A recurring theme at our Innovation Forum this week revolved around getting people to think differently by answering the question, "What if ...?"
For aluminum giant Alcoa, the questions were numerous when it began to develop a product later known as EcoClean. What if the company, being the largest supplier in its industry, didn't have the right knowledge or answers? What if Alcoa could get a different outcome, a unique feature, that goes beyond the problem the company is trying to solve?
In a 15-minute segment at the Innovation Forum dubbed, "One Great Idea," Kevin Kramer, Alcoa's president of growth initiatives, explained how the company managed to pull this off with its new EcoClean technology. At the same time, the product opened the door to a range of potential business opportunities that may make the company a lot of money while also providing significant environmental benefits.
The backstory: The economy was in turmoil when Alcoa began developing EcoClean, forcing the company to make a big bet in a sector that was also in decline. Alcoa wanted to help building owners with a product that could help keep their buildings clean. The company worked with Japanese plumbing manufacturer Toto, which had developed a photocatalyst titanium dioxide technology called Hydrotect. The partners used the technology to apply EcoClean, a titanium dioxide coating, to Reynobond, pre-painted aluminum architectural panels.
EcoClean reacts to sunlight by breaking down organic matter so it washes away with the rain. The result is a cleaner and brighter facade, saving building owners money in maintenance costs. But while testing the product, Kramer said, the company made an unexpected discovery: EcoClean also cleans the air and consumes smog by removing pollutants near its surface.
"For a 10,000-square-foot building, and as a frame of reference, that's about 10 canopies at a gas station, that's the equivalent of planting 80 trees," Kramer said. "So if we take just 1 percent of the market -- the aluminum exterior sheet market -- and convert it to EcoClean, that's the equivalent of planting 1 million trees."
The technology changed the way Alcoa thinks not just building facades, Kramer said, "but also automobiles, trucks and trailers, airplanes. Now, we don't have everything solved environmentally and technically, but it has challenged us to think very, very differently in, arguably, a fairly conservative, old-line aluminum company."
Kramer closed his presentation with his own series of questions that illustrate the other issues Alcoa is thinking about. What if the company could reduce its greenhouse gases to zero? What if the company could keep its 60,000 employees injury-free all year?
"And most importantly, we really want to challenge ourselves -- what if we're not just the supplier of choice, but what if we're the employer of choice?"