May 6, 2011

Ever wonder how a diving board springs back into place without being damaged, or how fishing rods are so flexible? That recoverable deflection is the result of using composite materials. Polyester resin applied to fiberglass or other materials can make everyday objects stronger, less corrosive, more durable and flexible. Finding innovative ways to incorporate composites in building materials is an engineering art, and potentially big business.

In Brunswick, Harbor Technologies is blazing a trail with composite products. Just after seven years in operation, the company saw sales jump 200 percent to more than $6 million in 2010.

Their diversity and flexibility in designing made-to-order products make them stand apart from competitors. From building bridges of understanding about how composites can be used to actually building bridges made from composites, Harbor Technologies’ portfolio of different projects is impressive.

The company’s mainstays are fender pilings, which are used to protect boats, docks, and bridges from impact.

“Fender pilings are our biggest seller. They are used in bridge protection systems or alongside piers. Concrete or steel damage boats and docks. The fiberglass we use lends itself to impact. So when a vessel hits a piling, it snaps right back to its original shape,” said Erik Grimnes of Harbor Technologies.

An oil industry study on the life of composites in the marine environment said they tested out beyond 80 years.

“We supplied fender pilings for the Ocean Gateway Project in Portland. They were looking for 75-foot timber pilings, so we got in touch with the city and talked to the maintenance department,” said Grimnes. “As a result they switched their specifications to composite pilings because they are more durable, noncorrosive, and last longer. We were just fractionally higher in cost from wood.”

Harbor Technologies have completed pier pilings all over the country, from Florida to Alaska, and in Pearl Harbor for a U.S. Navy submarine pier. They just completed filling an order for 110-foot-long pilings that will help rebuild the port in New Orleans.

“It’s a world record for the longest composite piling ever built,” said Grimnes.

In 2010 Harbor Technologies modified a pultrusion machine that can produce continuous pilings of any length, with a grant from Maine Technology Institute (MTI). The machine is expected to triple production capacity.

The company is always on the lookout for innovative ways to use composites. Using this same pultrusion machine, Harbor Technologies began producing composite rebars, which are used instead of steel. Now Harbor Technologies are the only manufacturer in New England producing pultrusion rebar.

“They are noncorrosive and have low thermal expansion. When highways are built using steel rebar they rust and expand or contract because of weather conditions. That breaks up highways. Fiberglass rebar holds its shape, saving roadwork costs,” said Grimnes.

The production of rebar on the pultrusion machine looks like making taffy, braiding long stands of composite materials into different sizes. Once combined, the fiberglass threads make their way through a resin bath and on to a heated die, emerging as rods, which are then coated with sand. This spring they are planning to fully commercialize its capacity.

Their cutting-edge, innovative approach to composite solutions has led Harbor Technologies to create a one-stop-shop for composite piers.

This spring the University of Maine in Machias awarded Harbor Tech a contract to build a pier for an aquaculture laboratory on their island entirely out of composite technologies.

“It will be a 100-foot-long, all-composite pier with composite pilings, pile caps, HCB beams, and rebar. Concrete will be poured into it, and the rebar will tie it all together. It will be the first of its kind, in the world,” said Grimnes.

The concept is simple: instead of a client having to gather all the different materials and contractors to build a pier, all they will have to do is contact Harbor Technologies.

“Other bids came in on the project; essentially we were one-to-one with other materials, because we will use less pilings and have reduced shipping costs,” said Grimnes. “We could almost fit all the components for the pier on one flatbed. We’re hoping it will be a springboard to other opportunities.”

Once completed, the pier will be a showcase for what composites can do.

Company CEO Martin Grimnes has been involved in the composites industry in the state since the late 1980s, when he helped create the Maine Composites Alliance, an industry group that today has 40 members. He has long been associated with the University of Maine’s advanced composite laboratory, where they test and develop composite products and then help them to be commercialized. That association led to Harbor Technologies working with John R. Hillman, the engineer and inventor behind the Hybrid Composite Beam (HCB) bridge design. Now Harbor Technologies has manufacturing rights for the HCB bridge design in the US and Canadian Maritimes.

HCB bridges can carry fully loaded freight trains — and last a century.

Governor John Baldacci’s Composite Bridge Initiative, using bonds, called for composite materials to be used in ten percent of Maine Department of Transportation bridge construction. Currently the Maine DOT is constructing a bridge with Harbor Technologies in Boothbay. The 540-ft-long Knickerbocker Bridge will be the fourth, and longest, HCB bridge in the world.

The project will use 60 girder Hybrid Composite Beams. The construction of the $2 million bridge is already gaining international attention.

“There are a lot of people waiting to see the Knickerbocker Bridge. There is huge interest in seeing how it comes out,” said Erik Grimnes. “The first HCB was used on a railroad bridge built in 2007. Since then trains have been going round a test track over the HCB twelve hours a day every day, testing its strength. They are designed to last 100 years.”

In an era of deteriorating American infrastructure, the need to find economical, long-lasting and timely rehabilitation solutions is crucial. With the bridge collapse tragedy in Minneapolis, new construction methods are being reviewed nationwide. Many experts in the industry believe HCB bridges could be a big part of America’s infrastructure solution. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 26 percent of U.S. bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. That’s a total of over 160,000 bridges, most of which are suitable for HCB.

In fact Harbor Technologies is building HCBs for three bridges in Missouri. One will have a 120-foot span.

“The railroad industry has been very positive about those beams. Usually railroads are in places with no road access. So they work from cranes on railroad flatcars, and the weight is very restrictive. Composite beams are much lighter and have longer spans that can be lifted with more ease,” said Erik Grimnes.

Back in 2003 the Maine Department of Transportation sought Martin Grimnes out to develop composite docks and pilings to replace environmentally harmful pressure-treated floats. Martin readily agreed to the idea, and Harbor Technologies was founded in 2004. By 2008 the company had to triple their manufacturing space to meet demand. Certified as a Pine Tree Zone business, they receive Maine tax incentives, which helped them expand.

It’s been a family business from the start. Martin Grimnes, his two sons, a daughter, and an uncle part-time still run the company. There are 35 employees and others are brought in for big orders and weekend shifts. More than half of those employees are enrolled in some kind of training.

Harbor Technologies are proud that they make their products to order and are always creating innovative ways to improve what they manufacture.

And they still produce composite docks and floats.

“We make dozens of made-to-order floats. Bowdoin College’s coastal studies program in Harpswell has one with a removable grating for lab testing that we designed for them,” said Erik. “We always look at a project in different ways to see how we can do it best. In a sense, everything is a custom-designed project.”

On a section of the manufacturing floor, work was being finished on a composite float that has been turned into a pump-out station.

“It’s been modified to have a 500- to 1,000-gallon holding tank, so boats can pull up alongside of it and empty their holding tanks. So they don’t congest the marina. There are grants that are available through the EPA which essentially pay for 75 percent of the cost of the float,” said Erik Grimnes. “We have one at Paul’s Marina in Brunswick and another at Dolphin Marina in Harpswell. They are great for our environment and coastal communities.”

They even constructed the struts of the Ocean Renewable Power Company’s tidal-power machine. And they are looking into the potential of building the floats for offshore wind platforms.

“We’re increasingly becoming more of a solutions-based company,” said Erik with a smile.