Juan de la Concha
Business Director of International Business Group

Innovation Spreading Across All Automotive Segments

Mon, 09/01/2014 - 13:53

67 years ago, 3M took a chance on Mexico as the next great prospect for the automotive industry. This gamble has paid off as today Mexico is seen as a prospective cash cow for the company. “Mexico is widely expected to hold a place in the top 10 operations of 3M worldwide,” says Juan de la Concha, Business Director of 3M’s International Business Group. Given the vast range of products that 3M offers, R&D is never far from the forefront of its operations. “5-6% of our global US$30 billion turnover is invested in R&D, and Mexico’s part of this global investment is likely to increase,” de la Concha remarks. The company seeks to collaborate with the engineering centers of OEMs and Tier 1s to better understand the needs of the market and develop new ideas and proposals involving its 46 technological platforms worldwide. The innovation process begins in the main engineering centers of OEMs and Tier 1 companies, before flowing to 3M’s own labs and then trickling down to local engineering centers in Mexico. 3M has also been working on improving the roles that such local centers can play in this process. “Normally, the local research centers receive simple engineering tasks to adapt products to the local market,” says de la Concha. “However, investments over the past decade have made Mexican engineering centers undergo radical changes. We are jointly transforming the capacities of these centers so that Mexico can have the ability to not only design locally, but for the entire world.”

With over 6,000 products circulating in Mexico and over 80,000 worldwide, 3M has kept its finger on the pulse of the main automotive trends. Core products such as sandpaper and masking tape are just some of its bestsellers that can trace their roots back to the automotive industry. Today, motor efficiency has made sustainability the leading trend that 3M must cater to. As part of this, the company has launched a product called InteramTM for catalytic converters. “Catalytic converters are pieces of pottery containing precious metals that convert harmful gases into ones that can be released into the atmosphere. InteramTM works as a seal for this critical piece in terms of pollution,” de la Concha explains. Alongside this, 3M tackles weight reduction for vehicles, another key aspect for emission reductions and sustainability. “For example, we have products for plastic parts modelling that use microspheres that maintain the structural composition of  the pieces while reducing the weight by 15%,” says de la Concha. “All OEMs are pursuing such trends, putting an onus on suppliers to rapidly develop, manufacture, test and make such products readily available. According to the market, the differentiation factors will be focused on fuel, aesthetics, and engine performance, depending on the segments OEMs focus on.” However, 3M identifies another trend that will play a part in this differentiation process: comfort. De La Concha explains that a lot of investment revolves around interior design and finishing. “While all OEMs follow the same trends, there are different adaptions that result in different cars.” Comfort is a wide-ranging concept that encompasses many areas, from acoustics and insulation to visuals and aesthetics. For example, 3M puts forth mechanical fasteners made of foam, acrylic and adhesive. “Instead of using screws to fasten two parts together, using tape increases comfort, diminishes noise and increases the durability of said parts,” explains de la Concha. Acoustics also play a part in comfort, through areas such as temperature and sound transmission. “Our ThinsulateTM product provides exceptional sound absorption and excellent thermal insulation.”

De la Concha points out that the engineering innovations that mark the key differences between various OEMs are becoming crystal clear in Mexico. “Mexico is a new market for engineering so OEMs have been releasing products depending on the maturity of the market. For example, we can see variations in interior design depending on regions of the country as local R&D begins to naturally affect these areas,” he says. But as innovation spreads across all vehicle segments, 3M seeks to stay in the game as much as possible. It has recently launched new products with an aesthetic bent, offering films for plastic moldings that can provide either a metallic or wood finishing, which he says makes an important difference for the consumers. 3M’s keen interest in incentivizing R&D in Mexico also took the form of an R&D center in San Luis Potosi in 2013, with an initial investment of US$7 million. “We invested in people and laboratories and we now want to use our global capabilities to bring more products to Mexico that are being developed in other places,” says de La Concha. While it may seem that 3M develops its innovations based on the particular evolutions of specific segments, customer feedback brings them all together. De la Concha stresses that the company always seeks to tie its R&D investments into getting closer to each of its markets and to better serve local customers. As such, the opening of 3M’s engineering center in Mexico is part of the company’s goal to differentiate its product offering for the local Mexican automotive market.