Through a technology-sharing consortium, Structural Composites of Melbourne is maximizing its strengths and creating effective partnerships.
Across industries, end users are looking for products that offer better value for their money, superior quality and increased lifespans. In turn, the composites industry is shifting gears and investing in new R&D initiatives and attempting to capture business and applications previously considered out of reach. A leader in this arena is Structural Composites, a division of The Composites Company (TCC), which is headquartered in Melbourne and promotes composite research and design services in markets where both traditional composite designs and materials costs limit market penetration.
Structural Composites specializes in engineering, analysis and development in the marine, transportation, theme park and wind energy industries. Its research and design team specializes in heavily loaded composite structures and produces a durable and cost-effective Co-Cure family of resin systems that makes it possible for composite technology to enter new non-composite markets.
“We provide leadership and industry advancement through our innovative research and development programs,” said Scott Lewit, president and co-founder of Structural Composites and Compsys, the laboratory arm of TCC. R&D programs include for the U.S. Navy; Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); U.S. Navy, Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR); and UNISYS Corporation Research Program & Hoechst Celanese Research.
Lewit, along with Ronnal Reichard, PhD, mechanical engineer, co-founded Structural Composites Inc. in 1987 and Compsys Inc. in 1992. As an engineer, Reichard was able to develop composite materials tailored specifically for boats. After incubating at the Florida Institute of Technology for a few years, they realized the benefits of creating a manufacturing company and commercializing their ideas. In 1994 they created Prisma Pre-forms, which are a fraction of the weight of wood and do not rot, removing 90 percent of boat upkeep. As a result, the company went through a healthy growth phase from 1995 until the recession hit in 2007 and people stopped buying boats.
“Those were tough times, and people don’t realize the exposure the business owner actually takes,” said Lewit. “We got through the recession and eventually got involved with research and development work with the aerospace primes and ship builders. We found niches because we’re not traditional bean counter business guys. We take risks, have broad horizons and strive to always stay innovative and creative.”
With clients like the Navy Center for Composites and DARPA, Structural Composites got to team up and solve problems with the big primes in those sectors. Lewit recognized three relevant business models that worked for smaller manufacturing companies in the composite materials market, including getting bought out, working together as an open consortium (where patents tend to hinder creativity), or starting a closed consortium where members actually share intellectual property.
A New Business Model
For Lewit and Reichard, the choice was a no-brainer. They started a closed consortium, bringing in selective companies, giving them exclusive access to their technology, and setting up a technology sharing arrangement between partner companies.
“We’re here to be that flexible small business for our partners,” explained Lewit. “There are many things they can’t do that we can, including taking risks and delivering things quickly.”
Through the consortium, Structural Composites recently achieved a huge in-road for composites into the transportation industry. Wabash National, the largest manufacturer of semi-trailers in the nation, called for a trailer that was lighter, more durable, better performing and cost effective. Structural Composites employed a combination of advanced composite engineering, PRISMA preform technology and Co-Cure resin systems, and brought the cost of composite structures down to the cost of aluminum. By incorporating molded structural composites instead of aluminum, Wabash improved the trailer’s overall thermal performance by up to 25 percent.
“The business model for them was alien, but over time they saw it made sense,” said Lewit. “When they come in, they get our past, present and future inventions. As they use them, they pay us royalties. There’s a lot of co-developed intellectual property, but we get to move it to other market segments.”
Lewit asserted that IP is the fruit of this particular business model. Structural Composites took Wabash through a very rapid process, gleaning ideas and going to prototype quickly. A smaller operation with 80 employees (60 in manufacturing and 20 in research), Structural Composites is a lean and capable research, development and manufacturing machine.
“We’re infinitesimal compared to the companies we work with, but this business model allows us to do what we do best and not get bogged down with the other stuff,” said Lewit. “I would see people talk themselves out of doing interesting things before they even got started, and we didn’t want to become that; we wanted to stay innovative.”
Currently, the focus is to continue to develop key technologies and expand further into big markets. The marine market is already 68 percent penetrated with composite materials, but the transportation market is only 4 percent penetrated, as is the construction market. The company’s mission is to double the saturation in these two markets.
“It’s doing things people say are impossible that makes all of this worthwhile,” Lewit concluded. “To see how we’ve been able to make a difference is totally gratifying.” ◆
“We found niches because we’re not traditional bean counter business guys. We take risks, have broad horizons and strive to always stay innovative and creative.” – Scott Lewit