Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's Just Tape

I gave blood yesterday. After inserting the needle, the technician secured the tube to my arm with a couple of pieces of medical tape. I know about medical tape. People look at a piece of tape and have no idea how much technology is in this seemingly simple product.

The tape she used on my arm is a product called Transpore. It's made by 3M, probably the greatest tape company in history. The number of distinct tapes that 3M manufacturers number in the hundreds. Scotch tape, electrical tape, box-sealing tape, automotive tape, tape for sticking to just about anything you can name. And medical tape. Medical tapes, actually. Again, there are dozens of them, each with its own characteristics and uses. But my point is not to celebrate a company but to look at a technology.

Tape looks simple. Get some sort of backing and slap on an adhesive and you have tape, right? I used to think that, too. But making a high quality tape pushes the state-of-the-art in the chemistry of adhesives, in new materials, in manufacturing process control, and in product test and acceptance. Some of the best chemists I know have spent their entire careers working to provide the adhesives that are so easily overlooked in a piece of tape.

Medical tape use to come in one form: Regular Adhesive Tape (commonly called RAT tape by doctors and nurses). This tape was about all there was before the 1960's. It had a cloth backing and a rubber-based adhesive. It would tear your skin off (literally) when it was removed and it left a gummy, dirty residue behind that was about impossible to get off. The adhesive was also a skin irritant for a lot of people. It didn't let skin moisture out and if left on the skin long enough, the skin actually would start to die underneath it.

In the late 50's and early 60's, 3M thought they could take what they had learned in their industrial and consumer tapes and make something better than RAT tape. It took years to work out the details of a new, non-irritating adhesive. New polymer backings had to be invented. New ways of testing tape on real skin were developed (industrial tape is tested by peeling it off steel plates, not a very good model of skin). New manufacturing processes had to be brought on line to handle the new chemistries and materials. The results were a big step forward over RAT tape and immediately appreciated by doctors, nurses, and patients.

These tapes have been improved almost continuously since they were first introduced over forty years ago. The number of people involved in the development and manufacturing would astound you. And most of us take it for granted. Like many things in our world that work well and are just...well, there. Maybe this is the best testament to a technology. It is so good, we take it for granted.

The technician peeled the pieces of tape off my arm (no pain involved) and I walked out of the Bloodmobile. I must say, I smiled a bit. It was good to give blood. It was good to see again this "simple" piece of tape.

[Photo of Transpore from 3M Website]

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