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Web technology of another kind

3M Europe : 23 April, 2003  (New Product)
Of all the technologies that have contributed to 3M
Arcane though it may seem, the word 'nonwovens' simply refers to fabrics that are created by means other than weaving. Cleaning pads, cardiac sensors, floor matting, surgical dressings, thermal insulation, filters, comforters, paint rollers, acoustical products, respirators, pool liners, decorative ribbons and heavy-duty abrasives are examples of the astonishing range of 3M products imbued with special characteristics by the nature of nonwoven fibres and the manner in which they are held together in a web.

In the past half century, 3M has pioneered the use of four innovative technological approaches to creating higher value nonwovens. They are: airlaid; blown microfibres; coiled web; and carding. Each is particularly well-suited to specific types of fibres and the intended use of the products to which those fibres are applied. New applications continually arise, such as material sandwiched into the side panels of automobiles to cut noise.

In contrast to these sophisticated technical advances, 3M’s origin in the field of nonwovens was quite humble. In the late 1930s, a researcher conducted an unusual experiment with a machine that kneaded rubber for the manufacture of adhesive tapes.

Instead of rubber, he put clumps of cellulose acetate fibres through the machine’s big rollers and discovered that the fibres could be bound together this way.

It was an interesting revelation, but 10 years would pass before the company found a commercial application for nonwoven fabric in the form of decorative ribbon consisting of lustrous threads bonded tightly together to a web. By the mid-1950s, aided by advances in web-making equipment and development of new fibres, 3M began introducing what were to become many of the company’s most important product lines of that period, including the first of its signature Scotch-Brite Scrubbing Pads.

3M created many of its early nonwovens by the process known as “airlaid,” in which fibres are laid out on a moving belt and then either fused together with heat, glued with a coating of adhesive or held together by mechanical entanglement, usually involving needles that grab the fibres and pull them through the web.

In the late 1960s, 3M helped develop and later refined a web-making process the company calls BMF, which stands for blown microfibres. Pellets of polymer resin are heated and melted into a liquid, then pushed through a die and blown toward a collector drum, fusing together and forming a web. 3M’s Thinsulate™ Thermal Insulation and 3M Surgical Masks are examples of products made this way.

Coiled web technology, a third approach to nonwovens, derives from the discovery that certain large-diameter coiled fibres have a natural tendency to form themselves into webs under the right conditions. 3M Nomad Floor Matting is a prime example of products made using this approach.

The company also uses a fourth web-making technology called “carding,” but 3M does something different to this 150-year-old process. Fibres are combed out to a thin web and then consolidated with latex coating to make a wide variety of tape backing and medical products. Carding is already employed in producing 3M Coban™ Self-Adherent Wrap and a family of 3M Micropore Surgical Tapes. The versatility of carding even provides products in diverse markets, such as coverings for some respirators and surgical masks, vacuum cleaner filter components, and lofty garment insulations.

The magic of 3M’s nonwoven fabrics adds an immeasurable degree of practicality to household, medical and industrial products. The many faces of nonwovens make them porous or impermeable, smooth or course, firm or elastic. If elastic, they can stretch along a single axis, or in every direction, as do the latest products in a family of 3M Nexcare Comfort Bandages for maximum comfort.

As the technology of web-making has evolved, 3M’s nonwoven filters have been adapted for automobiles, homes, breweries, hospitals and industrial laundries. Its insulation products are used in sleeping bags, bedding, heating and ventilation systems, and in temporary structures, such as seasonal, portable tent facilities. Nonwovens even made their way to a special community service project in Germany to save grass snakes. Volunteers devised sleeping stations made of nonwoven insulation as a warming haven to attract the endangered reptiles.

With the range of potential applications seemingly almost boundless, 3M research and development continues to refine its technologies and search for new materials that can be formed into nonwoven webs. And there is no telling where the thread may lead.
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