TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - In a multimillion-dollar move to get closer to automotive customers, 3M Co. is opening a new industry center that will connect with carmakers in a virtual world.
The St. Paul, Minn., company will begin construction in September of its $12 million Automotive Industry Center in Livonia, Mich. The 60,000-square-foot center, which is expected to open next July, will use virtual-reality techniques to help automakers visualize 3M products in simulated vehicles.
The center is part of the company's new strategy for growth as a key automotive supplier, said William Coyne, 3M vice president for research and development.
'We see the center as more of an evolution for the company,' Coyne said after a speech at the University of Michigan Management Briefing Seminars here earlier this month. 'The growth of our (automotive) business is focused on how well we identify problems for our customers. It helps to have a center in the Detroit area, and people our customers know they can contact.'
The center, which will employ 110 people, will provide more than just a stopping point for automakers. It will feature a virtual-reality theater-in-the-round, with screens projecting holographic images of components used in new-car designs. On-site laboratories will also use computer-aided graphics to find solutions to trouble spots or work on a part's fit and function.
Besides basic design, the center will also allow 3M to work on assembly problems, aftermarket products and even marketing graphics. One use of the center could be to help carmakers come up with animated images for dealer showrooms, such as a fish jumping over a car's hood, said Thomas Beddow, executive director of the center.
Currently, the division operates from a smaller, older facility in Southfield, Mich. 3M's automotive division generates about one-tenth of the company's $15 billion in sales.
Coyne also said the company is working on new technology in such areas as lightweight adhesive materials for plastic components, abrasive materials for automatic transmissions, lithium polymer batteries for electric vehicles and coatings to cut down on solar and heat loads for plastic glazed windows.
'The best way to innovate is keep customers close to us,' Coyne said. 'That's when we really see the opportunities.'