ILC Dover makes softgoods products used around the globe and out of this world. Building on its space and high-altitude pressure suit manufacturing capabilities, the Delaware-based company applies its innovative fabric and film technologies to personal protection equipment, bio/pharmaceutical containment, lighter-than-air structures and engineered inflatables for both private and government customers. David Soyka reports on an atmosphere of discovery that creates tomorrow’s products.
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Doug Durney, global marketing director for ILC Dover, notes that most people probably have never heard of his company. But if you’ve watched a space launch or a space walk, you’ve seen this Frederica, Del. – headquartered manufacturer’s products in action. “One thing that makes us unique is that our products have literally put footprints on the moon,” he notes, “not to mention Mars.”
ILC Dover has designed and produced space pressure suits for NASA since Project Apollo landed humans on the moon. In addition to the first mobile space suit that allowed astronauts to walk on the lunar surface, the Space Shuttle, Skylab and International Space Station missions all relied on ILC Dover garments. ILC Dover products have also travelled the surface of Mars as part of airbag systems on the Mars Pathfinder and Rover missions, and continue to circle our own planet Earth with containment covers on the Hubble space telescope.
“We’ve applied our core competencies and manufacturing technologies in designing and developing flexible, high-performance fibers and films to engineer solutions that expand our product lines and customers across multiple, diverse industries,” Durney says. “In addition to space suits, we make a range of flexible softgoods products used in the aerospace, personal protection and biopharmaceutical industries, in both the commercial and government sectors.”
The latest such innovation is the Scape® CO/CBRN(30) Escape Mask, the first such mask that can protect for up to 30 minutes against both chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear inhalants as well carbon dioxide (CO). The easy-to-use respirator is the first of its kind to meet stringent National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) standards for civilian use and is the only NIOSH approved respirator for both CO and CBRN.
“This provides the highest level of protection for untrained users against multiple hazardous conditions,” Durney points out. “Most conventional so-called gas masks rely on negative pressure – the user has to breathe to activate the respirator. In contrast, the SCape employs a blower system that turns on automatically as soon as the user dons the mask. Facial hair or glasses is not a hindrance, as there are no securing straps, nose cup or mouth bit. It’s very easy to put on, all you have to do is get your head through the neck seal and into the hood, you’re protected. The clear hood has a large visor and comfortable seal that allows to the user to perform any last minute tasks, even use a cellphone, and lessens feelings of claustrophobia. It also makes it easier for people to recognize each other.”
He adds, “Since 9/11 there has been increasing demand to this type of civilian mask in case of a terrorist attack that could release harmful inhalants, as well as in industrial situations in which toxic spills can sometimes occur. The original SCape NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) was introduced in 2004, and has become a key component in the emergency response plan of numerous industrial and government agencies. The new SCape provides an even greater level of personal protection in hostile environments.”
The SCape is also now available to general consumers. Summer wildfires in New Mexico, Colorado and other western states have ramped up public interest in the hood. “Most victims of fire are not injured by heat or flames, but by smoke and gases, carbon monoxide especially,” Durney emphasizes. “Proper protection can mean the difference between life and death in evacuating a fire zone. The SCape is available in adult, child and infant sizes and can provide an extra level of insurance and peace of mind as part of any family preparedness kit in areas susceptible to wildfires.”
EXPANDING INTO DIVERSE MARKETS
Privately held ILC Dover was founded in 1947 and currently employs 450. ISO 9001 Quality certified, ILC Dover maintains 230,000 square feet of space between its headquarters in Frederica and a facility in Dover, Del. It also has satellite operations in Cork, Ireland and Houston, Texas. Sales are conducted through a combination of direct sales force and distributors, and the company is adding distributors to handle new products, particularly for its pharmaceutical lines. While historically focused primarily on domestic markets largely as a result of its NASA and other government contracts, ILC Dover’s expansion into new product lines has resulted in a corresponding expansion into international markets.
In 1998, Ely Lilly looked to ILC Dover to help develop containment systems for the transfer and shipment of powders used to manufacture its pharmaceuticals. This led to its DoverPac® Containment Systems subsidiary in support of the pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical industries to design flexible disposable systems engineered to contain the transfer of powders down to the nanogram level.
“There are two concerns here,” Durney notes. “One is to maintain the purity of the drug, to prevent possible contamination from other powders and chemicals that might be present in the manufacturing environment, and the second is worker safety, to ensure that the people making these drugs don’t inhale potentially dangerous powders and chemical used in the manufacture of drugs and other compounds. Since that time we’ve developed an entire product range that offers both standardized and customized solutions that ensure a variety of manufacturing and transport processes are not only safe and secure, but help get products to market sooner, and more cost-effectively. In fact, we’ve delivered over 100,000 containment systems worldwide for just about every major pharmaceutical company.”
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
ILC Dover is also the world’s largest producer of softgoods structures, called envelopes, used to construct airships, blimps, aerostats and other lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicles. It began making envelopes in the early 1970s, and since 1985 has manufactured over 150 LTA envelopes ranging in size from 56,000 to 4 million cubic feet in volume.
“We’ve all seen the blimps that carry advertising on the envelope, famously the Goodyear blimp as well as Budweiser’s,” Durney says. “One thing we’re excited about is applying the same digital technology that is changing the look of traditional billboards to the logos and advertising on blimps. Looking up at the sky is going to get even more interesting.”
The company also makes aerostats, tethered blimps that provide aerial surveillance. Currently, many of these are used in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s gotten to the point where if enemy combatants see the aerostat, they just stay away from the area because they know they’ll be detected,” Durney says. “These are so effective in these kind of combat situations, as well as for border control and drug interdictions, that we’re now partnering with Northrop Grumman to make a hybrid aerostat called the Long Endurance Multi Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV). Like the tethered version, the LEMV is unmanned, but has the added capability to fly like an LTA vehicle. The advantage is that you’re no longer anchored to a specific location, and can easily move the airship where it’s needed, when it’s needed.”
A related product line is engineered inflatables, used to protect equipment under harsh conditions. One example is an inflated fiber structure that serves as a platform to float a radar system. “We’ve worked to produce fabrics and films that have the strength and flexibility to withstand highly challenging environments that are superior to traditional structures, and at the same time add unique capabilities,” Durney says. “The advantages include lighter weight, lower packing volume, greater energy absorption and greater economy. Prototyping is often accomplished in days rather than months typical of metal or composite products.”
Durney says that the company’s diversified product line has helped it weather recent economic turbulence. “Of course, there have been government cutbacks in a various programs that have affected us,” he says. “But we’re also the major player in providing the fabric and film technologies for unique applications that are more cost effective than traditional products, so we have that edge. Our expansion into biopharmaceutical containment solutions and other product diversification provides us with further stability and ongoing opportunities.”
He adds, “ILC Dover has a long history of protecting people from extremely dangerous toxins and elements in some of the most demanding environments – including space and the battlefield. We leverage our unsurpassed expertise in specialized films and fabrics to develop technologies to protect people and equipment that leads not only to safer environments, but more productive environments.”