Scott Lewit is the president of Structural Composites, West Melbourne, Fla., a composite engineering company that specializes in structures for marine, military, commercial and theme park applications. He has a master’s degree in Ocean Engineering from the Florida Institute of Technology – the same school where he started his company in 1986 based on vacuum infused resin transfer molding (VARTM) composite research being conducted with the U.S. Navy and his business partner, Dr. Ronald Reichard. Lewit recently won a Congressional Merit of Honor for his work developing a single-skin technology (SST) membrane for rigid inflatable Navy boats.
How can composite manufacturers succeed in this economy?
Customers are after weight savings, it’s up to our industry to open people’s minds to a new material that can provide that benefit. Fortunately, I’ve been able to find the right people within these markets. For example, through our efforts at Structural Composites, composite bridge decking will be qualified by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to be used in constructions such as movable bridges, which is a huge need in the state of Florida. This type of technology is really important for the state but also for the composites industry.
I’m a member of a coalition of boat builders in my area that are producing bridge decks. If you look at the state of the boating industry, we’re running at 30 to 35 percent production levels. This means that 70 percent of our manufacturing capacity is just sitting there. We have people out of work when there are structurally deficient bridges around the country that need to be rehabilitated or rebuilt. This would be a remarkable area for the industry and particularly the boating industry. I don’t see the boating sales to ever come back to the numbers we saw in the 1990s. Our new peak will be about 50 percent of that, or around where we were in 2005, and that’s where the new industry will stop at this point. We need to find new ways to apply ourselves.
What is the single-membrane technology you’ve developed?
The focus of the single-skin construction is that it can be manufactured very inexpensively. The materials we use to manufacture are not the advanced ones on the market. For example, we’re using a low grade fiberglass not carbon fiber. The infusion process we use to make the preform frames spits out a mile of framing in two hours. Sometimes the guy at the other end can’t handle receiving so much material! On average, we can produce frames at 16 feet a min with a top speed of 30 feet a minute. If you look at the framing, it’s nothing more than fabric and foam. With the amount of material we produce, the price of the membrane and frames are down to basically material cost. The labor cost is low because we make so much material. Therefore, we’ve created a structure lighter than a sandwich construction at a lower cost. For certain applications it’s really setting in. Floors and frame structures are a perfect setting.