On Jan. 23, Structural Composites (Melbourne, Fla.) announced that it will be one of 13 Florida companies to share nearly $3 million (USD) in grant funding through the Florida Research Commercialization Matching Grant Program (FRCMGP). The company was awarded $245,000 to boost its innovative lightweight boat technology in this highly competitive grant program. Structural Composites’ president Scott Lewit says the funds will greatly leverage his company’s efforts as it develops the next generation of cost-effective, lightweight boats for the military.
At the ACMA’s recent COMPOSITES 2011 trade show (see our coverage on p. 20), Lewit gave a presentation about some of the technologies that he and his team are developing under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) with matching Florida funding. The U.S. Navy’s rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) fleet is key to strategic operations, but the craft’s small size limits mission payloads. Further, adding equipment or people to the small boats often isn’t an option because davits (the small cranes that lower the RHIBs into the water from a larger naval vessel) can get overloaded. Lewit’s idea is to make the boats lighter, using better technology and improved manufacturing, and to “reduce the crew’s exposure to wave-slamming loads, which can cause injury.” In partnership with Lockheed Martin (Bethesda, Md.), Brunswick Corp. (Lake Forest, Ill.) and Zodiac Boats (Stevensville, Md.), a new RHIB design is in the works, using what Lewit terms “portable” technologies that can be used separately or in combination:
- Low-section framing for the hull, wherein low-profile stiffening ribs are attached to the hull (in contrast to sandwich construction).
- A hull designed as a flexible membrane, with considerable flex, to allow energy absorption.
- A “suspended” cockpit, not connected to the hull framing, so the stress pattern is decoupled and effectively cushions the occupants.
- The use of “sharkskin,” a tough gel coat alternative for hull bottoms, similar to what is used for truck-bed liners;
- Creating an air cushion between the hull and the deck to absorb slam loads.
- Employing closed molding techniques for more effective and ultimately faster fabrication, because the hull skin and low-section framing are co-infused.
Lewit believes these concepts will lead to lighter engines and vessels, and the vessels will be more durable and, ultimately, more comfortable. Florida’s boatbuilders have been hit hard by the downturn, adds Lewit: “Our technology can help create a new generation of fuel-efficient boats that offer performance and functionality but can be towed by smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. This can create a whole new market for boating.”
FRCMGP, an economic development program created by the Florida legislature in 2010 and administered by the nonprofit Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research, is highly competitive. The institute received nearly 60 grant applications from across the state with requests for more than $12 million. The FRCMGP awards match Phase I and Phase II research funds received by small businesses in Florida through awards from SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. This funding enables companies to produce the kind of distinctive technologies and associated jobs that are driving today’s knowledge-based economy, says Lewit.