Reaching for the Stars

Fiber Materials

Fiber Materials, Inc. (FMI) is “a high-temperature advanced materials company, largely supporting aerospace and defense applications,” in the words of Chief Executive Officer Mark Miklos. The business has ISO 9001:2015 certification and maintains very high quality standards to support the most stringent customer standards. Since it was profiled in April 2018 in Manufacturing in Focus magazine, the company has experienced a dizzying ascent and is eager to hire more workers.
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FMI designs and produces carbon-fiber reinforced high-temperature composites from its base in Biddeford, Maine. The company has two locations: a main campus, “that houses our office headquarters and primary manufacturing footprint, and a second facility a mile away specializing in automated manufacturing,” according to Miklos.

Since the last profile, the company has expanded its commercial operations and business development and marketing team. Beefing up the latter has “created a customer focused, market driven organization,” he says. It’s significantly elevated the profile of FMI and is building awareness of our differentiated capabilities and significantly expanding our new business pipeline,” he explains.

“For the past two years, we’ve spent a significant amount of effort refining our strategy. We’ve really concentrated our focus on fewer markets, to leverage our differentiation and provide high value for our customer. We have focused primarily on aerospace and defense with a secondary focus on building our pipeline in commercial aerospace,” he adds.

Clearly, this strategy has paid off because the company is rapidly expanding. Last year, the firm had 170 employees. Today, FMI is “hovering around 190, with an expectation to be well over 230 by the end of the year.” All of this explosive growth is taking place during its fiftieth anniversary.

As Miklos notes, “The single biggest challenge for us is finding talent. Not a lot of people know about the FMI story and the great things we do here. We’ve made talent management a core part of our strategy and it’s critical that we develop a culture that fosters innovation and encourages collaboration.”

The company attends jobs fairs, has partnered with military veteran non-profit groups and “talks to vocational schools both at the high school level and the college level, to create partnerships and programs so we can grab these students before they graduate or have graduated but may not necessarily have a career plan. We want to create awareness for FMI so that students know that we exist and want to come work for us. That’s a big effort for us right now. We’re also really focused on the digital and social media side to create that awareness,” explains Marketing Communications Manager Kate Whitney. The company hosts a website and has a presence on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.

There are some significant benefits to joining FMI. In addition to “having the honor of supporting our nation, both for science missions and national defense,” employees can expect steady and rewarding work for a long time to come, says Miklos. Some of the programs on which the company works have thirty-year lifespans or longer, he points out.

“We’ve set an objective to significantly increase the awareness of FMI both within the immediate area and even outside the State of Maine. Kate is working on expanding the pool of talent outside the immediate area. A lot of people don’t know how great the quality of life is in southern Maine. Biddeford is a coastal town in close proximity to the mountains and the ocean, and there are major cities within a couple hours’ drive. So it’s a pretty great place to live,” he says.

“FMI has allowed me to diversify my skill set as an engineer and as a professional. It requires that I be creative and use the spectrum of my educational background. I am someone who enjoys hands-on experiences, and this company encourages its employees to be directly involved in the manufacturing of our products,” says Project Engineer Taylor Franklin.

“I enjoy working for FMI because it is a Maine-based company. I like the idea that I’m helping bring business to my state and my community through work that is interesting and meaningful,” echoes Continuous Improvement Specialist Lynne Cooney.

“Because we’re a fairly unique manufacturer, we don’t typically require our candidates to have industry experience,” says Miklos. “We very much focus on identifying talent, strong work ethic, somebody that has a focus on safety, and – the biggest thing – somebody that is willing to come into an organization and have the willingness and the desire to grow with the company. We spend a lot of time developing a culture that fosters career growth. We often promote individuals through the ranks, so there is opportunity, and we look for people who want to take advantage of that,” he says.

“We’ve had significant growth driven by our customers’ need for higher performing materials,” he states. To a large extent, what customers are demanding are materials to perform in “extreme environments not previously served by any other materials,” for aerospace and defense applications, he adds.

The company buys raw materials from suppliers then processes and customizes it. It has been actively developing new materials, including “a ceramic matrix composite that acts as a structural insulator. This is a carbon-carbon silicon carbide material,” Miklos says.

This new material is high-strength and highly-temperature resistant with “very strong thermal insulating properties,” he continues. “This allows our customers to design products in a much smaller footprint, saving space and weight. You can imagine what that means in the aerospace and defense applications. That’s been a significant material development for us.”

The company is also working on a new material, expected to be ready this year, “that exceeds the strength of titanium, but with half the weight,” adds Miklos. This is part of the industry-wide trend towards ‘lightweighting’ which underpins much of FMI’s work. The goal is to make airplanes, cars and other vehicles out of light but strong and durable materials to lower fuel costs and meet fuel-efficiency standards.

Its enhanced marketing efforts are aimed in part at boosting the company’s name and reputation among young people looking for a good job. The company also continues to receive kudos from industry groups.

The Maine International Trade Center (MITC) recently presented the firm with its innovator of the year award for 2018. The award was one of several that MITC handed to Maine firms “for their commitment to growing international markets,” reported an April 3, 2018 article in the Portland Press Herald.

Over the next few years, FMI plans to expand its already impressive machining capabilities. “We’ve spent a significant amount of time developing our capabilities around advanced precision machining, particularly around ceramics,” says Miklos.

The company’s many capabilities have played a role in its longstanding relationship with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “Our team is excited about being part of the new Mars 2020 mission. [The new Mars rover] should be landing on the Mars surface in 2021. NASA is part of FMI’s DNA. We are a strategic supplier of thermal protection systems and high-temperature materials. We fully expect to support NASA missions for a long time,” he states.

“With our 50th anniversary this year we reflect on how we’ve supported major technological developments over the past fifty years, for the DoD [Department of Defense] and NASA. We now look forward to another 50 years of equally important innovation,” notes Miklos.

Among other programs, FMI has worked on the heat shield for NASA’s Stardust mission, in which a robotic probe was launched into space in 1999 to collect comet particles. It also worked on a heat shield for a Mars rover space vehicle that travelled to the ‘Red Planet’ in 2012, a heat shield for a new Mars rover, and the Orion spacecraft, which will eventually take astronauts near Mars. The company has also provided materials for the military which have gone into nose tips for U.S. Navy missiles, among other strategic weapons.

Products that use company materials and composites have to endure some of the most brutal conditions imaginable. A heat shield on a space vehicle, for example, will face temperatures in more than one thousand degrees Fahrenheit. A heat shield failure might mean the destruction of the spacecraft and the death of any humans inside it.

Given this emphasis on aerospace and defense, it is no surprise that the company believes the sky is the limit when it comes to future growth. Within five years, Miklos anticipates that FMI will “need to continue to hire at the current rate, adding over one hundred additional employees in the next few years.”

A desire to continually improve materials and composites “is going to drive the next fifty to eighty years of technology within high-temperature composites, particularly around thermal protection systems in aerospace and defense applications,” he says. A new wave of long-term projects is on the horizon for FMI.

Closing the Gap

A lack of skills training has been an issue for decades but is fast approaching a crisis worldwide. High schools have been reducing or eliminating shop classes for years; experienced workers of the baby boomer generation are retiring, and guidance councillors have long discouraged students from entering the manufacturing sector in favour of white-collar careers.

Past Issues

May 24, 2019, 10:54 AM EDT