Synergy in Materials
At the National Composite Center in Dayton, Ohio, engineers and researchers have created a clearinghouse to further the development of composite materials, in the process creating jobs and a host of new and improved products
By Pamela Gregg
As the owner of a Honda Nighthawk motorcycle, I like to think I can spot a fellow cyclist by their appearance, and I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit to stereotyping Harley Davidson riders. There are the atypical riders, the Rubbies (Rich Urban Bikers) who ride a Harley for the status, and then you have the true Harley riders, the traditionalist diehards who bleed orange. True Harley riders have a look that sets them apart, one that says "hardworking," "easy going," and "weekends are made for two-wheeling."
So I was a bit surprised when I first met Lou Luedtke, president and CEO of the National Composite Center (NCC) in Dayton, Ohio and the man credited with taking the nonprofit R&D organization from fledgling to thriving. I expected the usual business suit, thinking the captain of one of the country's most innovative composites enterprises must possess exceptional leadership and management skills and business savvy. Luedtke's professional presence conveyed all those, yet I picked up a strong Harley vibe as well based on his beard, haircut, and physique. In the parking space closest to the front door sat a sporty Honda Shadow. But lo and behold, the bike didn't belong to Luedtke. "I wish it did," he says with that distinctive sigh fellow bikers understand. "I used to ride, but I sold my bike when my wife and I started raising our family."
These days, Luedtke's adventures run a different course in keeping the NCC at the forefront of the advanced materials industry. It works in partnership with other major regional players in composites such as the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (WPAFB), the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI), and industrialists such as General Motors, General Electric, Boeing, Honeywell, and Owens Corning. They aim to turn the Miami Valley surrounding Dayton into Composite Valley. "Our goal is to become a vital composites resource for Ohio and the nation," Luedtke states.
Development work on NCC actually began in 1995. Responding to a sluggish economy and ongoing employment reductions at WPAFB and several major Dayton employers, the Miami Valley Development Coalition (now Dayton Development Coalition) commissioned a study by UDRI to assess the strengths of the region. The study revealed that between UDRI, WPAFB, General Motors, and other local companies, the area had more than 450 scientists and engineers degreed in advanced materials, but no local or regional facility to take prototype research to the manufacturing level. UDRI recommended a kind of composites clearinghouse, a place where researchers and industry alike could go for resources to further develop and commercialize advanced materials technology, thereby creating and retaining high-wage jobs in existing industry and drawing other composites businesses to Dayton and Ohio.
Along with Dayton's ample regional research and engineering resources, two other factors have contributed to NCC's success. First, the Miami Valley's core industries lie in aerospace, infrastructure, and automotive manufacturing -- markets ripe to benefit from composites technology. Second, "We have the facilities and equipment to take a design from prototype to full-scale pilot production," Luedtke says. "That makes us unique in the world. There are other composite centers, but none have this capacity. And we're a neutral factory environment."
NCC's technical oversight committee helps the organization identify the most promising new technologies for development and draws from member fees to research each project's potential. If the technology proves viable, NCC pursues government funding to fully develop the project. NCC employs 13 engineers, 12 technicians, and six administrative staff.
Luedtke and NCC's engineering director Scott Reeve epitomize the engineering experience at the center. With a mechanical engineering degree from Milwaukee School of Engineering, Luedtke has spent his career in technical sales and growing and turning around businesses. Reeve is a degreed aeronautical engineer from Purdue University specializing in advanced materials and structures. He served as a composites engineer and manager for the advanced structures and materials division of Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems and as lead engineer on several projects for McDonnell Aircraft Company.
With the success of the process in automotive use, the NCC team started thinking in terms of aerospace. That led to a contract with the Air Force Research Laboratory at WPAFB, and the center started producing fairings, tailcones, and other parts at significant costs savings over traditional materials. It also led to a critical donation of a $5 million gantry system from Boeing Phantom Works, which will be fitted with a large robotic fiber-placement arm. When assembled, the robot will stand 45 feet long, 25 feet wide and 22 feet high, with the capacity to produce composite parts as large as 14 by 43 feet -- an incredible size in the composites world.
After refining the RFP process even further, NCC signed with Dayton's
Lion Apparel, which produces firefighting gear and other apparel, to develop
a better fire helmet. Using a small-scale preformer, NCC produces 500
helmets a week for Lion, making this robot the highest-producing preformer
in the world. As I watched the process in action on a tour of NCC's facility,
the robotic arm swiftly and smoothly sprayed thousands of chopped fibers
into the shape of a fire helmet.
One of the tougher industry nuts to crack for composites has been bridge building, says Scott Reeve, who doubles as manager of NCC's Composites for Infrastructure (C4I) program. The higher expense of raw composites materials over traditional materials such as widely-used steel-reinforced concrete have kept the market from embracing composite bridge decks. As another factor, proving a bridge deck will hold up under live operating conditions takes time. "The bridge industry is cautious. Public safety is an issue."
Still, NCC has managed to get a foothold in Ohio's bridge rebuilding
market by teaming with composite manufacturer Hardcore Composites in Project
100. The state-backed initiative is designed to capitalize on the anticipated
growth of Fiber Reinforced Polymer (FRP) composites for bridge decks and
other infrastructure applications. After a year and only nine bridge rebuilds
into the 100-bridge program, however, the state pulled funding, prompting
NCC to launch the C4I program. Partnering with Martin Marietta Composites
of Raleigh, North Carolina, NCC signed on to rebuild six more bridge decks
under C4I. They have successfully completed four.
In another arena, Luedtke reveals, "Our board of trustees has just approved a program focused on the development of thermoplastics, which allow you to reheat and reshape them, as opposed to thermosetting composites created by a chemical reaction, which can't be undone. The use of thermoplastics has several advantages, including recyclability. It's really on the cutting edge from the standpoint of manufacturing."
Filling Many Roles
"Our give-back to the state and community is jobs," Luedtke adds. "So far, NCC has preserved or created nearly 200 jobs for the Greater Dayton area and is fast becoming a magnet for companies who want to locate around us." Indeed, in 2001, the composites division of Martin Marietta, the nation's second-largest producer of construction aggregates, relocated its bridge assembly operation to Ohio from Pennsylvania to partner with NCC.
Recently, the National Composite Center received $2 million in Wright Capital Project funds from the state of Ohio to purchase a large-scale preformer system and resin molding equipment. Once assembled with the gantry from Boeing Phantom Works, the large-scale composite parts system will begin producing parts for the Air Force and local industry. "There's been a lot of interest in large-scale composite parts," Luedtke states. "We already have industrial customers waiting for this system to come online so we can develop products specifically to their needs." In exchange for the $2 million in Wright Capital funds, NCC promised Ohio 150 jobs with an average salary of $50,000. "That will have an annual economic impact of $52 million for the state."
With the many successes of NCC and the impact it has had, I doubt Lou Luedtke misses riding a motorcycle. But maybe someday, if he changes his mind, he'll be able to park a gleaming new ride made almost entirely of composite materials in the parking space closest to NCC's front door. His dual images of Harley rider and businessman in a high-tech world would meld in perfect harmony.
For more information on the National Composite Center, visit www.compositecenter.org
Pamela Gregg is a freelance writer and also communications coordinator at the University of Dayton Research Institute in Dayton, Ohio.