3M leveraged collaboration with outside partners to tackle the COVID crisis
By Robert Grace
The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges for everyone, in different ways, across their personal and professional lives. On May 5, attendees of the virtual ANTEC 2021 got a glimpse into how 3M Co., maker of N95 respirator masks, Filtrete air filters and scores of other products, responded to address the crisis.
Stan Rendon, senior research and development director at 3M, noted how the company has received more than 1,200 external collaboration requests since late March 2020. This onslaught of inquiries prompted 3M to take what Rendon called a “fast and furious” approach. And it led to a period of unprecedented collaboration with diverse partners that required, as he termed it, “tremendous focus and unequivocal prioritization.” But the results have been positive and are likely to be long lasting.
3M reacted by creating a cross-functional External Collaboration Response Team (ECRT) to create harmonized messaging and to answer every phone call, email or LinkedIn request it received from all who wanted to work with the company.
“One of the biggest challenges we had to overcome in the early part of the pandemic was to transition what historically had been personal protective equipment (PPE) for industrial markets to the healthcare space.” The firm needed to determine how best to fill the pipeline quickly while also aligning properly with key regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH).
In addition to N95 masks, 3M also makes reusable respirators and powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs), the latter of which use HEPA-type filters, hoods, batteries, rechargeable systems and other components. All of these protect wearers against airborne contaminants. A big part of its early efforts involved finding ways to increase production of each of these products. Even with its plants running 24/7, 3M alone could not address these challenges, so it had to find ways to collaborate with other companies.
As a result, throughout the pandemic, 3M was able to quadruple the production of its disposable N95 respirators, to 95 million per month in the U.S., or more than 2 billion a year globally.
In his talk, Rendon detailed how 3M partnered with firms as diverse as Ford Motor Co., vehicle engine maker Cummins Inc., Microsoft Corp., automation specialist Fanuc Corp., residential cleaning expert Merry Maids, HP Inc. and Purdue University.
Forging external strategic alliances and partnerships, Rendon said, is foundational to the “new normal” at 3M. These external partnerships will continue to positively impact the pace of innovation and adoption.