Masking Tape

When was the ball point pen invented? What about paper clips, or fax machines? Vic Hollefruend, our Retail Furniture Manager, is on the case, researching and compiling everything you would want to know about who, where, why, when, and how of office supplies. We are pleased to present Vic’s History of Office Stuff.

Paint Problems

Ok, so here’s a sticky one. Seems like there was this fellow named Dick Drew who worked for 3M; and his development of the first masking tape is an example of his extraordinary gift for solving customer problems. In the early 1920s, 3M manufactured and sold abrasives such as sand paper etc.

One afternoon, Drew wanted to test a new batch of sandpaper, so he visited an auto body shop in St. Paul, Minn. When he entered the shop, he heard a group of workers cursing vehemently. He asked them about the problem and was told that the two-tone painted cars which were popular then required workers to mask certain parts of the auto body using a combination of heavy adhesive tape and butcher paper. After the paint dried, workers removed the tape – and often peeled away part of the new paint; hence the reason for their outburst. Their paint job was a mess, and costs mounted for the customer.

Drew watched as the workers began to touch up the flawed paint. He could have seen this as an opportunity to sell more sandpaper, but realized that what the customer really needed was a tape with less aggressive adhesive. Drew also realized that 3M already had several of the elements of tape making at its disposal. Sandpaper required a backing, an adhesive and an abrasive mineral. If you take away the mineral, you have an adhesive tape.

Lab Work

Drew took his idea back to the lab and began a long and frustrating quest for the right combination of materials to create what would become the world’s first tape specifically designed for masking. Drew wrestled with the adhesive and, especially, the backing. After some time, then-President McKnight told Drew to drop the project and get back to work on improving sandpaper.

Drew agreed – for about 24 hours. Then he thought of a new way to handle the backings and went back to the lab. He threw himself into the task with renewed enthusiasm and without concern for McKnight’s direction. In the middle of an experiment, a door opened and McKnight entered the lab. He looked at Drew, noted the experiment and continued walking.

Inventive Thinking

making_tapeDrew finally hit on the right combination of materials, and he asked McKnight to approve funding for a paper making machine needed to manufacture the new tape. McKnight considered the proposal, but passed on it. Rather than give up, Drew simply applied his talent for innovation. In his capacity as a researcher, he had authority to approve purchases of up to $100; he began writing a flurry of $99 purchase orders and later confessed his strategy to McKnight while he was showing him the new machine.

There’s no record of McKnight’s reaction, except that Drew continued to work for 3M. The non-exchange between McKnight and Drew in the lab, followed by Drew’s openly insubordinate purchase of the papermaker, have echoed through 3M’s research operations ever since. Together, they set forth a clear ethic for managers: If you have the right person on the right project, and they are absolutely dedicated to finding a solution – leave them alone. Tolerate their initiative and trust them.

And that’s the reason we have masking tape.

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