March 21, 2018
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Auburn Manufacturing expands, builds business on heat

Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
Russ Dillingham | Sun Journal
Kathie Leonard, president and CEO of Auburn Manufacturing in Mechanic Falls, stands with one of the looms that manufactures some of the company's high-temperature materials.
By Kathryn Skelton, Sun Journal

MECHANIC FALLS, Maine — From its early beginnings on the second floor of the town library, Auburn Manufacturing has grown from one product line and two employees to two facilities and 50 workers.

President and CEO Kathie Leonard said the key is making things and never giving up.

“Innovation follows manufacturing,” Leonard said. “You have to make something. You just don’t think of something in your bathtub, have it made in China and make a gazillion dollars.”

The company is still innovating and growing.

Auburn Manufacturing will break ground next month on a 22,500-square-foot, $1.4 million expansion that nearly doubles the size of its Auburn Kittyhawk Industrial Park location. Leonard also expects to hire four more employees.

In late March, the company got word of a new $2 million, three-year federal contract for high-temperature silica fabric. And it recently printed its first glossy Spanish-language brochure in advance of a Mexican trade show later this month.

Leonard co-founded Auburn Manufacturing in 1979.

“I feel like I’m just getting good at it, to tell you the truth,” she said during a recent tour. “Because this business is ever-changing, I don’t leave well-enough alone. I like to keep changing. I think you need to stay vibrant.”

Auburn Manufacturing makes rope, tape, thermal barriers and any number of different extreme-temperature fabrics. The company started out offering industrial alternatives to asbestos. That’s still its specialty.

Every product starts out with fiberglass yarn, some of it on 2,500-pound spools, spun on one of 35 looms.

At 45,000 square feet, its Mechanic Falls headquarters is at full capacity. So the company added the Auburn industrial park location in 1996, buying 12 acres and building a 30,000-square-foot factory.

Earlier plans for an expansion had to be shelved, Leonard said, largely due to the economy.

“We’ve managed to survive, but the growth curve hasn’t been pretty,” she said. “We have just been cramming ourselves into our footprint all these years.”

Right now, product moves back and forth in different stages between the two factories; that’s less than efficient, Leonard said. After the new expansion, she hopes to start work here and finish it in Auburn.

Leonard’s U.S. competitors don’t weave their own material anymore, she said. Instead, they have it made wholly or in part offshore.

“It never made sense to me,” Leonard said. “I don’t believe in giving away any of my recipes.”

She’s always looking for new ideas or uses for the custom material. One of the newer products sprang from a petroleum industry trade show at which Leonard heard about the need for fire-retardant material to catch sparks and slag during “hot work” (welding, grinding) at oil refineries.

Workers are often up high on scaffolding.

“They pretty much build these little habitats (around themselves,)” she said.

Auburn Manufacturing already offered a material like that in the color gray. Job foremen wanted it to be translucent so they could tell when someone was working. So Auburn Manufacturing redeveloped the fabric, coating it in silicone.

And then, Auburn Manufacturing found a second use: Computer data centers. Those companies also need translucent, fire-retardant, hot and cold barriers.

“We see this as a major market for us,” Leonard said. “There’s only 150 refineries in the country, and if there are 40,000 data centers . . .”

Despite the new government contract, Leonard said the military is never more than 10 percent of Auburn Manufacturing’s total sales. Twenty-five percent of sales are for export.

The top three industries the company sells to are shipbuilding, power generation and refineries.

Until Leonard nabs more data centers.

The new expansion should wrap in August. She’s already looking ahead to the next, another 30,000 square feet, in three to five years.

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