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  • How the power of perseverance helped lead to a road safety breakthrough

    By Sue Casement, 3M Storyteller and Eliot Popko, 3M Videographer

    “I have 37 patents. One in a thousand succeeds, so I must have had 36,000 failures to get the 37 good ones.” - Tim Hoopman, Retired 3M Engineer

    Microscopic image of cube corner technology

    • Tim Hoopman admits he wasn’t always a stellar student when he was younger.

      It was his love of math and science, combined with skill and tenacity, that led him to a successful career as an award-winning scientist.

    • Tim Hoopman, retired 3M scientist, shows off a macro version of a cube corner

      The now-retired 3M scientist studied at a community college in the 1960s before transferring to the University of Minnesota to study engineering. The program gave him a chance to work as a 3M intern every other quarter. He graduated, having already demonstrated his creativity to the team at 3M and was hired to work in the Engineering Research Lab.

      In 1972, he moved to new area working on traffic signage that would truly test his problem-solving skills – developing prismatic retroreflective sheeting. Tim’s job on the team was to develop a feasible manufacturing process.

      The prismatic structure was new – it had cube corners rather than the spherical beading retroreflective technology used by 3M for years. The prismatic version was brighter and reflected light more efficiently, says Tim. This version was also thicker and more rigid, which made it impossible to roll up in a sheet form. The solution? Miniaturize the cube-corner technology to the point that it could be produced on a continuous sheet.

      Tim tested several processes for melting and cooling the surface temperature of the polymer material. The feasibility of the manufacturing process was demonstrated through a five-day, continuous run of bright prismatic sheeting in Menomonie, Wisconsin.

      It seemed like a success – until you tilted the film at an angle and it became almost non-retroreflective. Tim went back to studying existing technology. In 1984, 3M was granted a patent on an optical design that met all the criteria for brightness, and it was still highly reflective even at a 45-degree angle.

    Still image from video exploring the creation of retroreflective technology for road signs

    Tim recalls the long path of overcoming failures and turning them into successes.

    • After this long, intense rollercoaster ride that finally resulted in a big win, Tim moved on in his career. He developed microstructured surfaces and microreplication processing, adapting these technologies to a variety of product areas. He was inducted into the Carlton Society – 3M’s hall of fame for its most accomplished scientists – in 1997. After starting as a mechanical engineer, working his way through an award-winning career, and retiring after 35 years with 3M – Tim credits his success as an inventor to perseverance and creativity.

      “Be a risk taker,” Tim advises. “Let your failures be your education, and let your successes be your legacy.”