Optical film breakthrough
Ouderkirk has since pioneered many other
influential optical and chemical process
technologies and products, including the
first commercial pico projector in 2010. But
the Multilayer Optical Film breakthrough
of 2000 remains one of his most significant
innovations, and highlights the opportunities
available to those committed to a rigorous and
well-planned innovation process.
Multilayer Optical Film is made with such
precision that it is viewable from a variety of
angles without loss in resolution or clarity.
This precision also contributes to its optical
efficiency, which reduces power usage. It has
become very important for the success of
smartphones, says Ouderkirk, because it is one
of the key pieces of technology whose primary
role is augmented by a secondary function,
which is to reduce battery pore consumption.
Without it, most smartphones would have
much higher battery consumption.
But designing this new film was not easy,
and required a major advance in the physical
understanding of nanoscale materials’ optical behavior. Polymers were already used in
high-performance reflectors, fabricated using
a physical vapor deposition process that placed
thin layers of organic materials. But such films
were entirely unsuitable for interference optics.
“What we did was solve the fundamental
physics problem that caused the performance
of the film to suffer when tilted,” says Ouderkirk. The secret lay in understanding what was
occurring in the polymer layers at the nanometer level and then controlling the optical
properties during the deposition process.
“We took that as a challenge. We asked what
it would take to co-extrude these polymers
with high precision, and we concluded that we
could do it by vapor coating,” says Ouderkirk.
Improvements in the chemistry allowed them
to design layers within a few nanometers of
design targets. “We can get one-fifth of a car-
bon atom per layer of accuracy. This is a pretty
The new production process places all
50- to 150-nm polymer layers simultaneously,
resulting in 99% reflectivity at all incidence
angles. The immediate application for the film
was the cell phone. LCD television was also
surging in the marketplace. Because they draw
so much electricity, manufacturers of these
devices needed better efficiency, which the film
provided. Solar panels, smart cards, window
films and LED light bulbs have all benefited,
and Ouderkirk is working on new applications
Freedom to innovate
In his 28-year career with 3M, Ouderkirk has
developed 45 new products. He tracks the success and status of each, and likes to view each
on its own merits.
“In basic research, you frequently make new
discoveries and insights. It behooves you to say
‘How could we use those?’, so it then becomes
applied research,” says Ouderkirk. The difference, he continues, is having the ability to
quickly think of ways to apply the discoveries.
That depends on experience.
The other factor is having the ability to collect and use ideas from many different sources.
3M is one of the first companies, he says, to
have actively pursued the open innovation
concept from within the company.
“One of the things I found amazing at 3M is
how you can approach people who have very
different backgrounds and there’s a cultural
obligation to help them out. 3M does a lot
of things to reinforce that instinct,” he says.
It gives research access to things—resources,
ideas, solutions—that might be otherwise hard
Functionally, this cultural tradition means
that any intellectual property Ouderkirk or
another 3M scientist creates for his business
unit is available to others at the company.
In addition to the 15% rule, which allows
researchers to use 15% of their time to pursue
their own research interests, researchers are
incentivized to use this wealth of knowledge
at 3M. The approach carries across quickly to
newly acquired business units.
Ouderkirk has been named on more than
170 patents for technologies ranging from
wearable electronics to LEDs. His most recent
work involves personal electronics, and his
experience shows that rapid shrinking of electronic devices is made possible by integrating
electronics at ever smaller scales. He calls this
the “Moore’s Law of Devices”, and it is transforming consumer products more profoundly
than many realize.
“We have a lot of exciting things going on,”
says Ouderkirk. There’s no reason, he believes,
why another Multilayer Optical Film can’t
emerge from 3M’s laboratories.