~~FREDERICA — Donna Shoemaker has been working at ILC Dover so long, she remembers when the company brought in their first computers — the original “Apples.”
The 36-year veteran was on hand, along with government officials, dignitaries and hundreds of other employees, at Tuesday’s celebration marking the company’s 70th anniversary.
Over her tenure at the company, Ms. Shoemaker has held a number of different roles.
“I started in data management, so I was making the documentation for the shuttles,” she said. “Then I moved into word processing which was kind of like the typing pool before computers came into play.”
She now serves as a supervisor of customer service — which she says is a long way from her humble roots, working at a beauty shop after college.
“All those years ago, I heard they had an opening and I figured ‘what the heck?’” said Ms. Shoemaker. “It’s been a great experience working here. I get to live locally, and stay rural so there’s no big city business stuff to deal with, I get to be part of an amazing team and what we do is incredibly unique and important. You wouldn’t think it by looking, but here we are in Frederica, sending things into space. That’s the kind of stuff we do here.”
ILC Dover got its start as the International Latex Corporation back in 1947. Since then they’ve become one of the most well-known suppliers of engineered products employing high-performance flexible materials.
Most popular for their work on NASA’s space suits, they also produce a wide variety of other products in all sorts of industries. They manufacture bulk packaging for food and chemicals, processing and containment systems for pharmaceuticals, environmental safety equipment and suits, rapidly deployable flood protection systems like their new “tunnel plug” and “space inflatables” to name a few. It’s not only the manufacture though, ILC engineers, processes and designs the products as well.
Company officials say that since the 1960s it has been involved in “countless space development and production programs.” They’ve supplied all the space suits for NASA since project Apollo and they support the current extravehicular activities of the international space station.
In 2012, TIME magazine named their high-pressure Z1 space suit one of the “best inventions” of the year. One of those suits was used by the StratEx team to complete a record-breaking near-space dive from a high-altitude balloon — completed by Google’s Senior Vice President Alan Eustace, in 2014.
In July, ILC Dover was selected to represent the state at a “Made in America” week showcase at the White House.
To hear it from Gov. John Carney, Delaware couldn’t be more proud of the company.
“This company has an incredibly impressive history,” he told gathered employees on Tuesday. “It’s a history of innovation, of creating new products and redefining the future and what it holds. I think everybody in our state knows about ILC because of your work with space suits. We were so proud of ourselves and our country when we landed that first man on the moon so many years ago, but we know that the work Delawareans landed there that day too.”
U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester lauded the work of the company’s leadership and talent of its workers.
“Today is really a celebration of the 70 years of this incredible company that is a gem in the state of Delaware,” she said. “What’s very clear is that your success is built on two important things: visionary leadership and the great talent of the people working for this company. This doesn’t just happen, you have people that really care and think hard about what they’re doing here.”
Although it now has 70 years behind it, CEO Fran DiNuzzo feels that the best days may still be ahead for the company.
“On the technical side, the most exciting thing we’re working on right now is the tunnel plug and other flood protection products, but from a business perspective it’s really exciting to see the work developing with pharmaceuticals and biopharmaceuticals,” he said.
Mr. DiNuzzo said ILC Dover linked up with Eli Lilly, a global pharmaceutical company, in the 90s and have been designing and manufacturing a number of different products their industry uses. However, in recent years, ILC Dover has been manufacturing products used in biopharmaceuticals as well. Mr. DiNuzzo said there is “huge” potential for growth in that industry.
“Biopharmaceuticals is a really young industry but the entire pharmaceuticals field is growing like crazy — by trillions of dollars,” he said. “It’s a marketplace that generates significant revenue and profit for the company. We make a lot of flexible enclosures used to contain pharmaceutical products during the manufacturing process, and they come in thousands of different configurations.
“We’re also making a series of bags, for lack of a better term, called ‘charge bags.’ They’re used for taking powders and putting them into bioreactors. The process used to be done very sloppily, but our products are starting to become the standard for containing these compounds and manufacturing ergonomically.”
He says the new business is resulting in growth which allows ILC to hire more staff.
“We’re hiring all the time, we’re pretty much in a consistent search for talent at this point,” said Mr. DiNuzzo.
As of Tuesday, ILC Dover had 14 active job listings on its website. The openings may offer other Delawareans like Ms. Shoemakers an opportunity to apply on a whim — and end up spending the next few decades working there.
Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at [email protected]