Robots power growth of firm F&M's technology wins customers, quality keeps them

October 12, 1997|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Robotic engineer Scott D. Myers doesn't hesitate when asked where he looks to find the state of the art in his field.

"The leading edge of technology in robotics is pushed by us," he says.

4 "Us" is Westminster-based F&M Manufacturing Inc.

Born in the recession of 1990, F&M has become an acknowledged world leader in robotic technology, producing sophisticated high-tech products for the military, the medical industry, the U.S. Postal Service and bartenders.

Diversity is the key to the company's quick and continuing success, Myers says. "You can really get burned if you only have one or two customers."

The company plans to celebrate its success Friday with a dedication ceremony at its new 80,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and corporate headquarters across from the Westminster airport.

By any measure, F&M has had a remarkable run -- which is exactly what Myers and company Chairman Dana E. Caro, a former FBI agent fascinated by "unmanned systems," had hoped when they created the company.

Caro had retired as director of the bureau's Washington office, and Myers was director of robotic systems at Martin Marietta Corp.

But as Martin began to de-emphasize land robotics with the Army and the Marines -- "something they have lived to regret," Caro says -- he and Myers "shared a dream to build a company." They invited Mark Del Giorno, Myers' chief deputy at Martin, to join them.

They searched the Washington-Baltimore area for a machine shop to manufacture their robotic products. They found F&M Machine in Hampstead, "developed good chemistry" with owner Edward K. Mottern and together created F&M Manufacturing.

Mottern stayed on as president of the F&M Machine subsidiary. Myers and Del Giorno became president and vice president, respectively, of Robotic Systems Technology. Caro became chairman of the corporate parent.

Keeping clients satisfied

Together, the four "worked round the clock" immediately, Caro says, to win a defense contract. Two more defense contracts followed, as did contracts from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Postal Service and a medical manufacturer.

Getting customers was one thing. Keeping them was another.

The way to do that, the founders believed, was to assign roughly 10 percent of their personnel to a quality control department that would set up rigorous standards to inspect and test every company product -- from military smoke-generating vehicles to postal bar-code scanners to automated military and commercial sentries to trigger mechanisms for the Patriot missile launcher.

Products are praised

The ISO 9001 designation given the company "is the premier quality [rating] in the U.S.," Caro says. "We were told it would take a year and a half to get it. We did it in six months. It is an achievement."

And it's one of the reasons the company is winning rave reviews for its science from customers, Caro believes.

Recently, Maj. Gen. George E. Friel, commander of the Army's Chemical and Biological Defense Command, gave F&M a Distinguished Service Award for work on the company's smoke generators.

The Army's contract with F&M has "exceeded expectations," Friel told Myers and Caro in a July 31 letter. Not only was the company "within budget, with the best unit value, and highest quality," Friel said, but it delivered its products two months early -- despite "numerous engineering change proposals incorporated into the system."

The Army conducted 450 hours of "rugged" testing on the vehicles and "experienced zero failures," Friel said.

Rapport and teamwork

Establishing rapport and building teamwork with clients are something the company seeks to do with all its customers. Prospective clients come to Westminster, take a tour and talk to engineers and other workers, Caro says. "We want them to get a sense of the pulse of the company."

What they find are casually dressed employees willing to talk about the problems they are having with projects they are working on and what they are doing to solve those problems. They address their bosses and each other on a first-name basis, often with jovial humor.

"We do serious work, but we don't take ourselves too seriously," Caro says.

The openness and informality are inviting, and offer a prospective customer the opportunity to begin talking about his needs on the initial visit.

When the inventor of some frozen cocktail mixes wanted a way to market his product, F&M put some of its top engineers on the project.

"We don't distinguish between military and commercial clients," Myers says. "The newest technology, the latest science -- that which is state of the art -- is in every product we do in order to stay current."

F&M's engineers invented a cocktail machine that will use the client's mixes to concoct three frozen drinks in 35 seconds. The first three machines went to New Orleans, where they were used to make 40,000 drinks in two weeks, Caro says.

"We don't lose customers," Caro says.

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