#170 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 8
The Miraflex Fiber Story
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.
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.
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
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 first step in
the process was selecting scientists and engineers from all
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.
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.
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
with Owens-Corning was not identified with anyone externally.
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.
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.
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.
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™
Miraflex fiber engineers are planning to take the fiber beyond
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.
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!