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Touring 3M's videotape factory

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Touring 3M's videotape factory

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

All videotapes are not created equal.

Some are much better than others, as regular readers of this column probably know already. I have been saying for years that cheap videotapes—the ones with strange brand names—can only bring you grief when they jam your recorder or gum up its heads.

But I also believe you don't have to spend a lot of money to get really good tape.

A case in point is the lineup of Scotch videotape. In my own testing, as well as tests made by Consumers Union, the least expensive Scotch tape performed as well as Scotch tapes that cost $3 or $4 more.

I had begun to wonder, in a half-serious way, whether 3M, the company that makes Scotch video cassettes, was pulling the old switcheroo on me. Was 3M using the same formulation on all its tapes, regardless of price?

The answer, of course, is no. But don't take my word for it. I went straight to the source—a 3M tape plant in Hutchings, Minn., a short drive from the company's headquarters in Minneapolis.

Before I tell you about the plant, I have to put everything up front: 3M paid for my trip out to the Midwest. That doesn't mean they are in the business of buying positive reviews; it just means they have more money than I do. (A lot more, let me tell ya.)

The factory at Hutchings makes all the videotape that 3M sells in North America. It runs around the clock, with many workers putting in 12-hour shifts in a four-day week.

Robots that drive around the factory floor deliver the parts that make up video cassettes. They pull up to various machines—also robots, but ones that don't move around—and hand the parts over. They do this just in time for the machines to use the parts.

This manufacturing regimen, in which parts arrive just before they are needed, is common in Japan and is catching on throughout North America. It keeps problems (bad parts or missing items) from being hidden in a long supply line. If something's wrong, it shows up right away—and the parts suppliers hear about it almost instantly.

Nothing went wrong the day I was there. The plant was a marvel of synchronicity; chemicals came in one end and tape came out the other, constantly. It was also a marvel of cleanliness, with everyone (including me) wearing little plastic booties and clean-room suits and hats.

Recording tape looks easy to make. All you do is take a roll of clear plastic sheeting, paint it with a mixture of glue and magnetic particles, and then bake it in an oven until the paint dries. Then you cut the wide plastic roll into thin strips and wind them onto reels.

Except for minor details, this is exactly the way 3M makes videotape. I watched all stages of the operation, and I was especially impressed with the way 3M uses laser beams to check each inch of tape for flaws. Bad tape is tossed out; it is never sold to other suppliers, as some tape manufacturers reportedly do.

To make different grades of tape, 3M uses a different "paint" mixture, with finer or higher-strength magnetic particles in the more expensive tapes. Some of the premium tapes also have a more durable coating, so they'll last longer when you do a lot of repeat taping.

I remain unconvinced that the premium grades—from 3M or from any other reputable manufacturer—are worth the extra cost. 3M and the others are continually improving their standard tape, so there isn't much need to buy the high-priced versions.

But you may find otherwise. Let me know if you can document a clear improvement from using a premium tape.

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