For more than 100 years, 3M scientists have built a solid research foundation on making things rough. 3M pioneers sold the first sandpaper in 1906, and scientists have been on a relentless quest to create the perfect abrasive grit ever since. Engineers most recently found a way to maximize cutting potential using microreplicated, precision-shaped triangular structures to form a new abrasive.
On the flip side, a researcher is perfecting the science of smooth. 3M Scientist Matt Atkinson is utilizing the latest technology to smooth out rough spots.
He earned his Ph.D. in physics and joined 3M after a stint as a professor. “I came to work on optics,” Matt says, “and started branching into anything with optical properties, including surfaces. A lot of what I do now, I taught myself.”
He was recently tasked with perfecting a surface-shielding material that is soft and smooth, but tough, with the potential to be used on a variety of products. The new-to-the-world product uses millions of glass micro-spheres to create surfaces that are smudge and scratch resistant – making it ideal for interactive surfaces like computer track pads.
“I looked at 20 parameters for what could affect roughness, and ran them through user tests,” Matt says. “We found three that make a difference – that made it easier.”
Matt says the most important factor was the variation in the position of the top beads – the ones that were a little higher than the rest. If you have really sensitive fingers, those “rogues” can feel like a grain of sand. Irritating.
“Once we knew what we were looking for, I worked really closely with the processing team,” says Matt. “So, if a different adhesive is used, the manufacturing speed is faster. How does it change? We need to quantify if it’s still good enough.”
The height of the beads is measured using a very sharp stylus that runs over the surface – similar to a record player. The data is fed into software to make a map. The map displays the variation in surface levels.
“We used hundreds of samples when developing the product, says Matt. “There’s a lot of math involved. You could do it manually, but you’d only want to do it once.”