Cristina U. Thomas, 3M: The Future of Chemical Engineering

Cristina Thomas is senior technical leader in the Corporate R&D Services Center at 3M. Among her accomplishments, she led reinvention of the 3M window-film product platform and the design and implementation of new product introduction processes.

Looking ahead 25 years, how do you expect your industry/research area to evolve?

I expect the industry to continue to change at an accelerated pace, leaving far behind the speed of change of the last 25 years (which many of us describe already as unprecedented). Technology will play a predominant role as change progresses. New technologies, resulting in new platforms, will bring about market changes and the creation of new markets with new behaviors including new customer segments.

Today, we are all experiencing these changes with the massive utilization and incorporation of digital technology into new products and solutions being adopted daily. The emphasis will be in the multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary aspects of the various engineering and science disciplines. Successful teams, whether in academia, government or industry, will be formed by scientists and engineers who can “move” from one field to another, can communicate with experts in other fields, and can discover the uncommon connections between diverse fields.

Combining learnings from different fields, looking at behaviors at interfaces, and applying those seemingly unrelated connections can tremendously impact the evolution of technologies and markets. 

I have been fortunate to work at 3M, a company that is well-known for inspiring curiosity and innovation spurred by combining and connecting core technology platforms, in ways that improve people’s lives and help our customers succeed. In the next 25 years, 3M’s world-class scientists and engineers will still be discovering and inventing with purpose, adding new core technologies, or pioneering breakthrough combinations of technologies to help solve societal challenges and change the world.

Traditional core areas of ChE expertise are being augmented by new expertise in science and engineering at molecular and nanometer scales, in biosystems, in sustainability, and in cyber tools. Over the next 25 years, how will these changes affect your industry/research area?

I really appreciate the words “being augmented,” because traditional core areas will still be foundational for the chemical engineer of the future. It is certainly exciting that advances in science are opening new opportunities and new fields that previously might not have been considered part of the chemical engineering portfolio. The key is to embrace new expertise to complement, to accelerate, and to leapfrog the application of chemistry, physics, and biology to create new materials and chemical compositions and to ensure that they are properly produced, utilized and recycled.

Nanomaterials, biomaterials, molecular engineering, quantum computing, and energy harvesting are among the many dynamic and hot fields that are obtaining private and public funding, receiving attention by researchers in academia and national laboratories, and being evaluated and tested by industry researchers for commercial use.

The emphasis on and dedication to sustainability is clear today and will be expected as part of any chemical engineering effort and commitment to a cleaner and healthier world.  

At 3M, our vision and values are part of our DNA. We have taken an offensive approach to help solve sustainability challenges. We continue to actively identify and understand future sustainability needs, and to expand our portfolio of products with sustainability advantages. In the next 25 years, we are committed to sustainable growth via new ways of improving our business, our planet, and every life.

What new industries/research areas do you foresee?

The anticipated and rapid scientific developments will bring improvements of which many of us have been dreaming. The convergence of chemistry, biology, engineering and digital technology constitutes the perfect storm for new platforms. Innovative materials platforms will be possible thanks to new processing technologies: additive manufacturing, bioprocessing, synthetic biology, digital twins, and AI-driven processes and robotics, to name a few.

The ability to customize processes in real-time, locally and on-the-go, will become a reality. Sustainable modular and automated processes will be pervasive. By adding data analytics, engineers will be able to target optimal conditions for the desired length of production time to manufacture precise and unique materials, components, and products.

The impact of digital advances will also extend to health care via health informatics, enhancing greatly every person’s medical care and improved responses to public health emergencies. Material informatics will give a true competitive advantage to scientists and engineers, since it can allow for discovery, understanding, design, selection, and use of truly novel materials at a much lower cost and within much tighter time frames. As a chemical engineer who started at 3M as a modeling and simulation expert in advanced materials, I was able to contribute to many innovative solutions. I am thrilled to see, live, and experience this dream.

Taking into account the ongoing evolution of the professions — including the need for new modes of education; high standards of performance and conduct; effective technical, business, and public communication; and desires for a more sustainable future — what do you think the chemical engineering profession will look like 25 years from now?

Years from now, the chemical engineering profession will be truly collaborative and interdisciplinary, with no geographical barriers. People will work together regardless of their location. Inclusive teams and partnerships will form as need arises and will quickly focus on creating and rapidly deploying the solution.

People expect us to solve grand challenges in a sustainable and ethical way. My co-workers and I are proud to work for a company that has been named one of the most ethical companies in the world for the past five years. It matters to our current customers and to our future customers. 

People have high expectations of scientists and engineers. 3M sponsored the recent State of Science Index, surveying 14,036 people globally in 14 developed and emerging countries. I was happy that 82% of adults indicated that they would “encourage kids to pursue a career in science.” I was happier about the reason: the affirmation that the next generation will significantly contribute to solving future problems with careers in science and engineering bringing increased stability and economic security to the next generations. The survey indicates that optimism reigns for the future of science and engineering.

People described tomorrow’s scientific impact on society as “exciting” — and like them, I believe that the best days of science and engineering lie ahead with “seemingly mythical or grand-challenge innovations” (flying cars, undersea living, 100-year average life expectancy, the cure of cancer, gene editing, eradication of endemic diseases) within reach in the next 25 years.

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