• Harbor Technologies is a composite manufacturer specializing in the infrastructure market.

News

Maine Biz - Building bridges: Harbor Technologies challenges the supremacy of steel and concrete bridge beams

Jul 1, 2015

Original Article

JAMES MCCARTHY - Martin Grimnes, founder and CEO of Harbor Technologies Inc. in Brunswick, stands beneath the Union Street Bridge that crosses over Interstate 95 in Bangor. An average of 18,000 drivers use the bridge daily, which makes the two-phase, $8.8 million replacement of the 54-year-old bridge one of the higher profile jobs among the 425 capital projects worth $455 million that the Maine Department of Transportation started last year.

On an early June day, CPM Constructors' crews have nearly completed work on the closed-off bridge's north lanes, getting ready to reopen them to two-way traffic when demolition begins on the south lanes. A visiting delegation of the U.S. Domestic Scan Program joins Grimnes beneath the bridge — eight to 10 state transportation officials and civil engineers who scramble up a sandy bank for a closer look at the hybrid composite beams built by Harbor Technologies that now support the bridge's north lanes. Aside from the lack of rust and standard green paint marking the soon-to-be-removed steel beams of the bridge's southern half, the new composite beams look, well, remarkably like steel.

"The distinguishing characteristic is that it looks the same," the 67-year-old Grimnes says with a slight grin when asked what's different about his company's hybrid composite beams. "The less you rock the boat, the easier it is to get access to the market. This is installed the same way as a steel I-beam, but it's lighter and easier to install and it offers better performance, lower maintenance and superior corrosion-resistance."

The HCB technology — also known as the Hillman Composite Beam, named after John Hillman, a structural engineer who invented the technology in 1996 — is slowly gaining market share in the huge business sector of transportation infrastructure. Looking ahead, the trends are promising for Harbor Technologies and other Maine companies, such as Kenway Corp. in Augusta, that use composites to design and fabricate construction materials that last longer with less maintenance than conventional concrete and steel.

Composites Manufacturing, the bimonthly magazine published by the American Composites Manufacturers Association, forecasts 4.9% growth in the U.S. composites market in 2015. Transportation infrastructure is one of the top three market segments, which accounted for 69% of the U.S. composites market's $8.2 billion value in 2014. Demand in the U.S. composites market is expected to reach $12 billion by 2020, with a compound annual growth rate of 6.6%.

Aging infrastructure figures into the projected growth, according to the magazine: "The future is bright for this market, in part, because the United States will need to invest significantly in the repair and maintenance of its old infrastructure." There are 147,870 deficient bridges requiring repair. According to Federal Highway Administration estimates, the nation will have to invest $20.5 billion annually to upgrade or replace deficient bridges, whereas the investment is now closer to $12.8 billion, according to Composites Manufacturing.

Competing against a mature market

Harbor Technologies has had its successes since its founding in 2003, most notably the 540-foot Knickerbocker Bridge in Boothbay, the longest fiber-reinforced bridge ever constructed at the time of its completion in 2011. But Grimnes knows all too well the HCB market very much depends on state departments of transportation, civil engineers and other stakeholders creating demand for composite bridge beams instead of those made of steel or concrete. Educating decision-makers is critical, he says, which is why the scan team toured the Union Street Bridge site as well as the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center, Kenway Corp., Advanced Infrastructure Technologies and the Maine Department of Transportation during their recent four-day visit.

"With new technology, it's always a tall task," Grimnes says. "We're competing in a very established industry that's used to building bridges out of concrete and steel. It's been a bit of a surprise how long the education process has been."

Harbor Technologies' revenues last year totaled $1.89 million. The company has 27 employees.

In the marine environment, Harbor Technologies' portfolio includes making fender pilings 78 inches wide and 45 feet long for an Amtrak bridge crossing water in East Lyme, Conn.; at their installation, they were the largest composite fender piling ever made (2012). Other jobs include the first pier made entirely of composites, at Downeast Institute on Beals Island (2011); and harbor "camels" for shipyard berthings at the U.S. Navy's Point Loma Naval Submarine Base in San Diego (2009). Besides the Knickerbocker Bridge, the company has supplied hybrid composite beams for bridge projects in Missouri, New Jersey and Illinois (see sidebar on page 14) and curved components that couldn't be made out of concrete or steel for a bridge built in 2013 in Mandal, Norway.

The hybrid composite beams manufactured by Harbor Technologies have three main components: An outer fiber-reinforced polymer shell, concrete that's pumped into an arch conduit within the shell for compression strength and high-strength steel strands that run along the bottom of the shell for tension strength. The encapsulating FRP shell protects the beam from corrosion and provides additional structural support.

The beams have a projected lifespan of 100 years, a very high "fatigue" strength and typically are one-tenth the weight of a comparable steel or steel-and-concrete beam, which lowers transportation and installation costs. HCB technology, therefore, seems like a slam-dunk solution for both America's and Maine's aging bridges. So what's keeping it from gaining a greater share of the market?

