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A Clear View from Any Angle

Tue, 12/10/2013 - 3:06pm
Paul Livingstone

The 2013 R&D Magazine Innovator of the Year exemplifies the spirit of rigorous, open innovation pioneered by 3M Company.

Dr. Andrew J. Ouderkirk. Photo: 3M CompanyThe first liquid-crystal display (LCD) television was invented in 1972 at Westinghouse in Pennsylvania. Like many important inventions, it didn’t become a common sight in the average home for several decades. It took the combined efforts of many researchers and several corporations to create a display of acceptable quality in the late 1990s.

In the early 2000s, another innovation helped set the stage for the proliferation of LCD displays: Multilayer Optical Film. Invented at 3M Company, Minneapolis, Minn., the film represented a breakthrough in fundamental physics and greatly improved screen visibility and power consumption. Today, the film is an important component in most of the 245 million LCD-based displays sold globally.

Andrew J. Ouderkirk, a corporate scientist for 3M’s Electronics Markets Materials Div., led this research effort, as well as projects that have resulted in 170 patents. Not every product development story is as successful as Multilayer Optical Film, but Ouderkirk’s ability to innovate while anticipating how products will be useful in the commercial space has helped 3M open significant new markets in materials and optical films. His contributions to fundamental science and to honing the innovation process have earned Ouderkirk the 2013 R&D Magazine Innovator of the Year Award.

Chemistry education, optical innovation
Three years ago, the world was transfixed by a drama deep below the Earth’s surface in a Chilean coal mine. Thirty-three miners were trapped for 69 days, waiting for a rescue tunnel to be dug to their location, a collapsed shaft more than 2,200 ft below the surface. Their only link to the outside world during this time was a 12-cm hole.

To help the miners communicate with their families and receive news, projectors were passed down the hole. Until recently, doing this would have been impossible because projectors were far too large. But a reflective film polarizer, created by Ouderkirk and his team, allowed the projector to be 50% more efficient, permitting the battery and components to be much smaller.

Nobody at 3M could have anticipated these projectors would be a vital link in a life-or-death situation. But Ouderkirk says that’s exactly what he and his teams at 3M try to do. What’s important to 3M, he says, is working to anticipate these unexpected applications as well as a rapidly changing marketplace. The ultimate goal is a successful product.

“It’s very important to me to have what I did in the laboratory actually used out in the world. I like to point to something on a store shelf and say ‘I had a role in that’,” says Ouderkirk.

As one of 25 corporate scientists at 3M, Ouderkirk’s job is to look at processes, when and why they work and what they could mean for the company’s product line. This ability is partly instinctive; scientific work has always been a primary interest for Ouderkirk and from an early age he was fascinated by chemical processes. His earliest inkling of a future career was second grade, when he watched his teacher create the classic chemical volcano, using ammonium dichromate. As the chromium decomposes, it glows and emits sparks, producing lots of green chromium oxide ash. It made a big impression.

“That was it, I knew I wanted to be a chemist,” says Ouderkirk, who began his studies at a local community college in northern Illinois. A professor from Illinois Institute of Technology visited the college to teach and recognized that Ouderkirk had talent in chemistry as well as a keen interest. A freshman, Ouderkirk was invited by the professor to join graduate-level research on synthetic catalysts.

This early break set him on a course for high-end studies in chemistry and optics.

After this early break, Ouderkirk received a recommendation to transfer to Northern Illinois Univ. and work with optics expert Tom Knudsen on laser technologies. Learning how to blow glass with lasers, Ouderkirk found himself tackling advanced techniques, such constructing a vacuum-sealed nitrogen-cooled laser. This work eventually led him to transfer to Northwestern Univ., where he joined Eric Weitz’s chemistry research group and learned how projects in the laboratory are turned into practical solutions and products. This experience opened his eyes to disciplined research and management practices.

