When it comes to building boats, Bristol, RI has a long tradition of innovation. The many boats Nathanael Herreshoff launched from this seaport town rightly earned this designer his nickname, the Wizard of Bristol. Today, innovators with roots in the boatbuilding trade are carrying forth this town’s tradition of technical wizardry in a different way: using composite boatbuilding know-how to build a myriad of structures that need to be, like boats, light yet strong.
According to Rich O’Meara, president of Core Composites, Inc. of Bristol, a composite material is formed by combining two or three different materials to create something different than the original three. And old-time example is a brick; hay combined with mud created a strong brick. In the modern world of reinforced plastics, those raw materials are resin, a reinforcement such as fiberglass or carbon fiber, and a core material.
The first structure built from modern composites was a fiberglass boat; years later, Everett Pearson was one of the boat builders who brought this new-fangled material to market. When he traveled to the 1959 New York Boat Show with a 28-foot fiberglass sailboat, his Bristol-based Pearson Yachts caused a sensation. Today’s boaters know the virtues of composites; they’ve sailed on fiberglass boats or raced carbon-fiber speedsters with composite spars. But boaters may not realize what many industry insiders do: that the composites technology pioneered by boat builders has nearly limitless applications in today’s world – in transportation, military, wind energy, aerospace, and other fields – and Bristol is a hotbed of activity.
Just ask Matt Dunham. Nearly a decade ago, Dunham took a left turn from boat building and created a new direction with composites. Today, his Bristol company, Clear Carbon & Components, has built structures for transportation, medical use, the military and musicians – including a carbon-fiber stand-up paddleboard for big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton and string instruments played by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma.
Bristol has long been home to individuals at the vanguard of composite building. After Pearson came Eric Goetz, who pushed the envelope of performance with lighter, faster carbon fiber boats that championed Maxi, America’s Cup and other circuits, and Ben and Eric Hall, who are known around the world for their composite Hall Spars, now also building underwater turbines. Now, Bristol is home to composite builders, suppliers, mold and tooling producers, companies with engineering expertise, and even an IYRS (International Yacht Restoration School) training program developed for the composites industry.
“There is a lot of expertise here in Rhode Island, and that is invaluable in helping to develop new applications and new products,” said Paul Harden of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation. “The fact that there are fabrication companies, companies that manufacture tooling, and suppliers onsite — all that makes the area an attractive one for the industry.” In fact, with 400 miles of coastline, Rhode Island has attracted a robust marine industry throughout the entire state. The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association (RIMTA) links the state’s marine businesses to each other, facilitating an industry-wide effort to grow this business sector and ensure its continued health.
The latest arrival on the Bristol scene is SP-High Modulus, the marine division of global composites giant Gurit, which focuses on applications in wind energy, transportation and marine. Jean-Pierre Mouligne, a veteran round-the-world racer, helped the company choose Bristol as its U.S. home. According to Mouligne, who serves as North American marine sales manager, what drew the company was the depth of the marine and composites business. This local proliferation of composites companies serves as a community of experts. “We all work together,” said Mouligne.
One entity with the highest potential to cross-pollinate with other companies is the Bristol-based IYRS Composites Technology Program. The six-month training program was established in 2010 as the first of its kind — due to its length, curriculum, and emphasis on teaching hands-on skills and the theory behind this fast-evolving technology. According to IYRS instructor Henry Elliot, there is a good exchange between the program and local industry. Students get a well-rounded look at the business by touring local facilities; for the industry, IYRS is a lab in their midst — a center of learning with proper equipment, students eager to learn, and an instructor with deep experience in the field.
The school is currently doing a project with one firm that has a laminate-process component, a design component, and a tool-building component — which makes for an excellent platform for learning. Elliot finds the climate in Bristol is conducive to educational-industry cooperation: “I have always been open with what I am doing and willing to help solve problems, so the whole thing goes both ways: it helps the students, and we can help the industry.”
Composites may not be new to Bristol, but according to Rich O’Meara, the field is at a high pace of acceleration, largely due to computer advances: “We are at the fastest rate of development that we’ve ever been at in the composites business.”
O’Meara has big ambitions for this Bristol industry with its seasoned brain trust, skilled labor force and — with the arrival a few years ago of MouldCAM – a large-scale CNC router that can output the exact shape of a CAD file in 3D to very tight tolerances, thus reducing mold-building time and cost. “We can handle really large components in this area very nicely,” said O’Meara. “We are used to building 50-, 80-, 100-foot boats — and those are pretty big widgets.”
Some of the big projects O’Meara’s Core Composites is collaborating on include a water turbine with Hall Spars & Rigging that will use the tidal flows off Maine to produce electricity, and modernizing aluminum-skinned military structures with a composite skin to reduce cost, reduce weight for transport to battlegrounds, and eliminate corrosion.
O’Meara is also collaborating with MIT on a project that could revolutionize the construction business, developing homes out of composites that are custom-designed by computer, free of an interior framework like a boat, built-in panels that incorporate a home’s systems, and easily constructed on-site. They reduce the carbon footprint of construction, due to how they are built and how energy efficient they will be. These homes sound like a futuristic dream, but to O’Meara they are a natural corollary to what this Bristol industry has been doing all along: “We are simply using the concepts we learned in boat building.”