Roger Appeldorn worked for decades as a corporate scientist at 3M. Though retired, his numerous patents still drive 3M’s bottom line. He is now focused on preparing the engineers of tomorrow. He believes, with proper training, they can do even more than what he accomplished.
Appeldorn holds at least 35 U.S. patents and was instrumental in developing and advancing the hot technology of microreplication. The technology itself is little known to the public, but we see its optical application every day in products such as light-enhancing film for laptops, computer screens, reflective highway signs, and reflective tapes.
Today it contributes an estimated 45 percent of 3M’s yearly profits. By any account, this is a significant contribution by one person. Unsurprisingly, Appeldorn has been inducted into the prestigious 3M Carlton Society for his enormous contributions.
How did Appeldorn evolve into this high-impact innovator? If we can understand that process, we may be able to replicate it to develop future innovators in our backyard.
Appeldorn grew up on a farm and went to a small country school in Pipestone, Minn. Farm life gave him know-how about machinery and animals, and lots of practice finding solutions for common problems. (I have found that an agricultural background often is the mark of a local innovator.) Appeldorn made a telescope, the beginning of his curiosity and interest in optics, a passion that has continued ever since.
In college he enrolled in pre-engineering classes. He would attend classes in the morning and race to work at 3M in the evening. This enabled him to understand working in a lab from the ground up.
In the late 1950, he was challenged by his boss to find a use for the transparencies that were otherwise a waste product of their color copy process. He developed a method of projecting these sheets onto a screen. The hugely successful 3M transparency film business was born.
Transparencies needed an overhead projector, made by other companies, with heavy and expensive glass lenses. Roger’s experience tinkering in optics helped develop a lightweight and cheaper projector using plastic lenses. Eventually this overhead projector became the market leader—a staple in classrooms and boardrooms around the world. Concordia University in Portland, Ore., listed it as one of the “10 Most Game-Changing Teaching Innovations.”
Appeldorn wanted to continue to hone his formal knowledge in optics. At that time, the only graduate program in the subject, due to the proximity of Kodak and Xerox, was at the University of Rochester in New York state. The universe intervened, and 3M acquired a company in that area, allowing Appeldorn to study there. His connection to optics was now complete.
In 1982, the company created an Optical Technology Center and named Appeldorn to lead it. As with many technologies, the overhead projector was replaced by other high-tech options, but it spawned many newer innovations.
Appeldorn’s lasting technology contribution is microreplication—a manufacturing technology that combines the art and science of applying thousands of precise, microscopic three-dimensional patterns on various surfaces, like plastic. It was a combination of different technologies that existed at the company. It was first developed to increase brightness in overhead projectors. Microreplication itself has since evolved beyond optics to surface coatings such as drag-reduction film for aircrafts, superior mechanical fasteners, and precision abrasives for the electronics industry. Appeldorn says 3M is the leader in this field: “I don’t know of any other company that has the capability or investment in the technology.”
He believes in the credo that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. More than once he was called on the carpet for circumventing corporate policy, only to be absolved by the CEO with the phrase “Just let him do his job.”
3M is known for innovation. but during the 1980s, CEO Lou Lehr was worried that this culture might disappear thanks to a de-emphasis of long-range research and lack of product development expertise. Appeldorn, due to his approach to innovation, was asked to initiate and lead a formal program for new employees. After his retirement in 1996, he consulted with 3M for 10 more years, teaching how innovation happens in the company.
Appeldorn believed that the process of innovation should be “taught” within a college program. He proposed such a course in 1994, with no tangible results. He did not give up; in 2013, after a guest lecture at his alma mater, Hamline University, he again proposed a course he described as “innovating your own future” and “preparing for innovation in industry.” It was based upon the rigorous process of ideation-to-implementation that was honed at the 3M labs.
This time it took. The difference was that he took the initiative to develop it and rope in fellow Carlton Society inductees to teach it. It is now a staple at Hamline, and has been refined since inception. Appeldorn has succeeded in “bottling” the process of innovation. While his innovations have led to numerous products, he believes that “the big Kahuna application that will change the world is still out there.” He is preparing his students so that some of them will be instrumental in creating those game-changers.
Rajiv Tandon is executive director of the Institute for Innovators and Entrepreneurs and an advocate for the future of entrepreneurship in Minnesota. He facilitates peer groups of Minnesota CEOs. He can be reached at email@example.com.