A Vanishing Market In Its Infancy

Posted: March 22, 1987

Now you see it.

Now you don't.

One moment you're holding a sheaf of important documents. Seconds later, they've vanished.

Magic?

Hardly. This is Dissolvo at work.

Dissolvo is a substance that looks and feels like paper, but disintegrates almost instantly in water. Though the material sounds like something out of Mission Impossible, it is a little-known product developed and sold by Gilbreth International Inc., a privately owned company based in Bensalem.

So far, Dissolvo has been used in very limited quantities by intelligence agencies and novelty companies for obvious applications. But the product also has been put to less obvious use by soft-drink bottlers, auto manufacturers and welders.

And, to the consternation of Gilbreth officials, it now is being used by organized crime.

On Thanksgiving, police raided a bookmaking operation in a Chicago suburb. Investigators found gambling records printed on water-soluble paper and betting slips made of the material. In essence, the mob had adopted a technological solution to an old problem - getting rid of the evidence.

The detectives also recovered a portion of a wrapper with a shipping number that eventually led them to Gilbreth.

Frank P. Rable, Gilbreth's product manager for Dissolvo, said the company often fills small orders from paper distributors and printing companies. "But we have no way of knowing what they do with it," he said.

Though Gilbreth has attracted a flurry of unfavorable publicity from the gambling raid, the primary applications of Dissolvo have been far less newsworthy. For most of the company's history, the material has been a solution in search of a problem, an answer looking for a question.

Dissolvo is an outgrowth of Gilbreth's principal business - specialized packaging. The company, organized by two Philadelphia brothers in 1961, introduced heat-shrinkable plastic seals and neckbands in 1965. Since then, the privately owned firm has become one of the country's leading suppliers of such packaging.

Dissolvo evolved from a search for a solution to a packaging problem.

In the late 1960s, several chemical companies developed a synthetic starch that withstood high temperatures better than conventional vegetable starches. The water-soluble material, sodium carboxymethylcellulose, was sold in liquid form as fabric sizing, or stiffener.

Gilbreth officials were looking for a more convenient way to dispense the sizing when they found that it could be formed into soft sheets that would dissolve in water. The idea never caught on as a consumer product, but Gilbreth had stumbled upon a water-soluble paper.

"All right, we've got Dissolvo," they reasoned, as Rable tells the story. ''Now, what do we do with it?"

Almost 20 years later, Gilbreth is still trying to answer that question.

At the outset, company officials realized that Dissolvo might be a godsend for intelligence agencies. A mere bucket of water would become the ultimate paper-shredder.

For the most part, the government wasn't interested.

"It was too expensive," said Albert Miller, technical director for Gilbreth. Dissolvo costs about 10 times as much as conventional paper.

Government agencies occasionally buy small lots, Rable said, but not enough to indicate regular use.

Miller estimates that the cloak-and-dagger market accounts for only about 1 percent of Dissolvo sales.

When the spy market fizzled, Gilbreth tried to market the product for water-soluble labels. "We thought it would be ideal for automakers or appliances," Rable said. Instead of using a knife or razor blade to remove a label, a customer could merely wash it off.

Manufacturers didn't think that the added convenience of soluble labels to consumers was worth the price.

Soluble labels were viewed more positively when the manufacturer had to do the removal, rather than the customer. At one point, RC Cola tried to save money by eliminating different bottles for each of its soft-drink brands. The company experimented for several years with a common returnable bottle, using Dissolvo labels for each brand. The label would disappear automatically when the returns were washed. The company later switched to conventional labels

applied with a water-soluble glue.

Rable said that Miller Brewing Co. still uses Dissolvo for labels applied to kegs of its beer.

Most Dissolvo is used for a purpose never envisioned by Gilbreth - welding. When two pieces of stainless-steel pipe are joined, welders must keep air away

from the molten metal. Otherwise, the joint might corrode.

Welders used to put plugs of wadded paper in each piece of pipe being joined, then flooded the inside of the pipe with an inert gas to displace the air. Ideally, the paper eventually would be burned by the welding torch, eliminating obstructions in the pipe. The process was far from foolproof, however.

Then the welding industry discovered Dissolvo. Now, Gilbreth makes an assortment of Dissolvo plugs that can be inserted in stainless-steel pipe and held in place with Dissolvo tape. When the welding is done, the pipe can be flushed with water to eliminate the plugs.

The company also has sold Dissolvo tape to the auto industry for masking body parts before they are painted. Instead of removing the tape by hand, it disappears when the vehicle is put through the carwash at the end of the assembly line.

Despite such ingenuity, Gilbreth has found only a few limited niches for the product. Miller and Rable decline to reveal annual sales of Dissolvo but say that the figure is small. They are convinced that large-scale applications are still waiting to be found, and they're looking for new uses that would tap the consumer market.

One promising possibility under development is a sealed Dissolvo pouch for certain products that people might not want to handle. Concentrated insecticides could be sold in such packages, Rable said. A farmer or a gardener would simply drop a Dissolvo pouch into a bucket of water to release a premeasured quantity of the chemical.

Later this month, Gilbreth also is exhibiting Dissolvo at a national meeting of toy manufacturers and retailers. For the occasion, the company has printed play money on samples of the substance.

"We don't really intend to sell it as a toy," Rable said. "We hope somebody sees it and says, 'Can I just buy the paper?' "

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