Maine’s Composite Industry — On the Cutting Edge

Governor John E. Baldacci talked to students at the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center (AEWC) at the University of Maine at Orono. The center has made breakthroughs in composite technologies that are creating high-paying jobs in Maine industries.

President John F. Kennedy said, “A rising tide reaches all boats.” John E. Baldacci has created a rising economic tide for Maine with his initiatives that bring together diverse groups in industry, education, the state, and businesses, with research and development (R&D).

The governor’s bond referendums have increased funding for R&D which has led to innovations in Maine that are positioning manufacturers in the global knowledge-based economy. A prime example of the governor’s collaborative efforts can be seen with Maine’s composites industry.

They are poised for growth with cutting-edge technologies developed at the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center (AEWC), University of Maine at Orono.

The potential for composites in industry is great. Houses are being built that can withstand hurricane force winds and earthquakes. Their resiliency, flexibility, and light weight make composites desirable in a multitude of applications, including boatbuilding, aerospace, designing race cars, body armor for the military, and shelter for military operations.

“With the number of applications for advanced composites increasing every day, a huge window of opportunity has opened for our innovative Maine entrepreneurs,” said Governor Baldacci.

“In this highly technological world, one of the best ways to grow jobs and the economy is to invest in research and development, and graduate education. More than at any time in our history, it is truly a technological race out there for companies to stay in business. The companies with abilities to innovate quickly are those who will grow and create jobs,” said the director of AEWC, Habib Dagher. “The AEWC Center is not just about helping existing companies grow; it’s about training world-class graduate and undergraduate students, so that they can become the drivers for Maine’s innovation economy. Every year 100 students from 15 different academic departments are paid here to work on R&D projects that industry wants to solve. At any one time we have over 50 projects underway and 100 clients around the world.”

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“Boatbuilding has been a part of Maine’s heritage before we were a state. We were cutting logs for the Queen’s navy. This is something that Maine has continually had as part of its history. Something we’ve been very successful at. You’re the future of the boatbuilding industry,” said Governor Baldacci talking to students of the boatbuilding Landing School where there will be new composites courses next fall.

AEWC assisted Harbor Technologies founder and composites innovator Martin Grimnes in developing his first prototype dock and a new composite piling design. Harbor Technologies is a company that proves how important R&D funding is to Maine. This growing company uses cutting-edge technologies that have emerged because of R&D breakthroughs in Maine. Their new composite piling designs were launched this year. Currently, Saudi Arabia is considering a bid from Harbor Technologies to build an island offshore.

Last summer Harbor Technologies relocated to a 10,000-square-foot building in the Brunswick Industrial Park. The company employs six people and has plans for expansion, including a two- to three-million-dollar investment in equipment and the creation of a least 40 jobs.

Grimnes founded Harbor Technologies in 2003 in a small barn and sold his first composite dock system in 2004. It all started with his idea to design docks that would not rot or pollute. As a sailor he was always perplexed witnessing docks decaying year by year. Using new composite technologies, he designed docks made from fiberglass and resin that are approximately one-third the weight of similar-sized wooden docks, and they last 30 years longer than their wooden counterparts.

When Grimnes needed financial support, he approached the state for help. Construction of the $1 million Harbor Technologies building, owned by Brunswick Economic Development Corporation, was supported in part by a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant awarded to Brunswick through Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), and he received funding from the Maine Technology Institute. MTI’s mission is to encourage and promote R&D in technology-driven industries to create jobs.

“Harbor Technologies has found its niche in an emerging market, and I hope many more local companies are able to successfully follow suit,” said Governor Baldacci.

“We intend to become the overall answer to all marine waterfront challenges, from rust and rot to environmental concerns,” said Grimnes. “Composite solutions will enable us to capitalize upon these issues. Thanks to the steadfast support we have received from the state, the federal government, and the town of Brunswick, we are on the fast track to growth and profitability.”

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Martin Grimnes is the owner of a composite business — Harbor Technologies — and founder of the Maine Composites Alliance. He explained to the governor how his company is using the new technology. “Thanks to the steadfast support we have received from the state, federal government, and the town of Brunswick we are on the fast track to growth and profitability,” said Grimnes.

