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Walter Lachman moved his fledgling fiber composites company from Massachusetts to Biddeford in 1969 to take advantage of the area’s workforce. Textile mills, once the Biddeford-Saco area’s biggest employer, were closing and he wanted to recruit the skilled laborers left in the industry’s wake.
Built by workers plucked from a dying manufacturing sector, Fiber Materials Inc. is now part of the state’s largest and fastest growing one — aerospace and transportation.
“What we do is very impactful in support of NASA space science, and more importantly some of the defense programs that are critical in defending the nation,” says Dan Godbout, director of global sales and marketing for FMI.
Aerospace and transportation produce more than any other manufacturing sector in Maine, with nearly $1 billion worth of goods. The industry has grown as manufacturing as a whole has rebounded in Maine, with output increasing from $5.4 billion in 2008 to $6.35 billion in 2018.
Maine’s manufacturing workforce totaled 53,700 in December 2019, up 13% from 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics.
The numbers are expecting to keep climbing as demand increases, particularly in “new space” technologies at places like FMI and Brunswick landing.
The Manufacturing Association of Maine lists more than 40 aerospace-related companies in Maine.
In North Berwick, Pratt & Whitney is the state’s largest with a 1 million-square-foot plant and 2,100 employees. The company, which makes jet engines, plans to hire 200 more this year after getting a $2.2 billion contact from the Navy to build jet engines for the F-35 Lighting II Joint Strikefighter.
FMI is much smaller, but has grown from 140 employees to 240 in the last five years. The company plans to double its capacity in the coming years as demand for its products grows, particularly in defense and space science products, and will need more, says Godbout.
At Brunswick Landing, run by the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, several aviation and aviation-related companies, like composites manufacturing, have found a home. Manufacturing makes up 30% of the 140 businesses that have located on the campus since it opened in 2011 at the former Brunswick Naval Air Base. Overall job creation is close to 2,000.
Aviation firms account for 232,744 square feet of occupied space there, and complementary ones, such as composites manufacturers, add to that.
While FMI and Brunswick Landing both have an aviation focus, they are also looking at future growth to come from the next generation of aerospace technology.
Brunswick Landing tenant bluShift Aerospace, which has designed a new launch system for mini-satellites, got a NASA development grant in June to further that work.
The Maine Space Grant Consortium is also considering the Brunswick campus as mission control for a program that would launch cubesats, or small satellites, from Commerce Park at the former Loring Air Force Base in Presque Isle. The consortium is conducting a study, funded by the Maine Technology Institute and NASA, on the market feasibility of the program.
Brunswick Landing is well-positioned for the new technology from both programs, as well as the manufacturers that support the industry, says Kristina Logan, deputy director for innovate at the MRRA.
The master plan at Brunswick Landing calls for development with a focus on aviation, aerospace and new technologies. There’s plenty of space for new business incubation and manufacturing, a research and development center, and assets such as runways and hangars.
Logan says, too, that the consortium’s market research shows Maine is a good fit for the launching of nanosatellites. “MRRA and the Landing fit in well to this as we are always looking to help develop and support the industries of the future.”
FMI, with roots deep in the historic manufacturing industry of the Biddeford area, is also well-positioned for the future.
The company produces reinforced composites that enable high-temperature applications, such as thermal protection systems, re-entry vehicle nose tips, rocket “throats” and nozzles.
Its products, light years from what was being produced in the city’s mills 100 years ago, can be found in the Mars Rover’s heat shields, as well as those in an upcoming Mars mission. They’re also going to Saturn’s moon, Titan, on NASA’s Dragonfly mission, which will take samples and return in an eight-year round-trip. They’re also on hypersonic missiles being developed by the U.S. Department of Defense.
FMI does everything from research and development through the final product in-house, at six buildings on Morin Street in Biddeford, and another on Hill Street.
FMI was acquired early this year by Spirit AeroSystems, which produces jet bodies for Boeing and Airbus. Spirit, which makes bodies for Boeing and Airbus planes, did $7.8 billion business last year and employs 18,000 around the world.
“We’re really excited about it, because Spirit is one of the largest aerospace companies in the world,” Godbout says.
The acquisition comes as the company is also under contract to double its capacity of carbon products to support the hypersonic missile market and is also providing materials for several NASA missions.
Much of what FMI makes starts as a woven carbon-fiber preform. The end product feels like metal, but is lighter and supports high temperature needs for various applications.
There aren’t a lot of companies that make the high-temperature products FMI does, Godbout says. Many similar businesses over the past couple of decades invested in the larger commercial composites market rather than the much smaller high-temperature one. Now the high-temperature market is growing significantly, and FMI is, too.
The company has won several innovation awards over the years, most recently in 2017 from the Small Business Association of New England and in 2018 was named Innovator of the Year by the Maine International Trade Center.
The awards are for its 3D polymer matrix composite, which isn’t high-temperature, but is used when high strength and low weight is needed, particularly for Formula 1 race cars. It also has many other potential applications.
“What it enables us to do is reach out to other markets as we want to diversify and grow,” Godbout says. “As we expand our capacity, we’d be able to go after those markets,” as the need for more fuel efficiency and lighter cars grows, and even to the commercial automotive industry.
The product is one of the few commercial ones FMI still makes. It’s moved on from others to make room for its core markets, a focus that will grow.
“We’re continuing to invest in research and development for more advanced materials, and expand our abilities to expand our available markets,” he says. “We’re very focused on that part of it.”
Some of FMI’s buildings in have been reconfigured as the product focus has changed, and, eventually, the company will have to increase its footprint at its Biddeford sites. “There’s nothing definitive there, but we just see the line of growth would not be able to be sustained in our square footage.”
In 1962, the world’s first satellite images were transmitted from the Telstar satellite through an antenna in Andover. The western Maine town was picked for the project because of Maine’s global positioning. While technology has changed, the state’s geography hasn’t.
“Geographically, we are positioned well to launch into polar orbit, and that is a key for the launching of nanosatellites,” Logan, at Brunswick Landing, says.
Collaboration of the public and private sectors, manufacturing businesses, universities, colleges and state agencies will be necessary, she says, for Maine to fully take advantage of what’s coming in the aerospace manufacturing industry.
But the time is right, she says. “This is a great opportunity for Maine to get involved in the global market of nanosatellites and aerospace technology.”