The vast experiences and knowledge of our alumni are a valuable asset for the college. Under the direction of UNL College of Engineering Dean Dr. Timothy Wei, staff are embarking on a project to video-interview graduates to capture these stories and share with students, faculty and other alumni.
In September 2012, Dr. Wei began this initiative with one of our esteemed Chemical Engineering alumni, Dr. Lester Krogh, ’45, M.S. '48, of St. Paul, Minn., by taping three hours of his recollections from college through his 40-year career at 3M.
From his humble beginning in the small town of Ruskin, Neb., Krogh came to the University of Nebraska at age 16 to become a chemist: “I found out chemical engineering had more chemistry so that’s what I became.” He received his master’s degree from Nebraska and then earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. His career began and ended at 3M, where he retired as senior vice president of Research and Development.
Below are samples of Krogh’s words of wisdom and memories as one of 3M’s leaders.
In the Beginning
At 3M, I was immediately assigned to a completely new field of photochemistry. We had recently introduced a pre-sensitized printing plate -- a graphic plate. They were looking for new compounds to put on that plate. I never succeeded better than the ones already being used, but on the other hand I also had some positive plates put on the market which were successful.
About that time I had an offer from the director of the chemistry section of Central Research to go to the Coated Abrasives division. The director was recruited to be the technical director and he asked me to set up a research group there. I spent 10 years with coated abrasives -- sand paper; I think these were the most interesting years I spent during my entire 3M career.
One of the things I started with was trying to find ways of adhering coated abrasives to polyester backing -- Mylar -- and found some ways in which to do it and patented them. About that time we were into magnetic tape -- which was a big thing at 3M in those days -- television was just coming in and the original television recorders were very tough on tape. It was almost like you had an old-fashioned battery machine just banging away at this stuff. It couldn’t keep the coating on the tape at all. With what I discovered, they were able to do that and were very successful with videotape. About the time I retired, some 30 years later, they finally phased it out. It was quite a long lasting thing and also said something about 3M.
At 3M it was decided that, in coordination with R&D, all technical people get 15 percent of their time to work on anything they wished. Not very often used, but it certainly was an incentive and when I was the R&D vice president, I wanted to increase participation. People kept saying they didn't use their 15 percent. Well, we found out our technical director was sometimes the reason they did not use it, for the simple reason the director wanted results. So that kind of said don't take time off to work on something. We set up a fund that I could sponsor as VP of R&D, and we got a couple of senior corporate scientists to help out. A small committee would look at proposals from anyone in the laboratory for anything they wanted to work on, and we would give them money if we thought it was a pretty good idea. The first round, we had about 10 of these and before a year was out, three of them went on the market. It just keeps right on going and tells you that management has to sponsor research.
In Management, Don't Second Guess
This can kill more things than you can imagine. Something management and 3M always says is ‘don’t worry about failing.’ If you aren’t failing, you aren't doing your job. I talked to people in various meetings and mentioned this to one fellow who said, ‘That’s why it’s so difficult to try new products. As soon as it fails, you’re gone. You don't have a job.’ We've never fired anyone for failing. If they didn't work hard or didn't try, sure. But failing on a project, no.
Easy communication, from the top
At 3M, we learned very early that communication at the top was our key to success. Abrasives was in the oldest building 3M owned--a very productive place. And back in the ’50s, we had the best coffee around ... Steve and Don on the first floor would come every morning for coffee and just talk -- lab and management were great like that. Every once in a while, our major competitor would bring out something better than us. One thing I appreciated about our team was that they were good in a number of fields. We'd analyze what [competitors] did with a variety of products and within two weeks we’d have something better.
“Always be inquisitive ... You’ve got to be a
little bit daring. Creating something new is
what you are trying to do, all the time.”
Advice for Students
One of the things that you have to be careful of as an engineer is that you don't hide anything. Tell the truth, all the way. If the experiment went lousy, tell them. If you can't figure it out, get help. One of the important things at 3M is you can talk to anybody; there is no restriction.
Always be inquisitive. Be very curious as to what happened. You’ve got to be a little bit daring. Creating something new is what you are trying to do, all the time. You’ve got to know the science, too. We‘ve had to turn projects off because people didn't realize a scientific barrier showed it’s not possible to do this. And unless you understand that, sometimes you waste your time. Talking to other people can quickly help you understand what else to do.
The Nebraska Connection
When I came close to retiring, a number of Nebraska graduates in chemical engineering were at 3M, some who graduated shortly after WWII. Just before I retired, four of us from Nebraska were still in the top ranks of 3M – Lew Lehr ’44 was the chairman of the board, Gerry Mueller ’50 led engineering, Lauren Morin ’50 was manufacturing, and I had research. We all retired at about the same time and I was the last of the “Nebraska Mafia” to retire.
by J.S. Engebretson