Friday, June 24, 2011

Evolution of 3M's Nonwoven technology platform over seven decades

A typical technology platform far outlives the first product which uses it. One of the classic examples is 3M’s Nonwoven technology platform. Originally used in making ribbons for decorating gifts, the platform over seven decades has been used in cleaning pads, surgical tapes, drapes & masks, fasteners, floppy disk liners, absorbent material to combat oil slicks, “metered” paint rollers for home improvement and sound deadners in cars. What does it mean to develop and manage a technology platform like nonwoven? Let’s look at the story in brief.

Al Boese didn’t have a high school diploma and started his career in 3M as a mail boy. In 1938 his boss in 3M’s tape lab, Dick Drew, suggested that he might not be cut out for technical work. Perhaps, Drew counseled, Boese should take time off to find a different job. Boese hung around the lab anyway. One day Drew off handedly mentioned that 3M specifications called for an inexpensive, noncorrosive backing that was fibrous, but not woven, for its popular electrical tape. Rather than hunt for a new job Boese found the best library on fibers at the University of Minnesota’s Home Economics Department and he spent the summer there.

“One day I was walking by the rubber colander in the tape lab,” Boese said, “I stuck a little tuft of acetate fiber in the colander. It heated the surface of the fibers and bonded them together. That was the opening to make nonwovens. Heat and pressure.” Boese started experimenting with this process and set up a small lab called Carfab Lab. Boese’s new process didn’t produce a better backing for electrical tape, but gazing at a department store one day in the mid-1940s, he had an idea. May be, if the new nonwoven material was dyed and sprinkled with color flecks, it could be used in decorative display. Or why not slit the material into strips and make ribbon for decorating gifts?

Boese’s early attempts at ribbon failed as it was structurally weak for wrapping packages and it wasn’t very attractive. “It was obvious to everybody that we had a product failure,” Boese said. In three years the ribbon brought in about $800,000 in revenues and the losses totaled $200,000. Boese was given three months to make it profitable and he did. The new product, 3M Sasheen decorative ribbon, was a hit when it was introduced in 1950s, along with a companion product, Lacelon ribbon.

From ribbon, 3M “married” nonwovens to abrasives in the 1950s to produce Scotch-Brite scrubbing and polishing pads, floor maintenance supplies and industrial polishing materials. A decade later, new dampening sleeves were made from nonwovens that made offset printing much more economical. Disposable surgical face masks and Micropore surgical tape opened the door to other nonwoven medical products.

There were some disappoints along the way, too. 3M never successfully developed nonwovens for book covers, draperies and window displays. A novel product called Skimmit was heralded as the easy way to skim oil off liquids like soups, but consumers never thought so. Early attempts at creating comfortable shoulder pads for clothing fizzled.

Nonwovens had become a part of so many 3M products that a Nonwoven Technology Center was created in 1983 to offer technical knowledge and expertise across the company. By then, about 10 percent of 3M’s business or nearly $1 billion in sales from about 20 divisions represented some form of nonwoven application in products ranging from diapers to diskettes. By the late 1990s that percentage had grown to 15 percent overall and sales of about $2 billion.

Note: I am looking for an example of a technology platform that has evolved in India over a decade or two. In case you have any information, do let me know by either writing a comment on this blog or by sending email to: vinay at catalign dot com.

Source: A century of innovation at 3M (story on pages 50-53, image on page 180).