Working Together Strengthens Composite Materials
MTI grants received: 1 Seed Grant, 3 Cluster Enhancement Awards, 1 approved Maine Technology Asset Fund Award.
The composite materials technology (composites) cluster in Maine is vibrant. In 2008, lead contractor Maine Marine Manufacturing launched the 83-foot Mark V.1–nicknamed MAKO—a composite high-speed military test vessel, Harbor Technologies’ composite beams were recently named one of the Top Ten Inventions by Popular Science magazine and Correct Building Products (now GAF) introduced new technology in its CorrectPorch product, posted record sales in July despite a downturn in the housing and construction markets and was listed on the Inc. 5000. Yet, just over five years earlier, a reduction in research and development (R&D) activity suggested that this cluster was not particularly strong. Several awards from MTI have helped the University of Maine boost this cluster’s growth since that time.
In 2002, Dr. Charles Colgan of the University of Southern Maine released his report, “Assessing Maine’s Technology Clusters,” in which he noted the composites cluster’s poorly developed relationships among its various members, including the boatbuilding composites users, non-boatbuilding composites users and wood composites users. Since information exchanges are critical foundation elements to cluster development and growth and innovative R&D, this finding was particularly troubling. In early 2003, the University of Maine Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center (AEWC) sought to improve collaborative activity and applied for and received an MTI Cluster Enhancement Award. The award of $245,000 was matched by more than $441,000 from AEWC’s testing and research contracts. The project plan called for addressing the lack of composites research and development in Maine by substantially increasing the cluster’s collaboration and communication on composites development projects. To create the necessary synergy, AEWC sought to combine the manufacturing experience of the boatbuilding subcluster, the high-tech innovation of the non-boatbuilding subcluster, and its own laboratory and pilot manufacturing plant with its access to public funding.
It was to be the hub of communication, a repository of cluster information, and the project coordinator among the subcluster companies, federal agencies, accrediting organizations, and national and international industry and trade groups. The project’s three objectives were to significantly increase interaction and collaborative R&D activity among the subclusters; identify and proceed with the commercialization of two or three composite products that would significantly impact the cluster; and develop and implement a long-term plan to invigorate the Maine composites industry. AEWC would also work with the Maine Composites Alliance and the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership to identify and catalogue key technical, manufacturing and marketing expertise within the Maine composites industry and to pinpoint key cluster strengths and strategic partnerships.
It would also work individually with Maine composite companies to address their specific testing, engineering and technical analysis needs. Dr. Robert Lindyberg explained, “The MTI Cluster Award to the AEWC was a critical investment that has resulted in substantial success within the boatbuilding and composites cluster. The MTI award funded important outreach and coordination activities, which led to R&D and commercialization projects, including military high-speed boats, composites for marine and transportation infrastructure, and newer projects focused on renewable energy. The MTI-funded activities played a key factor in securing more than $30 million in federal funds for R&D, workforce development, and business development in the boatbuilding and composites cluster.”
To improve cluster communication and collaboration, AEWC established a division to grow the number of industry contracts its facility serviced, enabling it to sustain industry outreach and retain core professional staff dedicated to industry service. Outreach was achieved through networking with Maine industry and serving on boards of the Maine Composites Alliance and Maine’s Composite Technology Center business incubator. Through these roles and other networking, new contacts were established with a variety of Maine boatbuilding and composite companies.
Three of AEWC’s supported composite products have high potential to significantly impact Maine’s composites cluster: “Efforts funded by the MTI Cluster Enhancement Award and the outreach efforts of the AEWC Center together fostered initiatives by Maine companies to develop products and bring them to market,” explained Stephen Von Vogt, Executive Director of the Maine Composite Alliance. “Today the composite materials technology cluster is diversifying and poised for explosive growth.”
The AEWC project has subsequently received MTAF Award of $4,999,460 award for laboratory additions for nancomposites and large-scale pilot manufacturing and testing of advanced composite structures for the energy industry to which it matched investments of $7,728,70. In January 2010, AEWC received $12.4 million of Federal funds, awarded in large part because of the initial MTAF award. Today, Cianbro is constructing the facility.
University of Maine Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center
University of Maine
5793 AEWC Building
Orono, ME 04469-5793