Behind every innovation, from Scotch Tape to Post-It Notes to medical masks, there is a creative thinker, a team, and a company pushing for success. In the case of these products, 3M is that company, and Paul E. Hansen, a 1954 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was one of those creative thinkers.
Since it was founded in 1902, 3M has created a wide variety of products that solve everyday problems, as well as supported the teams of creative people who dreamed them up. Hansen began working at 3M at a time of high innovation for the company, inventing many original products in his time, and acquiring multiple patents.
In 3M’s early days, the focus was strictly on abrasives—and in particular, sandpaper. Some of the company’s most active customers were auto shop workers, who added these abrasives to the arsenal of products they used to paint cars. These paint jobs weren’t always easy—and auto workers themselves had to get creative in completing their jobs.
A man by the name of Dick Drew, a scrappy 3M lab-assistant-turned-engineer, took note of these challenges and decided to find a solution. After Drew’s first huge success, a patent on masking tape, the company started to expand and to see the immense value in inventiveness.
Drew was a risk-taker. A college dropout from the University of Minnesota, he was not a conventional engineer. To facilitate his inventions, he had to work creatively. 3M took note of his methods, as well as his successes, and decided to give him the room he needed to run with his ideas. 3M’s Product Fabrication Lab was born.
Housed in an old dairy building away from 3M’s regular campus, the Pro-Fab Lab was the playground of many engineers. Drew filled it with innovative people, regardless of their education levels, and gave them total freedom to create under his mentoring. This is the environment into which Paul Hansen was hired. A young engineer, fresh out of UW-Madison, Hansen was in his element.
“I graduated with average grades from chemical engineering at Madison in June of 1954, and then the next week after graduation, I got married and we moved to St. Paul,” says Hansen.
3M, centered in St. Paul, Minnesota, was hiring heavily at a time of high innovation, and Hansen made himself the type of asset that Drew was looking for. And Drew was exactly the type of mentor that a young engineer like Hansen needed.
“He was very creative and helped people always, with supporting them and not ridiculing them or being negative at all,” says Hansen.
Encouraged to work with their own ideas, Hansen and his team began the creative inventing work that would come to be the trademark of the Pro-Fab Lab.
Upon his hiring, Hansen began working with nonwoven fabrics. The company’s newly acquired Rando Webber, a machine that formed a special kind of nonwoven fabric, fell under his control, and his first task was figuring out all the potential the brand-new machine held.
“I was full of energy and kind of acted as a missionary to the other labs and to 3M, showing them what we could do with this new machine,” says Hansen.
By this time in 3M’s history, the company had a very good grip on adhesives, and the state-of-the-art pressure-sensitive tape pioneered by Drew was already turning a good profit for the company. But this tape had adhesive backings that were far from ideal for medical applications. Micropore tape, one of the first big successes for Hansen’s team, replaced older medical tapes that irritated the skin and were painful to remove.
Several other medical tape products followed the success of Micropore, and by this time, 3M had developed a small medical products division, of which Hansen became a lab manager. And the innovation continued with increasingly efficient medical tapes and later, surgical masks. At the time, surgical masks were nothing but cheesecloth tied over the nose and mouth. But the medical division saw opportunity, and began working on a molded polyester that had many potential applications.
“Actually, the first patent we got on that was for bra cups, of all things,” says Hansen.
The teams at 3M were nothing if not creative and flexible in the applications of their materials. Ultimately, the molded material manifested in the first true medical masks. These masks were an extreme success for 3M, and had wide acceptance in the medical community.
In fact, the Saturday Evening Post featured a cover photograph of Dr. Christiaan Barnard—who conducted the world’s first human heart transplant—wearing one of the 3M face masks.
Some of the products created under Hansen drew on 3M’s early emphasis on abrasives, but with a new spin, thanks to the Rando Webber. For example, a unique scrubbing pad called Scotch-Brite pads; a kitchen cleaning staple to this day, they were perfect at the time for scrubbing linoleum floors that would have been damaged by the less-than-ideal steel wool they replaced.
Hansen applied his ingenuity to many other products, including Petrifilms, a film coated with adhesive and nutrients and used to easily culture various microorganisms; and Coban, a stretchy band used for medical applications. Today, it’s popular as the material placed around the arm after giving blood. Tegaderm, another member of the medical products line, was and remains popular in the medical field. A transparent film through which wounds can be observed while they heal, it was yet another big success.
As much as successes are the mark of good engineering, so are at least some failures. Hansen is not afraid to admit that there were products that did not take off over the course of his career. For example, the nonwoven fabrics team attempted to incorporate grass seeds into its matting to create grass mats, but the seeds didn’t stay viable for very long. There also were a failed wrap for bacon and poorly conceived sanitary napkins—but even as they were unsuccessful trials, they were creative ideas, and all were learning experiences. Some even led to other successes, such as of the invention of Nomad—a product that began as an effort to develop a new fabric to use in undergarments.
“Well, it didn’t work out,” says Hansen. “But in the meantime, we learned how to extrude all kinds of fibers, and we got something that we called coiled web. It just drooled down like spaghetti, and if you put a moving belt underneath, we got what was called coiled web, and it was trademarked Nomad.”
This product is still sold by 3M today, comes in many colors and thicknesses, and is most frequently seen in heavy-duty entryway mats. “It was an innovation,” says Hansen. “It turned out to be a good product and still is, and we’ve added another web to it and all sorts of things to improve its durability and cleanability.”
In 1979, Hansen was inducted into the 3M Carlton Society. This honor, named after 3M’s fifth president Richard P. Carlton, is the company’s highest recognition, given to scientists who have made extraordinary contributions.
With the freedom to be a problem-solver, as well as having the influence of a phenomenal mentor and a supportive company, Hansen was able to engineer products that are essential to our daily lives. As Drew puts it, Hansen “took the blinders off” to produce profitable products and, most importantly, improve global lives and health by endlessly thinking outside the box.
Author: Rachael Andrew