Pick any electric vehicle on the street. From the battery pack to the panel display, 3M's products are all over it, even if you won't find the company's logo anywhere.
The company is leveraging its history in the auto industry to get a slice of the fast-growing electrification market. Carmakers come to the seasoned Maplewood-based conglomerate for materials and technology to improve travel range on batteries, among other challenges. Without improved efficiency and lower price tags, the transformative promise of EVs will likely fizzle.
Auto electrification is now a $500 million business for 3M after sales leapt 30% last year. CEO Mike Roman has repeatedly touted the segment as a high-growth area to focus innovation.
It's a bright spot for a company facing challenges on multiple fronts — from expensive litigation to job cuts to environmental regulatory actions — while 3M's stock value and overall sales fall.
"The electrification of transportation is a disruptive trend. And there's a lot of projections on how it's going to play out," Roman said at an investor conference in February. "A lot of innovation is going to come to bear on this. So we see opportunities. We see this as a growth opportunity."
And as 3M spins off its health care business — which accounts for a quarter of yearly sales — auto electrification could become a larger, and growing, portion of the company's remaining revenue.
3M has been in the auto business for more than a century and supplies numerous parts for gas-powered vehicles and their manufacturing lines. As more electric vehicles are sold, fewer combustion models will be made, making 3M's pivot toward the EV market all the more important.
Demand for electric vehicles in Europe and China is driving growth, according to the International Energy Agency, which predicts 200 million EVs on the road by the end of the decade. There were more than 16 million in use globally in 2021.
"In the near future, EV delivery delays to customers may dampen sales growth in some markets," the group wrote in a report last year. "But in the longer term, government and corporate efforts to electrify transport are providing a solid basis for further growth."
In the U.S., some electric vehicles are now eligible for a $7,500 tax credit. Cox Automotive predicts the U.S. will see a record 1 million electric vehicles sold this year as more automakers roll out electric models.
3M is working with all of them. The bottom line for 3M's EV offerings is increased efficiency, both in battery range and in manufacturing processes, which can help drive down costs and increase adoption.
"We're embedded," said David Arney, the global lab director for automotive electrification at 3M. "Everything is about efficiency — driving up the efficiency of the vehicle's electron use."
In 2021 3M released a new thermal barrier material for battery cells, one small solution to mitigate the big problem of "thermal acceleration events" — which is industry parlance for battery fires.
Though relatively rare, battery fires have become a defining risk for the industry. Ford paused production on its F-150 Lightning and recalled some models earlier this year after a battery caught fire. Tesla has seen a number of its vehicles go up in flames due to thermal runaway.
"There is no one magical material that can solve all of the issues, but 3M works on understanding all the ways batteries can fail, and that gives rise to different solutions," said Brandon Bartling, a battery system architect at 3M.
3M doesn't make EV batteries but sells a number of materials for battery packs that serve various functions, such as helping prevent the unwanted spread of heat, which results in wasted energy.
Crucially, increased battery efficiency can also reduce the need for cobalt, an expensive and rare mineral. Batteries that use iron instead of cobalt historically have shorter ranges, but with greater efficiency they are trending toward the gold standard 300-mile mark.
"Iron based-chemistries are lower cost, more abundant, and they are less prone to thermal runaway events," Arney said.
3M also opened a new testing lab in the Twin Cities last year that automakers are using to put their battery packs under extreme conditions.
It's effectively a torture chamber to find out what batteries are capable of withstanding — and what they can't.
With its first generation of electric vehicles, Tesla set the bar for massive touch-screen displays that replaced the traditional knobs and buttons that control music, temperature and maps.
Now cars like the Cadillac Lyriq and the Mercedes EQS have large display panels stretched across the dashboard.
Inside those screens, 3M technology wards off windshield glare and driver distractions.
"We are involved pretty much anywhere a human is looking at light in a vehicle, or anywhere a sensor is," said Dave Lamb, a senior application development specialist.
3M's optical films are used in numerous consumer electronics, including major cellphone brands and TVs. The trick to scaling those into electric vehicles is using as little battery power as possible.
"The displays are getting big enough that it is starting to impact things like range," Lamb said, and the company touts up to 50% improvements in efficiency with its display materials.
Despite spewing zero emissions from the tailpipe, there are environmental costs to EV production. To lower the total carbon footprint of their offerings, electric vehicle makers need to make their components easier to recycle.
"There's not a whole lot of electric vehicles that are at their end of life, but by 2030, you're going to have millions," Arney said. "So we're making an effort to develop products that will allow the cost-effective, energy-efficient disassembly of automobiles."
To keep rare materials like lithium in continuous use, battery packs must be easily disassembled. 3M recently developed a new type of adhesive, a hybrid of tape and glue, that creates a powerful and fast-setting bond yet can be removed by hand, much like 3M's consumer wall-hanging adhesives.
"This is essentially a tape you can print like a liquid," said Joey Benson, an application development specialist. "This is kind of a new-to-the-world technology."
Arney said assembly and disassembly solutions like this get him excited for the future of the industry.
"It's the biggest transformation in mobility in 100 years."