The Process, the Product, and
Its Ultimate Life Span
What parameters actually control our process? How does process variation impact
on product performance from cradle to grave? How do product properties affect the
world around us?
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public
relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
Richard P. Feynman
People mistakenly assume that their thinking is done by their head; it is
actually done by the heart which rst dictates the conclusion, then com-
mands the head to provide the reasoning that will defend it.
Anthony de Mello
In the 1970s, a large American paper towel producer was dissatised with
its market position. Consumers thought that the brand offered little value
over generic alternatives and they were becoming less inclined to pay a
Like the competition, its tissue was made using the “wet-laid” Fourdrinier
process. At the heart of this massive system, a wet pulp mixture is sprayed
onto a fast-moving mesh belt. Much of the water is sucked away through
the porous belt during a vacuum step. The resulting damp pulp then passes
through an oven, where the delicate ber matrix bonds and is dried into its
nished form. The equipment is expensive to build and run but it generates
tons of tissue per hour.
Since the entire paper towel industry used similar equipment, it was dif-
cult for one company to have a signicant economic or performance advan-
tage over the others. In looking for a better business model, the company
purchased the rights to a Swedish “dry-laid” paper process. This system laid
down dry pulp onto the moving belt and used an adhesive technology to
bind the bers together. Energy consumption was reduced by eliminating
the drying step.
The Swedish product was intriguing because it produced a brous matrix
with excellent characteristics—strong sheets and plump rolls that could hog
a lot of retail shelf space. In theory, the offering had superior performance
over traditional tissue, while it was cheaper and more convenient than a
2 Process Techniques for Engineering High-Performance Materials
cloth rag. In focus groups, American consumers valued the look and feel of
the European samples over generic alternatives.
Top management was thrilled with the upside possibilities, while neglect-
ing to address the negative factors. Engineers hastily congured a mill in
Wisconsin to produce the new offering, using the abundant softwood pulp
supply in that area. An aggressive advertising campaign was employed to
introduce a revolutionary new product to a skeptical public. Television com-
mercials showed the towels surviving a cycle in a washing machine, while
generic sheets disintegrated into pulp.
After the product launch, consumer reception was lukewarm, despite
aggressive advertising, promotion, and generous discount coupons. People
were intrigued by the hype, but were disappointed with the actual perfor-
mance. They found the towels unsuited for the routine tasks of cleaning win-
dows and picking up spills. The dry-laid tissue simply did not absorb water
as well as the conventional alternatives.
An internal assessment was conducted to identify why the U.S. product
was inferior to the original European samples. It was determined that the
process was designed and optimized for Scandinavian wood bers. The
pulp blends from the Upper Midwest were ideal for the Fourdrinier pro-
cess, but did not perform well on the dry-laid system. An ambitious man-
agement group ignored fundamental ber science and their organization’s
knowledge of consumer preferences in a rush to introduce a differentiated
product. They overlooked facts that were not convenient to the business
A crash program was implemented to correct the problems. Formulation
and process changes addressed the water absorbency issues, but the damage
to the brand’s image could not be repaired. Corporate management became
disillusioned with the situation and wrote off their investment in the new
technology, eventually divesting the entire paper division.