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The power of perseverance leads to better road safety with reflective signs

December 12, 2019

While at 3M, scientist Tim Hoopman helped invent a new diamond-shaped reflective material that makes road signage safer. But the process to get the patent was a long test of trial and error.

Stop sign at night with reflective material shining.

Tim Hoopman admits he wasn’t always a stellar student when he was younger. But as his love of math and science bloomed, his skill and tenacity followed suit. That led him to a successful career as an award-winning scientist.

In 1972, the now-retired 3M scientist began working on a traffic signage issue that would truly test his problem-solving skills — developing prismatic retroreflective sheeting. Tim’s job on the team: develop a feasible manufacturing process.

The prismatic structure was new — it had cube corners rather than the spherical beading retroreflective technology 3M used 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 the film was tilted 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.

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. In 1997, He was inducted into the Carlton Society, 3M’s hall of fame for its most accomplished scientists. 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.”

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