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3M Scientist A Master At “Hot Swatch” - Turning Ideas Into Products

June 26, 1989

MAPLEWOOD, Minn. (AP) _ An inventive college dropout with a knack for pleasing customers has shown 3M Co. it doesn’t take a lab full of molecule-minded Ph.D.s to blaze trails in technology.

Frank Marentic earned his science degree on the workbench, tinkering his way into the automotive design industry and giving 3M a foothold there with 18 years of creative work in Detroit.

He also invented a drag-reduction film known as ″Riblets″ that helped speed Stars & Stripes to victory in the 1986 America’s Cup yacht race - a public relations dream for the $10.5 billion diversified manufacturer.

″He’s the last of a breed,″ said Clem Nelson, vice president of 3M’s Automotive Systems Division. ″I don’t think 3M will happen to see another one like him. Everyone we hire today is from the classroom.″

Marentic, 57, is cherished by 3M for his ability to create the ″hot swatch,″ a rough handmade sample of an emerging product.

″He’s got great hands,″ said William Klein, technical director of the Industrial Tape Division at 3M. ″A lot of people have ideas, but we need someone to reduce them to practice.″

Once an idea is reduced to a ″swatch,″ customers can seek refinements or quickly drop the idea - cutting development costs by shortening the gestation process or sparing the company the expense of making duds.

Speed and low cost are important even in research, the lifeblood of the knowledge economy.

3M, the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co., spends about 6.5 percent of its revenue on research and development, more than the industry average. Last year it totaled $689 million.

″Research and development is an investment, but they only want to invest a minimum amount of money for a maximum return,″ said Terry Morris, a senior development engineer at 3M who has worked under Marentic since he moved back to the company’s Maplewood headquarters in 1983.

Marentic said he has a practical streak that makes 3M’s financial restraints easier to accept. But even in the leanest years he said he has been able to cut loose on risky ventures.

Riblets, for example, was born from an initial $600 to $1,000 expense that allowed Marentic to meet with Navy researchers who had theorized that a microscopically fine sawtooth surface could reduce drag and save fuel. Marentic gave the theory life when he suggested using a plastic adhesive to create the effect instead of the metal envisioned by the Navy.

He unsuccessfully tried to apply it to cars during the energy crisis and was selling the idea to airplane manufacturers when Stars & Stripes called.

The 2 1/2 months he spent in Australia to baby-sit the yacht’s hull were one of the crowning achievements of his career and two years later he received 3M’s highest honor - the Carlton Award for career contributions in research.

Riblets hasn’t made money for 3M, but Marentic still champions it as a potential revenue giant because airplane makers are toying with it.

″If I wouldn’t have done this I would have gone into music,″ said Marentic, a former trumpet player whose brother, James, is a professional jazz artist. ″I like the creativity one has in jazz. What I do is an extension of that.″

Nelson said Marentic is a rarity because he rose to division scientist after joining 3M in 1955 as an entry-level technician. He had found the University of Minnesota boring and quit during his freshman year, only to be inspired to pursue a scientific career by his first 3M boss, Dick Drew, the inventor of Scotch tape.

‴We spent up to 15 percent of our time pursuing things that were not related to our job function,″ Marentic said. ″We were allowed to create.″

In Detroit from 1968 to 1983, Marentic headed a research lab that gained the respect of automakers for adding decorative touches to car bodies. One of his first successes was the horseshoe-shaped stripe on the side of Ford’s 1967 Mustang. He struck gold for 3M and Pontiac by developing a strong, cost- efficient technology to emblazon the Firebird emblem on the car’s hood.

″I think GM made about $11 million off that car and we made a little bit ourselves,″ Marentic said.

Jeff Janssen, a senior chemist at 3M, said Marentic has a hidden talent for sales because he gleans information from customers to find out what they really want.

But Janssen agreed with others that Marentic’s greatest asset is his practical creativity.

″The molecule guys get too hung up on what they can’t do,″ Janssen said. ″That doesn’t stop Frank.″

End adv for Sunday June 25