President Joe Biden walks to the stage Friday at Auburn Manufacturing. He spoke about federal investments that have strengthened local economies and created jobs. He also signed an executive order striving to “Invent it here, make it here.” Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

AUBURN — For nearly 50 years, Auburn Manufacturing Inc. has been making what are known as high temperature textiles for extreme temperature protection. While Lewiston and Auburn were giant players in the nation’s textile production for generations, offshoring of cotton, shoes and other products led to the collapse of the mills in the 1990s.

Kathie Leonard, the founder of the small manufacturer, saw a future in the specialty textiles in the 1970s and formed the company.

The new fabrics started as an alternative to asbestos in the 1970s and have developed into high-tech materials and products used anywhere extreme heat is a factor, like shipbuilding, petroleum refining, blast furnaces, power generation and aerospace.

AMI makes fabrics and finished products like welding blankets and insulation kits that meet or exceed strict industry and military safety standards with some of the fabric rated to withstand temperatures up to 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Kathie Leonard, president and CEO of Auburn Manufacturing Inc., chats with employees Friday before a speech by President Joe Biden in a company warehouse. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

With Leonard at the helm, AMI has become an internationally recognized source for the highest-grade materials and sells its products domestically and in at least 30 other countries.

Leonard, who was just 27 years old when she started, is president and CEO of the company, which has two plants in Maine — one in Mechanic Falls and the other in Auburn.


Ahead of President Joe Biden’s visit to Maine on Friday, Leonard stated the obvious as employees, family and local dignitaries gathered at the Auburn plant: “It’s a big day for us.”

During the president’s speech he lauded Auburn Manufacturing’s record over the years, declaring the company is having its best year ever. But that wasn’t always the case. Leonard said that by 2016, Chinese dumping of one of the manufacturer’s core products, silica fabric, stole 30% of the company’s business. The company spent $500,000 of its own money to challenge the Chinese as it petitioned the U.S. Department of Commerce for help, filing a complaint and winning its first case in 2017. Permanent tariffs were imposed on Chinese manufacturers as a result.

Earlier this year, the Department of Commerce found that imports of the silica fabric from China have been circumventing antidumping and countervailing duty orders it put in place in 2017, following the first lawsuit filed by AMI. But Leonard wasn’t convinced that the playing field was level, even after the imposition of up to 300% tariffs on amorphous silica fabric imports. In a July 2022 interview following a site visit by a Department of Commerce delegation, Leonard told the Sun Journal, “I don’t think it’s been that successful because I think the Chinese have found ways around it.”

Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque welcomes President Joe Biden to an event on Friday at Auburn Manufacturing, Inc. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Essentially, Chinese manufacturers were exporting top quality silica fabric, defined as above 90% silica, declaring it as a lower quality material to avoid the tariffs, then once in the U.S., selling it at a lower price to steal away market share from AMI, whose silica fabric is 96% silica.

After an investigation, the Department of Commerce agreed with AMI’s position and in its latest action has instructed Customs and Border Protection to continue suspending entries of 70%-90% amorphous silica fabric and requiring cash deposits, heightening the scrutiny of Chinese exports currently evading duty orders.

Her dogged pursuit of the Chinese has won her high praise for protecting small- to medium-sized manufacturing in this country, and was likely a contributing factor behind the reasons Biden chose to visit Auburn Manufacturing.

“The AMI team is incredibly humbled to have hosted an event of such magnitude, collaborating with the White House on behalf of American manufacturing …,” Leonard said in a prepared statement. “President Biden’s visit to Auburn is truly a historic event, reminding all Americans that Maine is on the manufacturing map and that domestic manufacturers like us will never stop working hard and fighting back against even the fiercest competition. We look forward to even brighter days ahead for manufacturers across America.”

Leonard told the packed warehouse that thanks to Biden’s economic policies, AMI is on track to grow its workforce by up to a third, improving and updating equipment and infrastructure and entering new markets in the near future.

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