What was born as a small-scale mining venture in 1902 has grown into a global powerhouse whose products aim to improve the daily lives of people around the world. When the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. – as the company that would grow into 3M was known at the time – began more than a century ago, the five founders had a simple goal: to harvest a mineral known as corundum from a mine in Minnesota called Crystal Bay, located on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
Ultimately, the mine didn’t produce any corundum, but something more important was born that year, according to the company – the spirit of innovation and collaboration that forms the foundation of today’s 3M. The fledgling company turned to other materials and other products, building up sales little by little. Technical and marketing innovations began to produce success upon success. Today’s 3M is responsible for 60,000 products used in homes, businesses, schools, hospitals and more.
Now, one third of 3M’s sales come from products that were invented within the past five years. The company employs thousands of researchers and scientists around the world. With operations in 70 countries and sales in 200, the global 3M team is still committed to creating the technology and products that advance every company, enhance every home and improve every life.
A Foundation in Automotive Manufacturing, according to 3M
William L. McKnight joined Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. in 1907 as an assistant bookkeeper. He quickly rose through the company, becoming president in 1929 and chairman of the board in 1949. He is known for shaping the company’s culture of innovation and collaboration. In 1910, major investor Lucius Ordway established 3M’s headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, where it remains today.
As Henry Ford launched his fledgling Model T production line at the Ford Piquette plant, 3M, led by the inquisitive bookkeeper McKnight, identified opportunities for growth in the newly minted automotive industry.
Initially in auto production, steel wool was used as an abrasive. 3M thought corundum would be an ideal abrasive, but proved ineffective. 3M kept searching for solutions, and McKnight was named general manager to refine the manufacturing process and shift the focus to products based on research and direct input from the hands-on product users.
One challenge in the automotive industry was the dust produced by dry sanding. McKnight found a solution – arriving in the mail.
When he received a letter in 1920 from an ink manufacturer requesting bulk mineral samples (not one of 3M’s businesses), McKnight wanted to know what the correspondent would do with the minerals. A Philadelphia inventor named Francis Okie had sent the note, and he wanted to develop his invention of waterproof sandpaper. McKnight realized that Okie’s idea would rapidly be accepted because it produced less friction than dry sandpaper and didn’t generate hazardous dust when used wet. He bought the rights to the idea and hired Okie, and by 1921, 3M had released Wetordry sandpaper, its first breakthrough product and the world’s first waterproof sandpaper. A variety of Wetordry abrasives are still used today around the world in automotive manufacturing, repair and restoration.
A second major milestone occurred in 1925 when Richard Drew, a young lab assistant, invented masking tape — a step toward diversification and the first of many Scotch Pressure-Sensitive Tapes.
According to history, one morning in 1923, Drew was running Wetordry tests at a St. Paul auto-body shop. The painter had been having trouble masking one section of a two-tone car (popular in those days) while painting the other. Most tapes at the time were unfit for the task because they left a residue or reacted with the paint. Drew assured the painter that his company could solve the problem, an interesting boast considering 3M made abrasives exclusively at the time.
Drew toiled on the problem for two years. At one point McKnight, by now vice president, wrote him a memo saying, “I think it would be better if you returned to your job of helping Mr. Okie with his waterproof sandpaper.” Drew did, but persisted in developing the masking tape, finally finding the right backing paper – his previous sticking point – while on an errand for Okie.
The tape, called Scotch masking tape, was immediately successful, with first-year sales of $164,279, rising a decade later to $1.15 million.
3M tapes are still the automotive industry leader across the globe, with hundreds of applications for every automotive task.