Material Matters: 3m Scotchlite
Date: September 14 2016
By: Adam Jane
You’ll hear 3M thrown around the sneakersphere in reference to any little accents on your shoes with reflective properties, it’s become a bit of a catchall in the vernacular. In actual fact, 3M is the name of a company. Going all the way back to 1902 it was originally named Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. and was set up to mine a mineral called corundum, which was to be used in the manufacture of grinding wheels. Ultimately, the original mission was unsuccessful, so after a few changes to the corporate structure they ended up making sandpaper. As momentum started to build, the managers of the company encouraged the employees to innovate and develop new products – some of their early developments include masking tape, scotch tape and eventually the Post-it note. To this day employees are encourage to spend around fifteen percent of their time working on the personal projects that interest them.
In the early 1940s the work of the company was diverted into producing materials for the war effort, as was the case with most manufacturers during the period. Following their stint on the home front, 3M developed their first reflective tech, named Schotchlite. It came in the form of a retroreflective sheeting and was originally used for highway markings.
The surface of Schotchlite is covered in tiny glass beads, these can collect light from any angle and reflect it in back in that exact same direction. To amp up the brightness the rear half of each bead is covered with a metallic substance, for a little extra shine. The terms ‘cat’s eye’ is used to describe the structure of the spheres, their lens and reflective surface mimicking the lens and tapetum lucidum, which work in tandem to increase the amount of light that reaches the animal’s retina.
In a modern day context, 3M Scotchlite refers to a whole range of reflective products. Although the glass bead model is still the most common, there are also varieties that use man-made prismatic structures – you can see these looking up close at a bicycle’s reflector – which work in a similar way but can be adjusted to reflect in different directions.
The notion of high visibility clothing didn’t come around until the mid 60s, when in 1964 the Scottish Region of British Railways issued orange jackets to help engineers spot track workers, nicknamed ‘fire-flies’. The increased speeds of electric trains made it hard for engineers to react once they’d spotted workers on the line. Upon trial, the clothing proved to be successful and workers could be spotted up to half a mile away. With the effectiveness of high visibility clothing proven, it was only a matter of time before it moved beyond bright colours to explore nocturnal possibilities.
The sneaker industry had been using various methods to increase the visibility of noctivagant runners since the early 70s. The most common place for 3M on early runners was on the heel counter, seen on Saucony Jazz models from 1979 and New Balance models from the early 80s, such as the 990 and 576. There was also plenty of silver leather, leading to some wild looking shoes – take the adidas Rising Star for example – although it didn’t have quiet the same effect. As the 80s moved on it became common to see retroreflective materials on running shoes. As the Jumpan came to prominence, 3M had its first big appearance on the ball-court in 1990 with the Air Jordan 5. After the Jay became an icon with its bold reflective tongue, 3M started to take centre stage as shoes started to have recognisable night time features – any decent Air Max fiend will recognise the wavy line of an Air Max 97 by the light of a street lamp.
These days there are retroreflective elements on most running shoes while the lifestyle designers have utilised it to make eye-watering statements on some crazy designs. With the ability to print over the reflective surfaces you can’t always notice it a first glance, as with Futura’s Skyfall collection with Converse, but you’ll know it when you shine a light on things. Now that there’s always a camera around the reflective properties can take on a whole new life – shoes from adidas’ recent Xeno range have a single colour upper that photographs in a rainbow of reflected light.
It isn’t always 3M that you see shining back at you, but whatever you want to call it, retroreflective material has kept us safe while becoming a desired look in its own right – we’re always happy to shine the spotlight on such a useful thing.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at 2016 Olympic tech, vulcanised rubber soles and neoprene.