The hum of activity in André Cocquyt’s advanced composites training class increases as the 15 trainees head from classroom to shop floor. There, blackboard theory is put into practice, with all the pitfalls and hazards of real life thrown in. The shop ceiling is festooned with vacuum hose and pressure lines, signaling that the boats built in this class are closed molded — the new wave of manufacturing with composites.

“Composites” is currently the buzzword along Maine’s waterfront, the result of synergies created by federal, state, academic and private collaboration to develop the a next-generation manufacturing niche in Maine. If “composites” conjures images of space-age materials and high-tech construction, you’re on the right track, but its origins are humble. “Composite” means mixing two or more materials and processing them to form something stronger than its separate parts. Think adobe, made from the baked mixture of mud and straw, or concrete, from cement, aggregate and rebar.

According to Cocquyt, of Harbor Technologies, Inc. in Brunswick, composite manufacturing is in a state of rapid change as old construction methods and technologies are replaced by more sophisticated newer ones. Open molding — the process of laying-up woven material (Kevlar, carbon fiber, fiberglass) and resin together on a mold — is obsolete. “[It’s] being dumped. It’s dirty, smelly, and new Clean Air Act regulations make it illegal in a lot of cases,” says Cocquyt. In open molding, workers are exposed to harmful chemical vapors emitted by the epoxies and resins used as bonding agents.

All variations of closed molding share the common principle of having all reinforcements and structural elements in place prior to applying the resin: precut fiberglass weave draped over the forms in a mold, for example. The mold is then sealed, and liquid resin is injected into it using vacuum and positive pressure. Vapors trapped inside the seal don’t escape, and only as much resin is injected as can be absorbed in the woven mesh.

“It’s the most radical change anybody’s going to see in our lifetime,” says Cocquyt. “It’s more efficient. Quality goes up, because quality control goes from the person mixing and applying resin to a semi-automated system. You’re not rushing to get the layup done before the resin `kicks’ (when the hardener catalyzes a reaction that cures viscous resin into a solid). You have all the time in the world, since you do all the prep before you put the resin in.”

Cocquyt is a world-class pioneer of cold molding. He says the process uses 20 to 30 percent less resin than open molding, and the results are far more uniform and predictable; weight, materials, and even costs are easier to specify accurately. It is also cost-effective because of the efficiencies inherent to the process. “We’ve made tremendous progress, and in two or three years, we’ll say we’ve come a long way,” says Cocquyt. He likens open molding to getting into a truck and hitting the gas, and cold molding to getting into an airplane cockpit and going through the pre-flight checklist before takeoff. “By the time you inject the resin [in closed molding], all the work is done. It makes it very technical, yet very professional. You’re not exposed to chemicals, and it doesn’t smell. That’s radical change.”

Harbor Technologies Inc., which manufactures sheet piling, round pilings and docks at its plant in Brunswick, is a leader in developing composite materials for marine applications. One needn’t travel far along the Maine coast to find rusting steel sheet piling, rotten or worm-infested wooden pilings, or pressure-treated wharfage leaching toxic metals and chemicals into the environment. Harbor Technologies president Martin Grimnes says composite materials are ideally suited to Maine’s harsh waterfront environments. For strength, composites equal wood and compete with steel; they are environmentally inert. Composites will not rot, rust, corrode or leach chemicals into the natural environment, nor be eaten by marine worms or borers, so they will far outlast conventional construction. Composite pilings are installed using the same method as traditional piles, and docks constructed of composites weigh about a third of conventional wooden docks, making handling easier.

Though composite structures wind up being cheaper in the long run because of their longevity, orders are only starting to ramp up. Most towns are constrained for budgeting reasons to keep upfront costs down. Grimnes says he sees this as a challenge, not a problem, and the environmental benefits of composites are on his side. “We’re new at this, but a lot of public entities and a lot of bodies of water do not permit pressure treated wood anymore.” (In fact it is banned in Long Island Sound, and the Maine DEP says it “prefers” the use of untreated lumber in Maine water bodies and wetlands.)

Just as composites unite two or more ingredients to yield a stronger product, Maine’s thrust into composites manufacturing is the result of collaboration and synergy. The North Star Alliance, an industry-led collaboration of academic, government, and private entities, is working to ensure that Maine’s composites industry reaches critical mass and has the research, training and development needed to sustain it over the long haul. Northstar won a $14.4 million federal Department of Labor grant to develop leading edge proficiency in composite boatbuilding, with the expectation that a highly trained workforce will provide stimulus in other related manufacturing sectors as well. The grant money “combines workforce and economic development and education,” says Christina Sklarz-Libby, the Alliance’s program manager. Formerly with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, Sklarz-Libby sees the Northstar Alliance as stepping out of the mold of typical economic development. “This grant is industry-led and driven. We’ve never had industry at the table leading before,” says Sklarz-Libby. Building on that, Southern Maine Community College received a $2.2 million federal grant to establish the Advanced Composites Technology Training Center, where André Cocquyt teaches in Brunswick.

“Our manufacturing capacity is coming out of boatbuilding and expanding into other areas,” says Stephen Von Vogt, president of Maine Marine Composites, an industry trade group. Von Vogt envisions Maine’s niche expanding into government and other commercial applications. “We’re starting to build up that market in this state. I’d love to see a composite ferry manufactured in-state, and am talking with the DOT [Maine Department of Transportation]. It would have better fuel efficiency because of its lower weight, and have higher life cycle cost efficiency because it does better in salt water than steel.”