#170 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 8          August 1995

The Miraflex Fiber Story
by David Gaul

Mr. Gaul is manager, Research and Development Laboratory, Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corporation, Granville, Ohio.

How does a $3.5 billion global materials company go about developing and commercializing the first new form of glass fiber in nearly 60 years and do it in a little more than two years?  I was the R&D project leader and can sum up the answer for developing this successful insulation product in two words:  teamwork and vision.

The process for designing and commercializing a fiber typically takes at least five years, and the timeline often is significantly longer.  That our project team shortened this cycle to two years and a few days makes the development of Miraflex™ fiber a remarkable story.  However, the larger story lies in how we managed this feat and how senior management trusted and supported our efforts. 

In the Beginning

When it was introduced in New York in September 1994, Miraflex represented the collective work of research and development, marketing, finance, manufacturing and engineering professionals.  Each of these groups worked together with a shared vision.  This cross-functional team approach was complemented by a co-location strategy, solid leadership, resource support, management trust, and a clear and understandable mission. 

Historically, the development of a fiber takes place in a lab.  Following successful development, plant trials are conducted to prove feasibility, a plant is erected, the product is manufactured and steps are taken to bring the product to market.  This sequential path was not followed by our Miraflex fiber development team. 

With Miraflex fiber, information was processed simultaneously.  The marketing leader, John Zaloudek, told the design folks, “Here’s the product I think consumers want.”  At the same time, engineers were already designing the plant and preparing drawings for construction.” 

The team was making guesses and taking risks.  Without knowing the details of the manufacturing process, we were designing a building and buying land.  This concurrent design process, as opposed a sequential development process, significantly shortened the cycle time for the project.  People kept believing they could do it faster and faster.  The more they believed, the more people came through.

The Process

The first step in the process was selecting scientists and engineers from all R&D technical disciplines to work on the project.  Once selected, they were sworn to secrecy and instructed to not communicate anything—even the name of the project—to anyone outside of the development team.  Leaders from other functions—marketing, manufacturing, engineering and finance—were then added to the team to foster the total business perspective and facilitate rapid development.

An essential element to the success of this project was the co-location of the entire team.  All functional representatives from all disciplines were relocated to the Science and Technology Center in Granville, Ohio, for the duration of the project.  A dedicated area in one building housed all members of the team and was off-limits to outsiders. 

There was very rapid communication because we were all in one location.  This helped our team to stay focused while working 16-hour days.  You knew it was going to be a late night when you could smell the popcorn popping in the microwave.

The project was dubbed “Thunderbolt.”  This powerful and compelling name was created by three Science and Technology leaders involved in the project as they drove to Toledo in a thunderstorm.   

Throughout the project, little written information was circulated among team members or with sponsors or senior management.  Virtually all progress reporting was done verbally, through standup meetings, phone calls, voicemail and video conferencing.  Additionally, an Owens-Corning wholly-owned subsidiary, THB Development, Inc., was formed to hide the development effort from competitors.  Association with Owens-Corning was not identified with anyone externally. 

Tactical executions aside, a remarkable part of the Miraflex fiber story is the motivation behind the project.  All members of the development team were issued a challenge by Bob Houston, who was then vice president, Construction Products, Research & Development.  He said, “We have a need as a company to stimulate the entire organization to think in a profound way about their business, to literally ask for the impossible.”  Houston’s challenge was driven by two simple messages:  ask for the impossible and have a clear vision to achieve your determined task. 

Houston and the rest of the team began by thinking about what was needed by their business and by their customers.  It was decided that manufacturing needed a low-capital solution and an environmentally friendly process to make the product.  The ultimate customers needed an insulation product that was compact, dust-free and itch-free.  The challenge was to achieve the vision and make an irregularly-twisted fiber that met all of these needs.  The team leaders asked for it and motivated the team to work hard to get it. 

Outline for Success

Houston explained the reason for instantaneously putting cross-functional resources together.  He said,  “Don’t piddle with it.  Don’t incremental it.  Don’t starve it.  Feed it.  Get people co-located in a common place and organize yourselves.  Then get the right resources applied to it and then go for it.  Layout a very aggressive timetable, with the objectives posted on the wall in the war room.  Then bang, you go.”

The process began in April 1992, when an idea session was conducted to identify alternative approaches to create the next generation insulation fiber.  By August, laboratory experiments proved the viability of making a single glass fiber with two different types of glass; essentially a bi-component fiber.  A full-sized pilot line was built in Granville and a technical cross-functional team was formed with members solely dedicated to the development of the new process.  By spring 1993, a separate technical team, the Alternative Products Team, was formed to identify other applications for the new fiber.  All work was done in parallel with insulation product development. 

By April 1993, all other business disciplines were brought into the development process and co-located in Granville.  A Commercial Development Team was formed, which included manufacturing, engineering, marketing and sales, finance and R&D, which I represented. 

By November, construction of the first plant had begun, though much of the construction process had not yet been developed.  From November 1993 until September 1994, 17 consumer focus groups were conducted.  Approximately 180 consumers handled the product samples and provided feedback to the attending engineers.  Finally, on September 22, 1994, Owens-Corning held a press conference in New York to announce the creation of Miraflex fiber.  In October, the Mt. Vernon plant began production, slightly more than two years after the first successful lab experiment was conducted in Granville.  In just one month, between the announcement of Miraflex fiber and when the plant began operating, production of the fiber went from 0.011 lb/hour to 24 tons/day.

Summary

Where does Miraflex fiber go from here?  Now that the team has demonstrated that it can make the product, the pace and expectations continue.  Presently, the only commercial application of Miraflex fiber is PinkPlus insulation.  However, Miraflex fiber engineers are planning to take the fiber beyond insulation applications.

Owens-Corning is starting with insulation products because it knows insulation products.  The fiber’s unique properties make it a potential competitor of high-strength fibers, as well as natural fibers.  Because it can be carded and needled, tremendous potential exists in the textile industry.  The sky really is the limit. 

The Miraflex fiber project communicates several messages:  that success depended on an environment driven by science and technology;  that when research and development are embraced and given the right resources and opportunities, discovering the impossible becomes possible, and that when teams are assembled from different disciplines and motivated by a common vision, great things can happen.  I must say that being a member of that team was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had.  I’m ready for assignment on the next product team!

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