Ouderkirk came to know about 3M from his participation in training for best practices, and he received a call from a recruiter at the company who was looking for someone to manage the company’s laser laboratory. For the first eight years of his career, he was working outside the bounds of his background in synthetic chemistry. But being a chemist, he says, gave him a unique perspective while working with optical materials and using lasers to create solutions in slitting, welding and surface processing.

The excitement of his role was tempered somewhat by the challenge: “My manager challenged me, saying my job was to develop $100 million business for the company. I had to ask myself: ‘How do I do that?’”

Optical film breakthrough
Ouderkirk has since pioneered many other influential optical and chemical process technologies and products, including the first commercial pico projector in 2010. But the Multilayer Optical Film breakthrough of 2000 remains one of his most significant innovations, and highlights the opportunities available to those committed to a rigorous and well-planned innovation process.

Multilayer Optical Film is made with such precision that it is viewable from a variety of angles without loss in resolution or clarity. This precision also contributes to its optical efficiency, which reduces power usage. It has become very important for the success of smartphones, says Ouderkirk, because it is one of the key pieces of technology whose primary role is augmented by a secondary function, which is to reduce battery pore consumption. Without it, most smartphones would have much higher battery consumption.

But designing this new film was not easy, and required a major advance in the physical understanding of nanoscale materials’ optical behavior. Polymers were already used in high-performance reflectors, fabricated using a physical vapor deposition process that placed thin layers of organic materials. But such films were entirely unsuitable for interference optics.

“What we did was solve the fundamental physics problem that caused the performance of the film to suffer when tilted,” says Ouderkirk. The secret lay in understanding what was occurring in the polymer layers at the nanometer level and then controlling the optical properties during the deposition process.

“We took that as a challenge. We asked what it would take to co-extrude these polymers with high precision, and we concluded that we could do it by vapor coating,” says Ouderkirk. Improvements in the chemistry allowed them to design layers within a few nanometers of design targets. “We can get one-fifth of a carbon atom per layer of accuracy. This is a pretty amazing level of accuracy.”

The new production process places all 50- to 150-nm polymer layers simultaneously, resulting in 99% reflectivity at all incidence angles. The immediate application for the film was the cell phone. LCD television was also surging in the marketplace. Because they draw so much electricity, manufacturers of these devices needed better efficiency, which the film provided. Solar panels, smart cards, window films and LED light bulbs have all benefited, and Ouderkirk is working on new applications in opto-electronics.

Freedom to innovate
In his 28-year career with 3M, Ouderkirk has developed 45 new products. He tracks the success and status of each, and likes to view each on its own merits.

“In basic research, you frequently make new discoveries and insights. It behooves you to say ‘How could we use those?’, so it then becomes applied research,” says Ouderkirk. The difference, he continues, is having the ability to quickly think of ways to apply the discoveries. That depends on experience.

The other factor is having the ability to collect and use ideas from many different sources. 3M is one of the first companies, he says, to have actively pursued the open innovation concept from within the company.

“One of the things I found amazing at 3M is how you can approach people who have very different backgrounds and there’s a cultural obligation to help them out. 3M does a lot of things to reinforce that instinct,” he says. It gives research access to things—resources, ideas, solutions—that might be otherwise hard to get.

Functionally, this cultural tradition means that any intellectual property Ouderkirk or another 3M scientist creates for his business unit is available to others at the company. In addition to the 15% rule, which allows researchers to use 15% of their time to pursue their own research interests, researchers are incentivized to use this wealth of knowledge at 3M. The approach carries across quickly to newly acquired business units.

Ouderkirk has been named on more than 170 patents for technologies ranging from wearable electronics to LEDs. His most recent work involves personal electronics, and his experience shows that rapid shrinking of electronic devices is made possible by integrating electronics at ever smaller scales. He calls this the “Moore’s Law of Devices”, and it is transforming consumer products more profoundly than many realize.

“We have a lot of exciting things going on,” says Ouderkirk. There’s no reason, he believes, why another Multilayer Optical Film can’t emerge from 3M’s laboratories.

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