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Uncovering 3M
Feature: 3/6/2006

It's entirely possible that you've never heard of 3M before in your life. But whether you know it or not, Enlarge Image click hereyou'll almost certainly have used its products.

The Scotch tape you use around the home? That comes from 3M. The Post-It notes on the side of your monitor there? That's 3M's work too. It even makes the glue that keeps the wings on the aeroplanes that carry you from country to country.

It's not just sticky stuff, either - 3M has a hand in making flexible pottery for broken limbs, reflective surfaces for traffic lights, cables for telecommunications networks and thousands of other products besides. It even made the soles of the boots that Neil Armstrong wore when he took that giant leap for mankind onto the moon.

Yes, this 104-year-old, multi-billion-dollar organisation has touched every part of this planet and beyond, but two of its most important brands are far more down-to-earth.

Something to reflect upon
The first of these is Scotchlite reflective material, a popular brand of reflective tapes and fabrics that exceed the EN471 standards for optimum visibility and safety.

In order to pass this test, reflective material must remain visible through a series of stringent performance tests including rainfall as heavy as 283mm per hour.
Enlarge Image click here
For comparison, even the heaviest showers are classified as being 'only' 50mm per hour or more - rainfall as heavy as 283mm per hour is estimated to happen for just two minutes every 1,000 years.

How do they achieve this? It's actually fairly simple and down to two forms of reflective technology - one relying on tiny spherical glass beads and the other on microscopic prisms.

With the former, millions of tiny, high-performance glass beads are embedded into the fabric. Their spherical shape means that any light entering the beads is reflected directly back to the light source.

The latter method, used by 3M in their Scotchlite reflective material High Gloss Series, uses equally tiny prisms which again reflect light back to the source.

For those that aren't sure which would be most useful to their purposes, 3M provides an advisory service to make sure that their customers get only what they need.

Practical applications
But 3M don't just concentrate on the theory - they've made sure their reflective materials have practical Enlarge Image click hereapplications too, by creating a variety of options for their customers to choose from.

There are the usual silver reflective stripes, of course, suitable for police, maintenance crews and other jobs where the wearer may be put at risk in the dark, but there are also some interesting niche fabrics, such as the pure white reflective material that can be used for sublimation dyeing.

3M graphic ready transfer films can be heat-laminated directly onto fabric. The film can be die-cut, kiss-cut, plotter-cut, hand-cut or guillotined, allowing for a limitless variety of shapes and opening up possibilities for promotional applications as well as workwear ones.

The result is a transfer material that has all of the practical possibilities of traditional transfers, but with EN471 Class 2-compatible reflection.

Not that the company neglects workers who aren't on land; their Solas grade series of reflective materials are suitable for life vests, jackets and rafts and conform to International Maritime Organisation Regulation ISO Res. A. 658(16) and the European Marine equipment Directive.

But water isn't the only element that 3M deal with; they also provide flame-resistant reflective materials for firefighters that are capable of withstanding up to 260 degrees centigrade.

Wrapping up warm
3M also cater for extremely cold conditions as well as extremely hot ones - their Enlarge Image click hereThinsulate insulation material in clothing has excellent thermal properties while remaining as light and flexible as possible.
Enlarge Image click here
In many ways, Thinsulate insulation acts pretty much the same as other insulating materials - when worn, the thousands of strands of fibre that make up the material trap warm air in the spaces between them and keep it close to the wearer's body.

At the same time, the strands reflect most of the rest of the body heat back at the wearer, reducing the amount of energy required to maintain a comfortable body temperature.

What makes Thinsulate insulation different, however, is that the fibres are made as narrow as possible - far narrower than most synthetic fibres.

Thus, 3M is able to pack more strands of insulating fibre into clothing making the clothing's insulating capabilities just as high whilst reducing the weight and size of the insulating material.

Enlarge Image click hereFocusing on innovation
But what about the future? Unsurprisingly, the $22 bn company that brought us innovations like the Post-It note and the world's first waterproof sandpaper aren't going to wait around for everyone else to overtake them.

In fact, the US division of 3M allows its researchers and developers to devote up to 15 percent of their time at work to their own side projects, in the hope that they will uncover exciting new avenues of products.

With that kind of dedication to design, the 3M organisation will no doubt continue to grow and grow.

So there you go - while you might not have been familiar with their name before, you now know just how ubiquitous 3M really are; and the next time you put on a pair of gloves, drive past a road worker wearing reflective fabrics, use a sticky note, cut some adhesive tape or fly in a plane, remember that 3M probably had a hand in it somewhere down the line.

Legal notice:
3M, Post-It, Scotch, Scotchlite, and Thinsulate, are the worldwide trademarks or registered trademarks of 3M.


Author: James Wilkinson
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