October 29, 2012

Wyman & Simpson embraces composite tech in niche markets

photo/amber waterman
photo/amber waterman
Wyman & Simpson President Doug Herman stands near the $764,000 Royal River bridge in Auburn, which used Bridge-In-A-Backpack technology for its construction
photos/courtesy Advanced Infrastructure Technologies LLC

Building with a Bridge-in-a-Backpack

Inflatable tubes are brought to a work site in a backpack before being filled with a specialized concrete on-site.

  1. The bases of arched, hollow carbon-fiber composite tubes, already bent and infused with resin, are encased in a concrete footing.
  2. The arches are covered with corrosion-resistant, fiber-reinforced plastic corrugated decking before being filled with self-consolidating concrete.
  3. The arches are then covered with fill, sub base and asphalt.
  4. Side retaining walls of composite materials and prefabricated concrete are installed.

Wyman & Simpson Inc.

Address: 910 Main St., Richmond

President: Doug Herman

Founded: 1924

Employees: 61

Services: General contractors specializing in highways, bridges, hydro-electric and marine construction

Revenues: $12 million-$14 million

Contact: 737-4471

Founded in 1924 by a pair of highway engineers, Richmond-based engineering and construction firm Wyman & Simpson has long specialized in bridge and road construction, adapting new techniques and technology in an effort to invert that classic Down East idiom to ensure that you can, in fact, get there from here.

That commitment to innovation continues as Wyman & Simpson positions itself to capitalize on a rising trend in the industry: the use of composite materials in bridge construction.

In April, the company earned the top award in the bridge category from The Associated General Contractors of Maine for its work on Boothbay's Knickerbocker Bridge. The $3.8 million project connecting the mainland to Hodgdon and Barters islands is the world's first multi-span hybrid composite beam bridge, using materials from Brunswick-based Harbor Technologies to support the eight spans that make up the 540-foot bridge.

Wyman & Simpson turned to new composite-concrete technology designed at the University of Maine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center and later commercialized by Illinois firm HC Bridge Co., to build the bridge. The technology is based on filling a lightweight beam exoskeleton with specialized concrete at a job site. The exoskeleton shells are easy to transport and position, and, once filled, can sustain a higher load capacity than traditional beams while shaving 15% off construction costs.

"This was groundbreaking for us in that no company had ever used that material in the state of Maine, and certainly not on a multi-span bridge like that," says Wyman & Simpson President Doug Herman.

The lightweight characteristics of the exoskeleton shells — they are one-third the weight of steel and one-tenth the weight of concrete — made for easy installation and maneuverability, according to Herman.

"We didn't have to use a heavy crane or stop traffic," he says. "All those pieces can be moved very easily."

Using a similar but different composite technology, Wyman & Simpson has also recently completed two "Bridge-in-a-Backpack" projects, in Auburn and Bradley. The bridges were made from lightweight carbon-fiber tubes that were transported to a construction site in a backpack and installed manually without the need for heavy construction equipment. The bridge-in-a-backpack technology was also born at the university's composite center.

"I'm a UMaine grad, so I keep up with the new technology as much as I can," says Herman. "We knew some of that [composite technology] was coming and knew they would be interesting jobs."

A bridge to the future

The market potential for composite materials in bridge construction is on the rise, as evidenced by the Federal Highway Administration's recent approval of composite beams for FHA-funded projects. An estimated 160,000 of the nation's 600,000 road bridges need repair or replacement.

Matt Marks, CEO of Associated General Contractors of Maine, says the longer-lasting, easier-to-install composite technology holds real promise for companies like Wyman & Simpson.

"Today, 14% of Maine bridges are structurally deficient and 16% are functionally obsolete; that's 30% of bridges that have some type of issue," says Marks. "I think we have to look at new ways to install bridges where materials are intended to last."

Nate Benoit, project manager of the Maine DOT Bridge Program, says the department is already quoting other projects using composite beam technology and is bullish on the new construction method.

