Inspired Innovation: A Tall Order

leg bandage

How do you go from observing a giraffe to treating a painful leg condition?

When you look at a giraffe, what do you see? A tall, graceful animal that roams the African plains? Your favourite attraction at the local zoo? What if you saw it through the lens of 3M’s culture of curiosity, which encourages risk taking and rejects the ordinary? You might see a new way to treat a painful and serious medical condition for humans, known as venous leg ulcers (a serious complication of uncontrolled high venous pressure due to damaged veins, valves or poor muscle function).

Fortunately for leg ulcer sufferers, challenges like this stimulate the curiosity of 3M scientists and inspire creative approaches to solving problems. In this case, a 3M product developer in Germany recalled reading that giraffes never suffer from venous ulcers. He wondered how that could be, given that the distance from their legs to their hearts is twice that of humans, requiring higher pressure to maintain circulation and putting more stress on veins.

It occurred to him that the giraffe’s tough, non-elastic skin functions like a compression bandage, maximising the effect of every muscle movement to optimise return of blood, preventing swelling and ulcers. With that realisation, the 3M team began a quest for materials that would reproduce the properties of giraffe skin. While 3M curiosity stimulated the opportunity, collaboration propelled the momentum towards the solution. The human and technological connections within 3M allow for infinite combinations and applications of expertise, enabling ideas to multiply and solutions to expand.

After investigating a number of materials with mixed success, one of the members of the 3M team suggested trying the material used in 3M™ Coban™ Self-Adherent Wraps - an elastic material used to wrap sprains and secure dressings. Based on one of 3M’s core technologies known as Non-wovens, these wraps were introduced in the 1960s, derived from a material that 3M initially developed to make gift-wrapping ribbon. Today, the technology is used in thousands of products, ranging from surgical masks to floor scrubbing pads to insulation for clothing.

The team went back to work, modifying the Coban™ brand material and engineering a 3M™ Coban™ 2 Layer Compression System that consists of a foam layer to address lingering comfort challenges along with a short-stretch compression layer. When the two layers are applied, they interlock, forming a thin, inelastic sleeve for the leg that is easier for clinicians to apply than conventional four-layer systems or zinc paste bandages, and provides an ideal balance of comfort and compression. At 3M, the instinct to find better ways of solving problems is second nature. This time it started with a giraffe - proving that in the world of innovation, no problem is too tall.