How A Superbulb Massively Brightened 3M's Innovation Pipeline

22. března 2013 v 4:06 |  street light
Every few months, a lightbulb in Tom Simpson's office would burn out and someone would have to change it. In fact, that's what we all do: It's become almost standard office procedure to be constantly swapping out dead bulbs. They just don't last that long: A 60-watt incandescent is good for 800 to 1,000 hours, about five months of 40-hour work weeks. Fluorescents are worth at least double that, but neither factors in the additional burn from overtime, second shifts, and after-hours cleaning crews.

Simpson didn't realize how wasteful that was until one day in June 2009, when a coworker named Ray Johnston approached him with a new idea. They could combine several technologies including the same mirrored film that helps light most laptop and cell phone screens and channel it, creating a "light guide" for bulbs that managed output from a low-wattage LED. The result would be a sort of superbulb that burned brighter, stayed cooler, and lasted way longer than traditional offerings. It also would emit light in a natural way--a shortcoming of other LED offerings which act more like lasers than lightbulbs.

If all that sounds bit brainy for your standard water cooler conversation, it is: Simpson works at 3M, the $29.6 billion global manufacturer of technological, office, and industrial innovations, including the ubiquitous Post-it note. In 2008, he was manager of the Advanced Concepts group within 3M's Display and Graphics Lab, a team with 20 engineer and scientists, in charge of spotting and bringing bright new ideas to market. "My direction was to find something that provided new options for the business," he says. The result, the 3M LED Advanced Lightbulb, costs $24.88 and was released exclusively through Walmart last August. It burns for 27,500 hours--that's more than 13 years of all-day office life. (Appealing to a bigger market, the company touts it as actually good for 25 years' worth of standard home use.)

The Advanced Lightbulb may be unique, but the way Simpson's team created it isn't. First, they talked to other engineers and scientists around the company to figure out what tech might have additional applications. Then they adapted it for another use. Advanced Concepts is one of a handful of small incubators the company has formed in recent years in order to spot and harness existing intellectual property in new ways, but that's all possible because of a broader internal innovation pipeline that harnesses two internal programs--15 Percent Time and the Tech Forum--to let all engineers find new ways to explore, understand, and piggyback off each other's ideas.

Incubators aside, 3M employees are already known for launching wildly creative side projects that turn into actual products. In the 1920s, for instance, Scotch brand Masking Tape famously spun out of a sandpaper division after an engineer realized that the sticky adhesive he used to keep grit on paper might be toned down to give the paper itself other purposes. Forty years later, another engineer realized that a seemingly failed low-tack adhesive could be added to scraps of paper to make peel-away notes in office reports. That's the origin of the Post-it note.

In recent years, one re-engineered product turned the solid reflective glass bubbles used on street signs into hollow glass bubbles to make both lightweight car parts and as an insulation additive necessary for deep sea oil pipelines. Another transitioned a fire protection fluid developed to protect data centers to preserve the world's largest squid in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. Prior to its use in the superbulb, a variation of their reflective film was re-geared into a protective window film that blocks UV rays to help protect art installations.

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