has two branches, energy generation and energy management, which is focused on the efficiency market, including films and coatings for windows. But films tapes, coatings and adhesives have wide applications in the renewable energy supply chain. The product lines include films and coatings that can serve product lines like wind turbine blades, backsheet for solar modules, even adhesives for solar and wind products that can withstand extreme environments, all the way down to tapes and similar products to maintain electrical components, probably too many to name here. “Our focus in solar and wind is to help our customers bring down the cost per kilowatt.” Roman says.
The company doesn’t separate earnings from the unit, wrapping it into one of the five units, in this case, industrial and transportation, 3M’s biggest with revenue of $8 billion. He added that outside of manufacturing, the division employs 300 worldwide, about half of that based in the U.S. 3M just built a new plant in Singapore to serve Asian markets and as a global company with a footprint that extends far beyond its Minnesota roots, about 65 percent of sales originate offshore. But the company has also committed to an expansion program “you want the source closer to your markets” in the U.S. The company has committed to when it expands an existing plant for new or existing products; each represents an investment of from $5 million to $30 million. The company is now in the middle of an expansion of its film plant in Decatur, Alabama.
Like many companies focused on renewable energy, sales have suffered as projects have been delayed or cancelled due to the financial crisis. But overall the division’s revenues are increasing as 3M find more and more applications in renewable resources for its new and existing components. “Some of these products went directly from our existing lines while others we tweaked the formula some to adapt it to these new technologies,” Roman says. And at a company with a long history of research and product development, new applications are expected to be discovered for quite some time.