Grimnes is also the founder of the Maine Composites Alliance and helped write the $15 million grant the state received that will help the boatbuilding and composite industries. Approximately 90 percent of Maine boat builders utilize composite technologies in their work.

“Boat builders and the composites industry share a common interest: Both groups can reap significant economic benefits from the advancement of composites technology,” said Steve Von Vogt, chairman of MBB and president/CEO of Maine Marine Manufacturing.

The AEWC Center also assisted Tim Hodgdon of Hodgdon’s Yachts. “In boatbuilding you always have to be pushing the envelope to keep viable,” said Hodgdon. “For three years we used another facility to test our boats, then we switched over to the University of Maine. Our partnership with the university has led us to new contracts and the use of new technologies that make us competitive in the global economy. The governor and his team have been tremendous supporting our efforts.”

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Stephen Von Vogt, who works for Hodgdon Yachts and runs Maine Marine Manufacturing, listens along with Governor John E. Baldacci as Dr. Robert Lindyburg of UMaine R&D composites lab explains the composites technology being used at Hodgdon Yachts.

With the support of the DECD and MTI, Tim Hodgdon was able to secure a $1 million contract in 2004 to design a prototype composite-based hull for the Navy. In 2005 they received a second contract to start construction of a new Navy Mark V boat. The old boats that have been used to deliver the elite strike Navy Seal teams have caused damage to the teams’ health, because the hulls couldn’t absorb the shock traveling at the required speeds. The new composite-designed craft takes the impact from hitting the waves, instead of the Navy Seals.

“At first they didn’t think composites could do the job. But when I showed them what was possible, they soon changed their minds,” said Van Vogt, who also works for Hodgdon, and was key in obtaining the Navy contract.

“This technology represents what the Maine boatbuilding industry is capable of. The state is a world leader in maritime composite technology, and we’ve got four centuries of shipbuilding experience behind us,” said Jack Cashman, commissioner of the DECD.

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Instructor Rick Barkhuff talked with the governor, Berry Acke and his students at the Landing School. “Right now we are the only hands-on boatbuilding school backed up by intensive instruction. Add composites to the mix, and we will be at the cutting edge of the boatbuilding industry,” said Barkhuff.

The Landing School of Boatbuilding and Design in Kennebunkport understands the potential that composites can bring to Maine’s economy. “Once a student is trained in the basics, the job market of opportunities is vast,” said Berry Acke who started the Landing School in 1978. “Composites are applicable across the economy. Really good careers with high-paying wages are available around the world, once students are trained in composite technologies. Maine is the perfect place to move this forward.”

In September of 2007 the school will have a two-stage composites course that is being funded by part of the $15 million grant the state won because of the governor’s initiative.

The school has ten-month programs where students learn boatbuilding; by the end of their program they have built a boat. Eric Valliere, a student, praised the school: “It has a great systems program, maintenance, installation, and repair program.” Valliere had previously worked in metal trades manufacturing for 22 years. One morning he found himself unexpectedly laid off. “With boats, they will always need maintenance, and there will always be boat owners wanting to pay for them. This training is giving me a new, reliable future.”

Instructor Rick Barkhuff said that adding the composite courses to the school will make it unique. “Right now we are the only hands-on boatbuilding school backed up by intensive instruction. Add composites to the mix, and will be at the cutting edge of the boatbuilding industry.”

Soon the school will be sending out advisory teams to boatyards around the world to show them how to streamline their businesses and incorporate the new composite technologies. Graduates are as far away as New Zealand, working in the boat industry, and as close to home as Hodgdon’s and Lyman-Morse Yachts. Graduates are almost guaranteed positions in the industry because the demand is so great. With composites that demand only grows.

“Knowledge is power; these students are the incarnation of hardworking individuals, dedicated and determined to put out a high-quality product. They are here because they want to be here—that makes all the difference,” said instructor Steve Dalzell. “The composite course will open the door for even more opportunities for our students.”

“The growth of our research and development capability is crucial for our state to compete on a national and global level,” said Governor Baldacci. “The ripple effect of what could happen in Maine with the composite industry should not be underestimated. The collaboration between industry, educational institutions, and government is working to position Maine for growth in the industry.”

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One of the craftsmen of Morris Yachts in conversation with Governor Baldacci during a tour of the Trenton boatyard: “Ever since I was young I wanted to work on boats; it’s a family tradition.”