SHARON CENTER: Should a U.S. Navy submarine ever get trapped beneath the ocean and need to be abandoned, its sailors’ lives could depend on 120 people working in Medina County.

A small manufacturing plant in Sharon Center, owned by U.K.-based Survitec Group and previously known as RFD Beaufort and whose lineage traces back to B.F. Goodrich — now makes all of the Navy’s state-of-the-art submarine survival suits.

Submariners trapped as far undersea as 900 to 1,000 feet are supposed to quickly zip themselves into the Sharon Center-made suits, inflate them with air and head out escape hatches. Within less than a minute, they should be bobbing at the surface and activate a one-person life raft that comes attached to each suit.

The plant, tucked out of the way off Wolf Creek Trail, just received a $25 million contract to build the latest – 11th generation – of the bright orange submarine escape suit called the Survitec Mk11.

The plant is one example of how small Northeast Ohio manufacturers can find a niche and even thrive in the still-rough, post-Great Recession environment.

“To date we’ve already provided [the Navy] over 4,500 suits,” said David Abbott, managing director and president of the Sharon Center facility. The new contract is for a two-year supply, with the possibility of being renewed for three years beyond that, he said.

The contract means continued jobs at Survitec and should help position the Medina County business for future growth, said Abbott, the facility’s top executive.

About 35 of Survitec’s 88 production employees are dedicated to escape suit manufacturing, from cutting the special urethane-coated nylon fabric to sewing and hot-taping the pieces together, then testing each suit and finally packaging it with other equipment.

The others build small and large life rafts for military and commercial vessels and also flight suits worn by pilots who fly the new U.S. Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

The parent company focuses on safety and survival products. It acquired what is now called Survitec Sharon Center in 1996.

“We originated as part of the B.F. Goodrich Co.,” Abbott said. “This facility itself has been here since 1990.”

The local business has experienced significant growth over the years, said Abbott. His history with the company goes back to 1977, when it was making life rafts as part of Akron-based B.F. Goodrich.

Initially, the business focused on making inflatable life rafts largely for commercial vessels that were required to have the safety devices, Abbott said. In 2000, the business won a contract to supply life rafts to the U.S. Navy, he said.

“From that period to current, we are the sole supplier to the U.S. Navy for the entire fleet,” he said. “That’s something we’re very proud about.”

Survitec Group has invested in Sharon Center to expand its capabilities, most recently plowing about $10 million into the plant to meet current and projected demand for its products, Abbott said.

“So, we’re very excited. The area itself is benefitting because of the employment situation. We’ve added considerable jobs to the business,” Abbott said. “The future is very bright for the company.”

The Great Recession led to reduced demand from commercial life raft customers but overall business remained steady, Abbott said. The Medina County plant was helped by winning government business, he said.

“Unlike a lot of companies, our business was actually growing during that period,” Abbott said.

One part of the production area is set aside for sewing together the submarine survival suits and then “hot taping” over the stitches to make the suits water proof.

Zeljka Cancarevic said for the last three years she has been primarily hot taping.

“I’ve been with the company about 10 years,” she said.

The production workers typically work from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; hours on Friday are 4 a.m. to noon.

Finished survival suits are turned inside out, inflated with air and sponged with soapy water.

“We’re looking at any leakage at all that will blow bubbles,” said Renee Richmond, an inspector.

Most suits pass, she said: “They’re usually pretty good.”

The passed survival suits are turned right-side in and then sent on to be hermetically sealed and packaged with the other survival gear that includes a life raft.

The new submarine survival suits are designed to last a minimum of 15 years before needing to be replaced.

About 60 percent of the Medina County facility’s business comes from government, primarily defense, contracts.

The plant is expanding its pilot flight suit offerings, including all of the flight suits worn by pilots who fly the Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

“All of that material is manufactured right here on site,” Abbott said.

Textile and suit parts must all originate in the United States, Abbott said.

“Everything we do for the Department of Defense has to be built in the States,” Abbott said. “And it has to work the first time and every time.”

With the new $25 million submarine suit contract in place and the firm’s $10 million capital investment, Survitec Sharon Center is poised for growth, he said.

“It’s been a very good ride,” Abbott said. “We’re looking to grow by adding additional products.”

Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com.