Robert von Behren was a self-described oddball at 3M – an electrical engineer in a company of chemists. That quirk came in handy throughout his career, especially when the company started making magnetic tape data cartridges for computer applications.
That was the early 1970s, and the cassettes were in their early stages. After meeting with a manufacturing team, Robert sketched out a new tape path within the cartridge that would improve production and quality. Their first reaction? Some were concerned it meant making modifications that would delay production.
Robert moved forward anyway, creating a prototype. Once the team saw it, they were convinced. The tape cartridge ran quickly and uniformly, stopping and starting with a lot more accuracy. After a few modifications in the design for easier manufacturing, they had a winner. Within a year, they were able to manufacture the improved version and bring it to market.
Robert started his career at 3M in 1948, and his training in electrical engineering and non-stop attitude were real assets. 3M hired him to work in a lab specializing in magnetic tape. It was the start of a long and successful career. He then made a move to technical service and traveled around the world to 3M field locations.
Robert had a memorable “aha” moment while in his next role in quality control, which led to solving a problem on a tape production line. There were three-feet-long stretches of defects in the tape that vibrated and had a sound pattern that couldn’t be erased. Those sections of tape had to be searched for and cut out – a labor-intensive process that wasn’t foolproof.
One day, Robert was in the room where the tape dried after being coated. Workers were moving large pallets containing 55-gallon drums. When they moved them through the swinging door, they made a distinctive “bang – tap, tap, tap” sound. The pallet banged on the door and then the door continued to swing, creating a replica of the sound he heard on the defective tape. After a few tests to determine if the cause was sound waves or seismic – from the shaking of the floor – he determined the problem was sound waves. He was able to solve a huge quality issue with a few simple steps.
Robert’s successes in magnetic tape technology led to significant improvements in magnetic performance and longer lasting tapes. The data cartridge he helped invent was a breakthrough for computer applications. For his work, he was inducted into 3M’s prestigious Carlton Society – which recognizes the very best in scientific achievement.
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