Richard Drew, Scotch Tape, and 3M's Empire
Richard Drew: Banjo-Playing, Conscientious Problem-Solver
One passionate, curious guy set out to solve a problem for his customers and ended up changing the world.
You’ve got to hand it to Richard Drew, a smart guy who knew what he wanted. He wanted to play the banjo, so instead of studying at the University of Minnesota, he dropped out. Instead of a traditional college education, he signed up for a correspondence course in machine design and went to work for Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, happily plucking the strings of his banjo in his free time.
In the 1920s, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing’s main product was sandpaper. Richard Drew had the job of delivering samples of waterproof sandpaper to automotive factories. Two-toned cars were all the rage, and the workers on the paint line had to mask one section of the car while an adjoining section was painted.
But the painters had a HUGE problem: there was no good way to cover the car to prevent drips. Workers tried masking off a section with newspaper and glue, but that method didn’t eliminate drips and runs. The glue didn’t come off easily. Sometimes it even peeled off the existing paint. The newspaper stuck to the car. A huge mess, lots of frustrated workers, and “choicest profanity” he had ever known prompted Drew to solve the problem.
Compassion for Clients
Richard Drew was the consummate problem-solver, but he must also have been a conscientious, compassionate person. He saw the frustration and lost time of the painters and he vowed he’d solve the painting problem for them. That was a big promise since he
“could back this promise with neither experience nor know-how. He didn’t even know exactly what was needed, but he had the optimism of youth.”
He cared enough about the customers that he worked to solve their problems. And worked some more. He worked so much that his boss, William McKnight, sent him a memo telling him to quit wasting time on this project and get back on his first assignment: testing WetorDry sandpaper.
Richard Drew stopped experimenting on masking tape on company time, but he pursued it in his personal time. He tried dozens of glues and backing. After almost two years, he had a tape that he thought would work, a treated crepe paper with edges coated in cabinetmaker’s glue and glycerine.
Drew presented his masking tape to the workers, but it didn’t stick. The men told Richard he was being stingy with the adhesive, telling him to take back his “Scotch” tape, a pejorative, ethnic insult based on the stereotype that Scottish people were frugal in the extreme.
You know what they say?
“If at first you don’t succeed…try, try again.”
This time Richard coated the entire backside of the crepe paper with adhesive and it stuck. Then it peeled off — cleanly and easily. The painters were happy. (They probably still used a bit of profanity, but this time it was in amazement and not frustration.)
"Masking Tape” was patented in 1925, the first of many kinds of “Scotch” tape that the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company became known for.
One Thing Led to Another
Once Richard Drew had solved the painting problem and created masking tape, he was, quite literally, “on a roll” and decided to solve another problem.
A St. Paul company had signed a contract to insulate railroad cars, but the panels that would line the cars had to be sealed and watertight. Masking tape was not waterproof. Nothing existed to fill that need.
After the success of his masking tape, Richard had been promoted to the technical director of 3M’s Product Fabrication Laboratory. He gathered his team and got to work. They started using the new Dupont product called cellophane. Over an intense period of months, Drew and his team searched for a substance that could be coated with adhesive and end up waterproof, clear, and safe. They had problem after problem.
The heat from machines curled the cellophane in the machine.
Because the cellophane curled, it couldn’t be properly coated with adhesive.
When the adhesive was applied, the cellophane ripped and tore.
The adhesive turned dark and opaque on the tape.
One of Drew’s team members recalled that it was
“the longest and most discouraging months in 3M’s history.”
More Problem-Solving Led to More Innovation
Richard Drew wanted to solve the problems they were having. Instead of giving up, he and his team created solutions to each one of their obstacles. First, they invented different machines that could coat the cellophane with adhesive without damaging the sheets. Second, they invented a different adhesive that would stay clear. Third, they experimented with primers and preparation methods before the adhesive was applied.
Persistence paid off. Or maybe it was “stick-to-itiveness.”
Richard Drew and his team created a new industry and one of the most used, most recognized products in the history of the world: “Scotch” tape, patented in 1930.
Timing Is Everything
Scotch tape was patented in 1930 and introduced during the Great Depression. It hardly needed marketing because everyone was trying to “make do” with what they had. Everything was mended and saved. Scotch tape was the “fixer” that everyone needed:
Cracked eggshells were held together, creating a seal so effective that pigeon and turkey eggs hatched normally.
The tops of milk bottles were covered over with tape.
Window shades were repaired.
Book pages were saved.
Torn dollar bills were mended.
Hems were held up.
Clothing was patched.
In 1946, an airplane rudder was repaired with Scotch tape.
Goodyear even put layers of Scotch transparent tape on its blimp as an anti-corrosive shield.
The War Effort and Marketing Without Product
Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company had another problem. From 1941–1945, almost all its products were manufactured for the war effort. The innovative approach to problem-solving led to the creation of 100 new tapes, including one that could hold rivets in place while they were being attached, double-sided tape, and non-slip material for use on ships and factory floors.
Since tape products weren’t as readily available during the war, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company ran advertisements that evoked patriotism, showing how products were being used to help us win. One ad explained the shortage problem AND presented an alternative: Tape was being used to help our military, a sacrifice a housewife understood. Since she couldn’t tape labels onto her jars of homemade jams and jellies, she and her husband could go back to the old-fashioned way of determining the flavor — putting their thumbs in.
The 15% Rule
Richard Drew’s boss told him not to spend time on his tape project by his boss, but when his former boss became the chairman of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company — since 2002 known as 3M — McKnight admitted he was wrong. Richard Drew had made the company MILLIONS of dollars, and all he had needed to do was have time to play with his project.
William McKnight instituted the 15% Rule, allowing employees to spend 15% of their work hours on a passion project — because now he understood that creativity and innovation require time. Silicone Valley companies followed suit, including Google.
Business case studies often cite the 15% Rule, noting that the inventions of Richard Drew demonstrate the need for time to follow our creative urges.
Time is important. No doubt about it. But the case studies shouldn’t miss the more obvious requirement for innovation: A person has to care enough about his customers to put in the time and energy to solve their problems. It’s compassionate problem-solving at the crux of innovation, not the amount of time available to work on it.
3M Is the House that Drew Built
Richard Drew’s invention of “masking” tape and Scotch cellophane tape was just the beginning of Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company’s stronghold. 3M manufactures more than 400 varieties of tape, glue, and spray adhesives.
Now a multi-billion dollar company, valued at more than $30 billion in 2015, 3M is recognized as one of America’s most admired companies: The Harvard Business Review notes,
“3M was awarded the US government’s highest award for innovation, the National Medal of Technology. Over a 20-year period, 3M’s gross margin averaged 51% and the company’s return on assets averaged 29%. 3M has consistently been highly ranked, often in the top 20, in Fortune magazine’s annual survey of “America’s Most Admired Corporations.”
One New Problem
Contemporary culture may look askance at the term “Scotch” tape. It wouldn’t be an easy job to re-brand a product that is a part of American culture. Over 90% of American homes use some brand of “Scotch” tape.
Hopefully, there’s another compassionate problem-solver out there ready to come up with innovative ideas, just as Richard Drew did ninety years ago.
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