As we conclude another holiday season, one of the unsung heros of the gift giving process is the lowly roll of tape. This magical invention that we probably all take for granted actually came to be via a skunk works project from a rookie engineer at 3M named Richard Drew.
After being hired on at 3M, he was given the ultra exciting task of testing out different types of sandpaper and the various grains that could be used on the sandpaper. Yes, exciting work. Eventually he was sent out to local auto shops to see how the sandpaper products were being used and observed that the auto body workers were running into some very frustrating situations. You see, back then, two tone paint jobs on cars were very popular back then however the method of applying the paint on them was archaic and in turn, drove the auto body workers crazy!
For auto workers, [two tone paint jobs were] a total pain in the ass: To achieve this effect, they had to mask off parts of the car with butcher paper, newspapers, homemade glue, and heavy-duty surgical adhesive tape. When the tape was removed, it would often take with it chips of the freshly-coated paint. A vicious cycle would ensue of taping, painting, re-taping, and re-painting.
When Drew walked into the shop that day, he was greeted with the “choicest profanity” he’d ever heard: strong adhesive tape had, once again, botched the auto workers’ paint job. Instead of seizing the opportunity to sell the disgruntled workers sandpaper to remove paint, Drew had a completely unrelated revelation: what if he could design a superior, less aggressive tape — a tape that didn’t ruin paint jobs?
Drew took his knowledge of how 3M applied sand grains to paper to in turn figure out how to apply non-stick adhesive to paper so it did not leave any residue on the surface. Once he figured it out, he created the machinery to produce it by purchasing supplies in increments of $99 so not to get flagged by his leaders since he was only allotted $100 budget for supplies.
Not only did Drew create Scotch (aka Masking) tape, but he then went on to create clear Scotch tape. Today, those products still represent about 20% of 3M’s revenue.