Volume 13, Issue 3 - May/June 2009

EPD Redefines Distribution
by Drew Vass

One could argue that the window film industry hasn’t undergone significant change for quite some time. Since its inception, the base concept surrounding this product remains the same at its root: solar control. But one thing has changed drastically: its surroundings.

The trend toward “green” has merged with another cultural realization: the energy crisis. An economic crisis followed on the heels of these two inseparable concepts and the new U.S. president has declared “green collar jobs” as the wave of the future.

In the wake of these realizations, companies are scrambling to align themselves with the energy movement. In the process, some will fall on the energy generation side of the equation, following the quest for alternative sources; others will focus on conservation. Few are large enough to handle both. Not surprisingly, St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M, the self-proclaimed inventor of window film, is one of them.

Aligning With the Times
In February of this year, 3M formed a Renewable Energy Division, announcing that a new organization will enable the company to maximize its technologies, products and responsiveness in the fast-changing renewable energy industry. The new division is divided into two business units: Energy Generation and Energy Management. Window film is part of the Energy Management unit and, according to the unit’s business director Ranjit Thakur, it serves as the backbone for this segment.

Thakur recently agreed to an exclusive interview with Window Film, in which he explained many of the thoughts behind 3M’s restructuring.

“Essentially, when the Energy Management portion of the business was formed, the primary component of that was window films,” Thakur explains. He holds a bright outlook for the future. Thakur says that, in many ways, consumer interest is building around this long-standing segment. “Consumers are much more energy-conscious [than in the past] and that is going to truly drive the sustainability of our product portfolio as it exists today.”

3M received the first window film patent in 1966. Four decades later, the company’s portfolio includes solar management, safety and security, and decorative products that are sold in the automotive, commercial and residential sectors worldwide. Window film has been grouped with products from other segments under the new Energy Management portion of the business.

WF: “Mr. Thakur, are you able to explain which products have been grouped with window film within this new sector and the reasoning behind this restructuring?”

Thakur: “What we’re trying to do is bring forth the understanding, and we’re in the process of exploring, what other 3M products and technologies across the different markets can bring to a building that will drive energy efficiencies. This could go anywhere from products that include window films for energy management, to products that include light management, such as light directing end products, like solar tubes that harvest light from the outside and bring it into a building. So we’ve got a portfolio of products that we’re looking at that will make up this segment going forward.”

Though Thakur’s background includes window films, it also reflects the diverse span of his parent company. The company’s products involve multiple sectors, including displays and graphics technology, electronics, electrical and communications, health care, and transportation and manufacturing, among many others.

Where Do We Stand?
WF: “Some in the industry feel that they’re not seeing anything radically different than they have in the past. Bearing in mind that your company credits itself with the product’s invention, and continues to offer and develop this segment to date, where do you view window film in its overall evolution?”

Thakur: “You know, I was reading an article in one of your most recent issues and I saw your quote, ‘No Time for the Same Old,’ and it kind of resonates well with what you’ve just asked. In my opinion, truly, window film is closer to its beginning than its end. That might be a shocking statement for me to make, but, when you look at it, 3M truly has a very unique ability to mix and match technologies across different technological platforms and create products that sometimes customers want, but they can’t articulate. And a classic example of this has been our launch of the metal-free Prestige series of products that avoid corrosion and [interference with] 802.11 wireless networks and cell phone signals. That’s based on a multi-layer optical film technology. So, I would say that research and development has been a very strong part of our success in the past, still is and will continue to be. I’m really excited about the future and some of the things we can offer as we tap into the needs of our customers.”

Window Film Stimulus?
: “Do you see a new political focus on energy and the recently extended tax incentives impacting the industry? In your opinion, will this serve as a ‘window film stimulus package’ of sorts?”

Thakur: “The green movement is going to be a totally new force for us. We’re going to see a focus on reducing carbon footprint and energy costs. Combine this with the key enablers that we see, including the LEED rating system, energy rebates and tax credits. So, when we look at someone who is entering the design and build phase, which includes the ASHRAE 90.1 and LEED energy codes, you see, window film today is more of a non-invasive, passive system. It is going to compliment or supplement the active upgrades that buildings will require. These upgrades include the active mechanical systems, like HVAC, and also the active electrical systems. The industry, I think, is in a very sweet spot. It really can bring forth a portfolio that exists today, and, even more importantly, a portfolio that does not exist today.”

WF: “3M frequently highlights some of its window film product segments, including safety and security, in its quarterly and annual reports as those which have remained profitable. Do you have any advice for those within the window film industry who aren’t witnessing the same success during these tough economic times?

Thakur: “I was at our dealer conference in Las Vegas recently and the message I sent to them was one of acceleration. I know the economy is tough, and times are tough, but the U.S. continues to be the largest economy in the world. On top of that, I don’t think that most people realize that we have certain states within our country that surpass major countries in the world in terms of GDP and economic growth. This is a very opportune time and very critical for all of us to be successful here. There’s no doubt that we will be. Because I think what it will require is, not only innovations in products, but also innovation across the business products that we work with.”

“Solar” Films?

To date, window film appears exclusively in the energy management portfolio of 3M’s structure. And though the company has grouped the product firmly on that side of the equation, at least one other company, Konarka Technologies, has announced it is developing a window film product that will actually generate electricity. Whether 3M currently is or will ever spearhead a similar movement is unclear. Thakur indicates the company will follow consumer demand in this area.

“You know, it all depends,” he says. “Right now it’s a passive system, but, as and when the market demands a pushing of the envelope, it could probably be what it is, or it could migrate elsewhere.”

Drew Vass is the editor of Window Film magazine.

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