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Ingenuity with purpose

3M Europe : 23 April, 2003  (New Product)
What do scrubbing pads and thermal insulation have in common? How about overhead projectors and airplanes? It
Nonwoven technology got its start at 3M when Dick Drew, the founder of Scotch masking and cellophane tapes, casually mentioned to a colleague that 3M specifications called for an inexpensive backing that was fibrous, but not woven, for its popular electrical tape. Drew’s colleague was Al Boese, who started his career in the 3M mailroom without a high school diploma.

Fascinated by nonwoven technology and its potential applications, Boese experimented in the lab for years until he developed Sasheen decorative ribbon, a huge hit when it was launched in 1950. A few years later, 3M “married” nonwovens to abrasives to produce Scotch-Brite scrubbing and polishing pads, floor maintenance supplies and industrial polishing materials.

In the 1960s, 3M’s nonwoven technology made offset printing much more economical. Yet another nonwoven breakthrough product, known as 3M oil sorbents, helped reduce the damage of oil spills. Nonwoven technology also led to the development of Buf-Puf cleaning sponges and Thinsulate thermal insulation, the product that revolutionized cold weather apparel. In the 1990s, Filtrete air filters for residential and commercial buildings represented another application of this versatile technology.

Nonwovens had become so integral to 3M that a Nonwoven Technology Center was created in 1983 to offer technological expertise across the company. Today, sales of nonwoven-based 3M products have grown to about $2 billion annually.

Microreplication Technology Proliferates at 3M

Microreplication represents another breakthrough technology area for 3M. It all began in the 1950s when 3M entered the overhead transparency business. To build the need for its transparency products, 3M decided to produce the overhead projectors itself, further illustrating how the company creates markets for existing product lines in which it believes. By replacing a thick glass-condensing lens with a plastic one, 3M scientist Roger Appeldorn and his colleagues were able to create a higher quality, less expensive projector.

While working on this project, Appeldorn and his team looked at the very fine pattern on the surface of the plastic lens and wondered what else could be done with structured surfaces — surfaces with hundreds or even millions of structures per square inch, repeated continuously, and invisible to the naked eye. Since then, microreplication technology has been applied in hundreds of innovative ways to benefit customers and make people’s lives better.

In the mid 1960s, 3M developed a plastic lens using microreplication that, once imbedded in a traffic signal light, gave only drivers in the left lane a visual cue to turn. More ideas for microreplication emerged when 3M began manufacturing Scotchlite diamond grade reflective sheeting, building upon a project that 3M originated in the late 1930s. This reflective sheeting increases visibility for signage by up to 10 times. According to a two-year study funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the 1990s, Scotchlite diamond grade sheeting applied to truck tractors and trailers helped reduce accidents by 18 percent.

Today, 3M’s microreplication technology is found in Vikuiti brightness enhancement film for laptop computers, electronic organizers and cell phones, as well as in Trizact abrasives used on jet turbine blades. Microreplication has revolutionized abrasives — 3M’s oldest product line — and opened new abrasive markets, such as one designed to polish silicon wafers. By 2000, 3M products with microreplication technology generated close to $1 billion in revenue, and by 2002, the company estimates that microreplication technology will be an integral part of one-fourth to one-third of all its products.
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