J. Frank Crane is founder and president of JFCI Composites Group, with locations in Tampa, Fla., and Washington, N.C. Crane’s name is well recognized in the marine composite field, as he has been a go-to person for many years, pulling together teams for a variety of marine composite projects. Crane’s organizational skills in project management were tapped in the manufacturing of the composite superstructure for the Swift 141. This project involved converting a Royal Netherlands Navy S-class steel frigate to a luxury gigayacht by replacing the steel superstructure with composite materials, and was completed in 2009.
What is the climate like in marine composites?
At this time it is difficult to convince a builder to spend money to do some of the things that are possible with composites. This is due to the regulatory hurdles, cost and economy. The boatbuilding industry works on really skinny margins and does not have money for things that receive most of their benefit several years forward. However, there’s still an interest in the marine area.
What new areas are you now exploring?
I realize there are a lot of other avenues out there that have an interest to us, like small composite bridges. My business partner Jim Gardiner and I talk about making small bridges manufactured from composites because they don’t corrode, are light and easy to handle. My challenge is to try and sell people on infrastructure projects. The idea is to sell them on the benefits that composites bring—they would last 100 years.
What other areas are you considering?
We are looking at using composites in architectural applications. There are a lot of old buildings all over the world — lovely things to be saved — and composites make strong, suitable materials for rebuilding. We can use composites as stiffeners, or on the bottom of a concrete slab. You can build earthquake-proof homes with composites. And now, the international building code allows the use of composites.
What made the gigayacht project your most challenging?
I had never done anything on this scale before. The parts were huge. We improvised production of the technology. We developed a 20-ft x 80-ft temperature-controlled mold table elevated above a cement floor in a building, covered in epoxy, that allowed us a good surface for vacuum bagging, so we could do large panels and parts, and heat the molds in sections. One consideration we had was this: What do we do with it after we finish the project? The temperature-controlled mold table offered a fair amount of flexibility. It’s a fairly slow cure, and heats the mold up to 160F. That way, we could control the gel time.