"The big thing is initial cost," says Dale Peabody, director of transportation research for the Maine Department of Transportation. "Most DOTs don't necessarily look at the life cycle cost and in-depth analysis of HCBs' other features. We have a long history for steel and concrete beams, as far as understanding their longevity is concerned. We don't have a comparable history for composites. So that's the hurdle right now: Its upfront cost is more."

Even so, Peabody shares Grimnes' view that for many bridge projects, HCBs offer long-term savings in life cycle and maintenance costs and can often provide immediate savings in their lower transportation and installation costs to make them competitive.

"This is, in fact, a viable material for bridge construction and work is being done to prove it," he says, adding that MDOT is fortunate to have companies like Harbor Technologies working with research facilities for testing like the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center and the Composites Engineering Research Laboratory run by the Maine Composites Alliance and Southern Maine Community College at Brunswick Landing to help make the case for composites as an alternative to traditional materials.

Composites testing and validation

Peabody's MDOT colleague Wayne Frankhauser, who also serves as chairman of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' committee on fiber-reinforced polymer composites, agrees. "This Hillman Composite Beam technology is proven," he says, citing the now four-year-old Knickerbocker Bridge built by Richmond contractor Wyman & Simpson in Boothbay as one local example.

Frankhauser helped organize the scan team's itinerary in Maine. The federal program's overall purpose, he says, is to highlight innovative practices of high-performing DOTs that could be adopted by other states. Scan topics are vetted, with a limited number of site tours scheduled each year. A final report is published annually, providing data and peer reviews of the various scan topics.

"When we organized this scan, we took volunteers from different states that have experience with composites," Frankhauser says. "Part of the purpose is to showcase some of the top practices and top users here in Maine: That's where it could benefit Maine companies."

The three-hour briefing and tour of UMaine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center, he adds, gave the scan team a deeper understanding of the critical role the center plays in the testing and validation of composite materials before they go to market. "Any time a new material comes into the market, there is a [testing and development] curve beforehand to get it up to code," he says. "We are a very conservative group, for a good reason. We want to know before the traveling public goes on a bridge that its beams have been tested many different ways."

UMaine civil engineering professor and researcher Roberto Lopez-Anido, who led the tour of the Orono center along with William Davids, has seen the lab grow from being literally a hole in the ground when he first arrived on campus 17 years ago to its present status as a world-class accredited testing facility whose industry clients range from Fortune 500 companies to start-up firms developing innovative products and processes.

Harbor Technologies bridge beams, he notes, have been subjected to a battery of structural tests on a full-scale beam to evaluate its maximum load capacity, its shear strength and fatigue threshold. Those tests, he says, result in a product report that tells both the industrial client and, eventually, state transportation officials if it meets applicable transportation department specifications and codes. As one of only a handful of university labs nationwide that have earned ISO 17025 accreditation, he says, the UMaine center provides a valuable service to Harbor Technologies and other Maine composites companies.

"Our mission is to support industry in this region, to help them get products into the market," Lopez-Anido says. "We're also training students to get proficient in working with these products so that they have the skills to work at these Maine companies after they graduate."

Looking ahead

MDOT's 2014 report "Keeping our bridges safe" pegs the asset value of Maine's 2,515 major bridges (longer than 20 feet) and 1,374 minor bridges (10 to 20 feet) at $7.56 billion. While the condition and remaining lifespan of many bridges puts their replacement well into the future, the report concludes that $140 million in annual bridge funding level is needed to significantly reduce the percentage of structurally deficient bridges from the 15.2% recorded in 2013. By comparison, the report notes, bridge funding in Maine averaged $112 million per year from 2009 to 2013.

The report identifies "new bridge technologies" — such as the composites used in UMaine's Bridge-in-a-Backpack and the Hillman Composite Beams manufactured at Harbor Technologies — as a way to extend the lifespan of new bridges from the current average of 75 years to 100 years or more, thereby reducing long-term costs.

"Extending the service life of bridges is gaining importance as limited resources challenge our ability to keep our infrastructure in a state of good repair," the report states. "The cost of addressing service life at design can be significantly less than continued maintenance and preservation actions for the life of the structure. This approach is gaining momentum nationwide and there is considerable research available."

Grimnes, a composites pioneer who's been preaching that mantra in Maine since founding his earlier company Brunswick Technologies Inc. more than 30 years ago, says the recent scan tour by visiting transportation officials is a "significant opportunity" for Maine's composites industry to expand its network of decision-makers who are receptive to new infrastructure technologies.

"It adds more momentum to our efforts," he says.

Running through the checklist of industries where composites, at first slowly and then rapidly, gained a significant market share — boats and yachts, sporting good equipment like golf clubs and tennis rackets, aerospace and auto manufacturing — Grimnes sees a parallel movement in today's marine and bridge sectors.

"Transportation infrastructure is one of the last industries to commit," he says. "I think we're on the cusp of seeing those opportunities materialize for us, just as we've seen happen in those other industries."