Strategy

Why commercialisation is at the heart of 3M Singapore’s strategy

16 January 2017 by Radhika Dhawan Puri

Develop here, manufacture here, consume here and then export from here. This principle lies at the core of 3M’s strategy in Singapore. Which is why it wasn’t surprising when the American conglomerate announced a few months ago that it is investing S$135 million (US$97 million) to expand its Tuas manufacturing plant with the aim of strengthening its capabilities in both research and development (R&D) and manufacturing. 

In fact, co-locating both R&D and manufacturing is a signature move of 3M, allowing the Minnesota-headquartered company's R&D teams to create disruptive and breakthrough manufacturing technologies. 

Arthur Fong was managing director of 3M Singapore from July 2012 to November 2016. He is currently Vice President, Industrial Business Group, 3M China.

Arthur Fong, who was managing director of 3M Singapore at the time of the writing of this article*, said: “If we develop in Singapore, manufacture here and use the product here, it helps our research staff keep a line of sight to the consumers.”

To that end, commercialisation of research – the ability to take the concept from the lab into the market in Singapore and the Asia-Pacific region is front and centre for 3M. A typical example is the 3M water filter, brought to the market in Singapore and then exported to other parts of Asia. 

Pouncing on global megatrends to find solutions

For now, 3M is focused on tapping lucrative market opportunities by linking global megatrends with definite research possibilities and eventually product development for the local market.

In a rapidly urbanising Asia, energy efficiency clean water and air are examples of megatrends that offer myriad market opportunities.

Said Fong: “How do people live and organise themselves as well as operate in highly urbanised environments? We look at these megatrends and then decide on the products and solutions that can support those trends.”

For instance, an example of a product suited to densely urban areas are window films. Buildings and cars need adequate sunlight, but it has to be controlled because too much light will affect indoor temperature and increase cooling costs. Recognising this, 3M has developed redirecting films that allow an optimal amount of light to flood spaces. 

Another example is lighting in public walkways. Instead of having multiple bulbs, 3M offers a solution that uses just one light source to illuminate a 20-metre walkway.

To further develop solutions in this space, 3M recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for a research collaboration with Singapore’s Housing & Development Board. The MOU will explore noise-reduction solutions in highly urbanised areas.

Using Singapore as a testbed for new products

Is Singapore’s relatively small market size a disadvantage for product introduction, however?

“For 3M, commercialisation is not about how big the consumer base is. It's about bringing a brand new idea, solution and product to a cluster of users. This is an ideal place to be a first adopter of new solutions and products,” explained Fong.

He also believes that Singapore is best leveraged as a learning lab for new product development. “It’s a controlled environment, and you don’t have to pay too big a price should you fail,” said Fong.

For instance, a company can pick a building, stretch of roads or small group of people to be the first adopter of any product or solution. If commercially successful, the product can be cascaded into a larger market opportunity within the country or the Asia-Pacific region. 

Last year, the company announced that it would commit S$10 million (US$7 million) over three years to set up a new Smart Urban Solutions Lab in Singapore. The lab will have a regional responsibility for developing and commercialising solutions across Southeast Asia.

3M emphasises the ubiquitous nature of its product and how it is applicable to the world around us through a relatively new global brand platform, 3M Science. Applied to Life.™ This is the company’s first global brand campaign in decades.

According to Fong, this branding campaign has played a role in attracting people to the company, particularly millennials. 3M overtook Google as the most preferred place to work for millennials according to the 2016 Millennial Career Survey.

“Millennials love the fact that we create technology that can be applied to everyday life and is evident around us. We hope to leverage this to attract people,” Fong said.

He added, “We are working very actively on developing a talent pool in Singapore that the rest of 3M can get access to.” 

Harnessing Singapore’s unique strengths to grow

The company’s goal is to increase investment and further introduce high-tech premium products in the market, aided by Singapore’s strong framework for intellectual property protection.

Fong also lauded the government's role in linking companies such as 3M to potential users and market opportunities. “We save time on going around looking for the right partner and right customer,” he said.

Specifically, there is an adequate opportunity in public housing and 3M has an important relationship in place with the HDB to take advantage of this opportunity. Fong explained that the Singapore government is cognisant of going beyond just initial collaboration efforts to early adoption of solutions.

“With everything that requires commercialisation, there are a lot of R&D costs involved in using and producing that solution,” he said. “But the Singapore government agencies tend to move beyond processes associated with commercialisation (such as procurement issues) to adopting new solutions quicker and faster.”

Such support allows the company to bring many promising opportunities to fruition. Who knows if Singapore will be the place where the next Post-it® note or Scotch-Brite® sponge will be invented? 

Edited by Gracia Chiang and Goh Wei Ting