Q&A with Ken Sweeney
At this very moment, traffic is going over a bridge in a rural part of Trinidad. A bridge that was designed and installed by a Maine company, Advanced Infrastructure Technology (AIT).
AIT uses advanced composite materials in their bridge systems. The materials used have been designed to reduce construction time and increase the durability and lifespan of the bridge. The goal of the company is to replace aging bridges using advanced composite materials that will provide an extended lifespan with little or no maintenance required.
The components are pre-manufactured and delivered to the site and can be installed using light weight equipment or hand labor. AIT is a full-service operation, providing design, engineering, the bridge parts and pieces and construction services.
The company was formed in 2008 to spin-off more than a decade of research conducted at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine. That research produced a rapidly deployable bridge for military purposes, commonly referred to as “Bridge-in-a-Backpack."
AIT was formed to commercialize that inflatable arch technology and has designed a Composite Arch Bridge system built from the original technology. The company is located at the Target Technology Center in Orono, Maine, just a few miles from the University of Maine campus.
Ken Sweeney, who serves as AIT’s Chief Engineer after retiring from 35 years as a Chief Engineer with the Maine Department of Transportation, discussed the opportunities and challenges the company has faced bringing a new technology to market.
Tell us about some of your projects
We’ve got about 19 bridges out there. We built three this past summer, in Connecticut, Maine and Michigan. We’ve also built bridges in Maine and Vermont.
The bridge we built in Trinidad replaced an old wooden bridge that was out in the sticks and collapsed. We have proposals and projects in the works for bridges in North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania and in Guam.
Where do you see the opportunities for AIT?
We have a nation of aging bridges that need to be replaced. More states are making this a priority. For example, Pennsylvania has formed a public/private partnership to replace 500 bridges in that state. We have been approved by the Pennsylvania DOT to build bridges there, so we are hopeful that we will.
In 2013, we received national code approval for our bridge systems. That gives us an “umbrella” nationally, but then each state has their own codes, specifications and standards that you have to meet.
We have a lot of “good” buzz out there and that drives inquiries. Plus, we are seeing repeat business as the result of projects we have completed. Our customers like working with us and they like the results.
What are some of your challenges?
We can’t build bridges until we’ve built relationships. It can take years from the
initial inquiry to when we arrive on site to build a bridge. We spend a lot of time building awareness and educating our potential customers about the advantages of our bridge systems. Our customers fall into three categories.
The State’s Department of Transportation and municipalities (they own the bridges).
The consultants and engineers (they design the bridges).
The contractors (they build the bridges).
We have to get “buy-in” from all three. Sometimes it’s hard to convince them to
try something new, when they’ve always built bridges the same way. Plus, we’re
dealing with state and municipal budgets so the cost has to be competitive.
How have you funded the company?
We are grateful to our investors who believe in our vision and our product and understand that this type of business and technology requires “patient capital." The time frame from the “Aha” moment to viability is 15 to 20 years.
We are showing steady growth and becoming more sustainable every year. We need to be at 30 to 40 bridges to be truly viable, we are at 19 now.
What is your current relationship with the University of Maine?
All of our employees, (six full-time and one part-time) are graduates from UMaine, mostly engineers. We are constantly innovating and testing our products, working closely with Civil Engineers and the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University.
For example, we had a customer who was concerned about how our bridge would stand up to a fire under the bridge. We decided to test our composite arch bridge against a more traditional steel/concrete arch bridge. An experiment was conducted with the Advanced Structures and Composites Center. Two bridges were built and high heat was placed under the bridges. Our design withstood up to 2200 degrees of direct heat and maintained 80% strength.
The steel bridge started to sag and melt at 1600 degrees. Our bridge performed as well or better as the steel bridge under those same circumstances.
We have and continue to do a lot of testing with the university. That is why we were approved and certified at the national level because we had real proof that our bridge systems warranted that certification.
What’s next for AIT?
We will continue to grow the business and use what we know about composites, about bridges and what our customers are looking for to continue to innovate and commercialize new products for the industry.