3M - Reflections

The 3M Woodlands Plant was the first of my industrial visits in STEM 2012. 3M, formerly known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, produces more than 55 000 products and can be said to be a leader in innovation, both in mindset and focus on research.

I believe that what is most valuable about 3M is its positive attitude towards failure. While many people are terrified of failing and shun those who have failed, 3M views failure to be a ripe opportunity for success. The “trick” here is actually quite simple – it comprises insight, that is, to look for what needs to be corrected or what other applications a certain product may be incorporated in or used for, and persistence, which is to keep looking. Such is the case of the Post-it, note pieces with a re-adherable strip of adhesive on the back designed for temporary attachment. In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver, a chemist at 3M, accidentally created a "low-tack", reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. For the next 5 years, he persisted, promoting his invention within 3M but without much success. It was only when he met a colleague who came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymnbook did the product kick-off. Such a positive mindset is important as it encourages employees to be as innovative as possible, to the extent where they may apply for time-off to work on an idea unrelated to his department. I believe that it is this mindset that has led to 3M to where it is today, and is thus my greatest takeaway from this visit.

The tour of the compound was eye-opening, but a tad too short. Due to the many ingenious procedures and processes created by and withheld exclusively within 3M, we were not allowed to see much of either the wet room or dry room. The gallery however, introduced to us the top-of-the-notch cleanroom for in which many of the preliminary processes were conducted. Complete with HEPA filters and yellow lighting, the highly sensitive flexible circuits that are manufactured there were prevented from contamination by particulates. While I have read up on cleanrooms before, it was interesting, and slightly amusing, to see the employees donned in half-“bunny suits” which contained most of the skin cells and hairs that flaked off. Their movement seemed constricted and inconvenient, which brought out a sense of admiration for their dedication to their work. However, when asked if any of us would like to work in a cleanroom, or how the state of our own rooms compared to a cleanroom, all we gave was nervous laughter.

In this visit, I was also introduced to two new concepts. The first was that of engineering control, designs for systems to induce desired behaviour, often to prevent hazard for employees. In this case, it was a simple design of a downward-sloping top of the employees’ lockers, which minimized the dust collected, as well as prevented people from placing things on top. Recalling the undesirable conditions of my own school locker, such tiny actions really do go a long way in keeping the place neat, which only served to portray the meticulous nature of 3M. The other concept was that of “kaizen” or “correction”, where a room is specifically used for improvements of products. This is similar to my school motto of “自强不息”, which encourages us to have constant self-improvement.

Overall, the visit to 3M has been extremely interesting. I find that 3M provides a conducive environment for innovation for all its employees, something which I hope can be inculcated in Hwa Chong as well.