In the predawn hours of August 6, 2012, the rover Curiosity made a successful landing on Mars. One reason it made it intact was that a heat shield protected the rover from temperatures that reached 1,600 degrees as it careened into Mars’ atmosphere, the tiles for which were made in Biddeford.
The company, Fiber Materials, Inc., or FMI, plays an integral role in the country’s defense and space programs and is now expanding into other realms. That heat shield was made out of their decades-long specialty: carbon fiber composites.
FMI President Rob Pierson says the idea is pretty basic.
“Composites were developed several thousand years ago. And if you think about it, it was mud and sticks, making adobe,” he says.
Think of a spool of yarn that’s made of carbon instead of wool. The carbon fiber is both lightweight and strong, so you often see it used in sporting equipment such as kayaks and bikes. But what makes FMI unique is that it has a process that can weave carbon fibers together into a three-dimensional form.
“This is a highly skilled area of the process, where we’re actually manually weaving carbon fiber in three, and sometimes four different directions. And that’s what really gives the strength of materials,” says Dan Godbout, director of marketing, opening the door to FMI’s weaving area.
And it’s all done by hand. About 40 employees stand at workstations that have a preformed hexagon or cylinder shape made out of thin metal rods. At one workstation, Jackie Tavares and Wendy Dewing stand on opposite sides of a hexagon and trade a giant needle about as long as a ruler back and forth through the form. They’re weaving the carbon fiber between the metal rods.
As the fibers are woven front to back, side to side and top to bottom, they compress the metal rods, which tends to push them down, so weavers tamp the rods back into place. Ultimately, those rods will come out and carbon fiber is woven where they used to be.
The look and feel of this weaving room hearkens back to a different era in Maine, when textile and shoe manufacturing were booming. That’s actually what brought FMI to the state. It started in Massachusetts in 1969, but within a couple of years, the founder moved the company to Maine to harness the craftsmanship of the manufacturing workforce.
Laurette Cote, supervisor on the weaving department, was one of those early employees. She has worked at FMI for 45 years.
“My first job was working in the textile factory, and then I came here. It was my second job,” she says.
It’s a job that has to be done perfectly. After a preform is woven, it’s X-rayed. If even one fiber is missing, it’s reworked. Then the form goes through something called a densification process, so it can be machined into components to make things like heat shields for NASA missions or rocket nozzles for the Department of Defense.
“Just right there, I think that job is special because we’re trying to keep everybody safe. Yourself safe, your family. Everybody safe,” Cote says.
And now, FMI is hoping to use its 3D technology to propel it into the commercial realm with a new composite called polymer matrix, made with more affordable materials that are auto-woven. Pierson says it’s again the 3D shape that sets this new composite apart, so it can be used in new ways, from parts for Formula One race cars to prosthetics.
“For example, on a prosthetic, the nodes at the knee and ankle — if you have an above-the-knee amputation, that prosthetic has a lot of load at the nodes. Right now they’re all titanium and steel. We’re two times the strength-to-weight ratio as titanium. So we can have lighter components that can handle very high loads. And there’s no one else doing it the way we’re doing it, right here in Biddeford,” Pierson says.
The new technology is a finalist for a New England Innovation Award. Pierson says he wants to see the 180-employee company grow. But as it develops new products, FMI is still focused on its core. Currently, it’s building components for a heat shield for the Mars 2020 rover mission.