John Hillman developed the hybrid-composite beam (HCB), a bridge beam using a combination of fiberglass, steel and concrete. Eventually, he formed the HC Bridge Company with the purpose of commercializing this new technology. He was recently named 2010 Innovator of the Year by Engineering News-Record.
How did you develop the HCB?
I initiated the project back in 1996. The first experimental testing we did was facilitated through a Transportation Research Board high speed rail idea program, for ideas implementing exploratory analysis. We started with a type 1 grant, where we fabricated the first beam, did the analytical studies, and figured out how to build one and test it. That first phase of research was done with the University of Delaware as our subcontractor and co-investigator. Based on the success of phase one, we received a type 2 grant to look at developing a commercially-viable, cost-efficient manufacturing process. That culminated with lab testing of beams and deployment of the first bridge on a live railroad track in 2007.
How are the beams fabricated?
We use a closed-mold process. We infuse the tension reinforcing, which is usually a steel tie, in with the fiberglass shell, and that encompasses the main component of the beam. As part of that reinforcing, we fabricate in the hollow conduit, where we later inject the compression reinforcement, which is typically concrete.
What challenges did you face designing and engineering the product?
From a manufacturing standpoint, the challenge was manufacturing a part of that size and complexity with fairly inexpensive processes in terms of tooling and labor and infusion process. It turned out to be a lot more challenging than we anticipated. It was certainly more difficult than validating the structural performance, which seemed to work out quite well.
The other big challenge was resistance to a new product. Anytime you try to introduce a new technology, especially in a more conservative industry, is just satisfying the questions and concerns that particular industry has in deploying a new technology. You need to make them feel that by using these beams, they’re not compromising the quality of the structures they’re building.
Were those concerns widespread?
Absolutely, and they always will be due to the nature of what we do. In civil engineering especially, our first and foremost obligation is to public safety. Thus, there are not a lot of incentives to take risks because there really is no tolerance for failure. From my standpoint, I have to be 100 percent confident that whatever we’re designing and implementing is going to be safe.