"We're optimistic that the use of composites may be able to extend bridge life, especially in Maine," he says, citing an upcoming bridge project in Thomaston that the department is considering composites for. The composite beams, made from glass fiber, foam and steel, are better able to resist corrosion and can last 100 years longer than ordinary concrete and steel bridges, according to Popular Science.

"It's an option that should be investigated each time, but it usually comes down to cost and if it is the right material for the location," says Benoit, who is optimistic that as the technology takes hold, it will only become more cost-effective. "As we do more and more composite bridges, the cost will fall as we get more into mass producing and finding better ways to manufacture."

Due to lighter, more manuverable beams, the construction costs associated with composite beam bridges tend to be lower than their conventionally built brethren, but the cutting edge materials are often more expensive.

Marks says the Knickerbocker Bridge project showcases the value of strong partnerships with the Maine Department of Transportation, UMaine's Advanced Structures and Composites Center and speaks to Wyman & Simpson's commitment to innovation.

"The company has a history of progressive use of new technologies," says Marks.

That history goes back to 1924 when the company was founded by Walworth Simpson and A.P. Wyman and completed its first project — the Augusta Reservoir — in 1926. In the 1930s, the company was tapped by noted philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. to construct the iconic stone arched bridges along what would become Acadia National Park's carriage roads.

A marquee contract to build the Martin's Point Bridge between Falmouth and Portland almost bankrupted the company in 1941 when, amid the dawn of World War II, the price of steel and labor suddenly skyrocketed, decimating the project's profit margin. In 1949, it drew national attention for its largest project, constructing the Dead River Dam and, in the process, wiping the town of Flagstaff off the map as the river was redirected to enlarge Flagstaff Lake into a reservoir for hydroelectric power.

The arrival of the interstate in Maine brought steady work to the bridge-and-highway specialists, with other transportation projects and military contracts rounding out the business through the '60s and '70s. Herman bought the company in 1991 and has worked to maintain its reputation as a leading builder of bridges, roads and dams. In each of the last five years, the company has reported between $12 million and $15 million in revenue.

"Bridges and roads are a huge part of our skill base; pile driving, heavy concrete projects, copper dams, earth moving, it's what we do. We have a certain skill base and we use it," says Herman.

Figuring it out

While Herman was eager to try his hand at working with emerging composite technology, the Knickerbocker Bridge required tweaking of established construction methods to ensure that the first-of-its-kind project didn't end in a briny splash.

"The real challenge for us was how to work with the material," says Herman. "We had to just break it down into pieces like we do anything, but filling them with concrete was a little bit tricky."

Composite beam projects require a specialized self-consolidating concrete, designed to flow with plastic properties in order to fill the farthest reaches of the composite shell.

"Everyone assumed we were going to use a concrete pump, but that didn't work because you couldn't control the flow and one of the worst things that can happen is that you create a void [in the mold]; you really need to be able to control the flow going in and the air coming out," he says.

Herman credits project superintendent Scott Stanchfield with creating an on-site solution, modifying an old, crane-mounted concrete bucket to add a steel pipe which could be fed into the nozzles of the beam shells.

"He came up with that, and it was a pretty interesting concept. It was a big advantage when it came to filling them up," says Herman.

Harbor Technologies COO Rob Fuller says that the Wyman & Simpson team became so adept at filling the shells during the Knickerbocker project that the company now regularly contracts out that portion of composites jobs to the construction firm.

"Working with any new technology requires a certain amount of adaptation," he says. "You have to be able to work with and understand these materials; Wyman & Simpson is very good at that."

The two companies have bid a number of additional contracts together, but have yet to land their next joint project.

"But that's common in contracting," says Fuller. "Scoring one out of 10 projects is pretty average."

Since its completion last year, the Knickerbocker Bridge has been visited by DOT professionals from around the country who are interested in cutting maintenance and replacement costs for bridges.

"I feel this technology definitely has a place in the market. I know they are fairly expensive, but you're talking about making a 50-year bridge into a 100-year bridge," says Benoit.

Herman says his company will continue to capitalize on its in-house composite beam expertise and pursue projects using the technology, but he does have reservations about their longevity.

"We would like them to corrode a little faster," Herman says, laughing. "Just kidding, of course."


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