He's not making any promises, but 3M's Thomas F. Beddow is expecting big things from the auto industry.

"I think there could be another 3M just in automotive," says Mr. Beddow, executive director of the 3M Automotive Industry Center in suburban Detroit. "I wouldn't go to the board (of directors) and promise anything, but I think there's another $15 billion company in automotive.

"We could spin off (automotive) and do what 3M shareholders are accustomed to - a 9% to 10% return on sales," Mr. Beddow says, although he adds there are no plans to do so.

Approximately $2.25 billion of 3M's $15 billion in sales currently is in automotive. About half is original equipment, half aftermarket. But as far as Mr. Beddow is concerned, that's only scratching the surface.

In October, 3M will open a new Automotive Industry Center in Livonia, MI. The $11-million facility will include a virtual reality theater for displaying 3M products and capabilities; a design studio; developmental labs and component displays. The two-story, 60,000-sq.-ft. (5,600-sq.-m) center will house 100 program management, design and technical support staffers who represent 17 3M product divisions focused on the auto industry.

3M is taking a broad-brush approach to the auto industry, shooting for applications in every phase of the business. Among the products believed to have strong growth potential:

Thinsulate. Used for thermal insulation in ski jackets, Thinsulate should enjoy increasing application as a damping material to reduce noise, vibration and harshness and improve interior acoustics, 3M says.

Cabin filtration products. Most systems available today are designed to remove dust and pollen particles from the air, but odor-reducing filters are about to come on the market as well. Chevrolet will offer such a system as standard on its Venture minivan within the next fewmonths.

Light pipes. The 3M devices deliver light from a remote source (a full-spectrum sulfur lamp) through clear, air-filled plastic tubes up to 66-ft. (20.1 m) long and 10-ins. (254 mm) wide. Used in several European factories and at Chrysler Corp.'s Warren, MI, truck plant, the pipes produce a more natural light without giving off heat or ultraviolet radiation. Initial cost - $6,000 for a 66-ft. pipe - is higher than conventional lighting systems, but 3M claims a 40% reduction in electricity use and maintenance costs. In the Chrysler application, 3M says the system is providing a 60% savings overall.

Diesel particulate filters. 3M's filters, which are said to cut exhaust levels by more than 70% on some of the oldest diesel-powered buses, are being tested in the U.S., Turkey, Korea, Romania, Hungary and Costa Rica. The units are designed to be retrofitted to older vehicles already in service.

Transfer graphics and appliques. A new thermal transfer process, called Crystal Silk, allows placement of durable, silk-like designs or logos onto leather, fabric or vinyl headrests, seat backs, door panels, dashboards and other interior surfaces. 3M says it will have OE interior applications for the '99 model year.

Dealer signage. Dealers are looking for ways to dress up their showrooms, and Mr. Beddow believes that will provide an opening for 3M's special signage and graphics products.