The Advantages of Fiber Reinforced Polymer
By Mark Luedtke
Who said manufacturing is dead in Dayton? Composite Advantage, located on Kiser Street in Old North Dayton, recently unveiled its newest pedestrian bridge in D.C. as part of the city’s sustainability initiative. But this isn’t like bridges of the past. It’s made of fiberglass composite.
Scott Reeve, founder and president of Composite Advantage, explains the difference between traditional fiberglass and the Composite Advantage product, “Most CA products are fiberglass reinforcements protected by corrosion resistant polymers. The manufacturing process involves the layup of dry fiberglass fabrics followed by the infusion of liquid polymers. The combination cures to provide a solid part.” This process is more environmentally friendly than traditional fiberglass, and the resulting product is stronger and higher quality.
Fiber Reinforced Polymer (FRP) bridge decks offer many advantages over concrete, steel and wood. One advantage is lighter weight. FRP decks weigh only ten to twenty percent of a typical bridge deck, making the product especially valuable for certain, specific applications. For example, mobile bridges such as drawbridges and temporary bridges greatly benefit from the reduced weight. Their structural supports can be smaller to support the lighter weight, making the bridges easier and less costly to move. The lightweight material makes it possible to add pedestrian walkways to the existing structure of roadway bridges. FRP decking can also replace heavy decking on bridges which have suffered structural weakening, extending the life of those bridges.
Another important property of FRP decking and a significant factor in the D.C. bridge was how “green” it is. Reeve describes why FRP is considered a green technology, “The composite products last twice as long as the traditional steel and concrete used in bridges. This makes composites more sustainable since they do not need to be replaced as often. Replacement uses up more resources. The manufacturing process is ‘greener’ than steel and concrete manufacturing which require much more energy and water than composite manufacturing. Although not done for this bridge, some of our products have used bio-resins that incorporate corn and soy into the polymer resin.”
In addition, FRP decking pieces can be molded in any configuration, making assembly fast and easy. Because it’s so lightweight, it doesn’t require heavy equipment for assembly. The decking for the D.C. bridge also included built-in structures that are normally added on at the site.
“Composite Advantage delivered decking that already had curbs, drain scuppers and electrical junction boxes in the deck panels. These prefabricated panels reduce the time and cost of on-site construction. In addition to being more durable than conventional building materials, composites can be made any color, hence the brown color of the deck which fits into the natural sitting. Also, the technology allows more flexibility for architectural details such as the slight S-shaped curve of the bridge,” said Reeve.
Over the lifetime of the bridge, because the product requires no maintenance, all these advantages add up to lower cost and a greener product than conventional bridge decking. The downside is, because FRP decking is an emerging technology, the upfront cost of the product is higher than conventional decking.
“The technology is emerging as there are newer manufacturing techniques that are much better than the old processes. The new infusion process is the best and safest method to get large parts with high structural requirements. There are new material inputs that bring better properties to composites,” said Reeve. “Composites are an emerging technology in the infrastructure and construction markets. It takes time to prove out a new technology in markets where safety is very important and to find where composite products offer the most value. It took steel 30 years to displace wood in bridges.”
As this technology matures, the cost will come down and more applications will open up. Composite Advantage already produces entire bridges, structure and decking.
Reeve recognizes that the D.C. bridge has raised the awareness of his company and its product, “It is great to get this bridge installed in DC. It has been in-work for many years. After working hard to make the bridge look good and have the extra features, it is nice for our manufacturing people to see what that effort results in. This is a very good step towards increasing usage of composites in bridges. It is a visible project. Bridge people gain confidence seeing successful projects like this. It resulted in the Federal Highway Administration designing another pedestrian bridge based on the Anacostia design.”
But the D.C. bridge isn’t Composite Advantage’s only project. According to Reeve, “Composite Advantage is the national leader in fiber composite bridges. This year we are installing five bridges.” The company also makes bumpers for Navy submarines and rail platforms.
A spin-off of the National Composite Center (NCC) in Kettering, Reeve, who used to be Vice President for Operations at NCC, praises the advantages of locating in Dayton, “Composite Advantage is in Dayton because of the resources available here. Facilities, labor, lots of quality suppliers like tooling vendors.” And he also has a message for the people of Dayton,
“Manufacturing is alive in Dayton and moving into new technologies and markets. Manufacturing here should not be treated as the past. Manufacturing in the Dayton is very important to the region’s future and it is important to maintain our country’s economic and security positions in the world.” Thanks to visionaries like Reeve, Dayton is evolving and leading the way in new manufacturing technologies.
Reach DCP freelance writer Mark Luedtke at MarkLuedtke@DaytonCityPaper.com.