3M Co. is finding market success with extruded multilayer film for liquid crystal displays — already a $400 million-per-year business for the St. Paul., Minn., company, according to one estimate. Now the company is tackling new markets, with prototype films for visible-light-reflective applications for telecommunications and specialized solar controls and color mirror film for decorative materials.
"3M is very good at commercializing these projects," Robert Ottenstein, an analyst with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter in New York, said in a telephone interview.
Ottenstein characterized the product line as "a hidden gem" within 3M.
3M makes reflective films in Decatur, Ala., and markets them through several divisions. The products use as many as 1,000 layers of PET, polyethylene naphthalate or polymethyl methacrylate film, depending on the application, said Steven Webster, director of the 3M Light Management Technology Center in St. Paul.
Each alternate layer on a transparent material reflects a fraction of the light hitting it.
3M Optical Systems in St. Paul introduced the LCD product using PEN as a brightness enhancer in late 1997. Computer display makers, largely in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, use the 3M film in laptop computers and some large flat-panel desktop monitors, replacing traditional cathode-ray tubes.
"Growth last year was 50 percent over 1998 sales," said Webster, who projects continued growth.
Ottenstein estimated 3M's 1999 sales of brightness-enhancement films at $400 million, with growth to $1 billion in five years.
Other development work is progressing. 3M Telecommunications Systems in Austin, Texas, may use any of the film materials for carefully designed wavelength or polarizing filters in fiber-optic applications. The filters would replace optical isolators.
3M Automotive in St. Paul may use PET or PMMA film to control solar heat in automotive windshields.
3M Specialty Media Products in St. Paul began commercial sales of multilayer films for dramatic color combinations on high-end wrapping paper and bows through Hallmark Cards Inc. and other retailers.
A computer display or telecommunications application uses many layers, while a bow "doesn't need as many layers to get dramatic effect," Webster said.
Five 3M researchers wrote an article, "Giant Birefringent Optics in Multilayer Polymer Mirrors," for Science magazine's March issue. 3M scientists found that a highly birefringent-oriented polymer film can defy Brewster's Law, an 1814 physics maxim regarding light reflection.
"We are being deluged by phone calls" with ideas for other applications, Webster said.