It's not the sexiest secret component ever: just a tiny aluminum rivet that sits on a fingertip. Yet neither the man who made it, nor his boss, nor the manufacturing company's owner, has any idea what it's for. Why? Because the Department of Defense doesn't want them to. It's just another day's work at Fleck Machine Company.
At the company's Hanover, Md. headquarters—a 20,000-square-foot building framed by white horse fencing—20 machines ranging in size from a big-screen TV to a tractor-trailer produce precision-drilled and lathed parts like smart-bomb wing components, aircraft black boxes, and fire-control radar components for the F-16 fighter jet.
And then there are the countless and nameless parts that leave the facility under a shroud of 007-level secrecy, bound for locations unknown. According to president and owner David Fleck, 42-year-old son of company founder Jim Fleck, this is something he's grown up with. "I always knew how serious this business was," says Fleck. "I grew up with the company, doing everything from working inside to cutting the lawn, and just got used to it."
Jim Fleck founded his eponymous enterprise in 1967, milling doohickeys by hand in the basement of the family's Woodlawn row house. He eventually took on clients from the defense, aerospace, and telecommunications industries. Thirty years later, son David (a Loyola High School graduate, and biology and chemistry major at Gettysburg College) quit college to join the 35-employee company, then bought the firm from his father five years later.
Okay, now that the company history is out of the way: What about the secret stuff? "A lot of times, we get designs for parts and don't know what the end use is," says Fleck, referring to his taciturn aerospace and defense clients. "The client will take the part, see if it fits, and then come back and ask for 1,000."
Fleck is tight-lipped about company revenue, but does reveal that Fleck Machine makes parts costing anywhere from $2 to $20,000 apiece, in quantities generally under 10,000. He also reveals that one of his bigger customers is Northrop Grumman, the $30 billion global defense conglomerate located in nearby Linthicum.
So what is Fleck Machine working on currently? "I can't really say," he mutters.
Does that mean that if we saw the part, you would have to kill us?
"I probably wouldn't go that far."