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UMaine Researchers Help Auburn Firm with Boot Safety Product

Contact: John Belding, (207) 299-7904; Carl Spang, (617) 510-9295

ORONO — University of Maine researchers in the College of Engineering’s Advanced Manufacturing Center and AEWC Advanced Structures and Composites Center have successfully designed a composite toe-protection insert for Falcon Performance Footwear, an Auburn shoe company.

The new composite component replaces traditional steel toe protection. Falcon owner Carl Spang says the new fiberglass and resin toe cap is safer and potentially stronger than traditional steel toe caps, which transfer heat in extreme environments, conduct electricity, and can collapse upon toes in the event of failure.

“It’s pretty rugged stuff,” says engineer John Belding, director of the AMC, who reports that the composite toe cap, which is designed withstand a 2,000 to 4,000 pound-per-square-inch impact, and only then shatter (like a car window) instead of fold inward.

The project, two years in development and funded in part by a Maine Technology Institute seed grant to Falcon, is typical of the work done by UMaine’s AMC in conjunction with the university’s AEWC. In the case of Falcon Performance Footwear, the assistance will allow the company to make an entirely American-made firefighter boot, and even expand its product line to sell the new “Made in the USA” toe caps to other companies, including those who would sell boots to the United States military.

With product development now complete, students and researchers at the AMC will help develop and prototype the manufacturing process by reprogramming Falcon’s robotic equipment to automatically load the composite material, and then remove the newly formed toe caps for insertion into the boots, which Falcon makes on site.

“This process development is invaluable to our engineering students’ education, since the students are able to hit the ground running in any manufacturing company once they graduate,” says Belding.

Previously, Falcon’s toe caps were made in China, Spang says. When difficulties with overseas suppliers worsened, Falcon successfully sought an MTI seed grant to explore making composite toe caps at its Auburn manufacturing facilities. The company worked with the university to determine the right composite compound and to build a prototype mold for testing. UMaine researchers created an identical toe cap design through reverse engineering. They used a 3D CAD and a laser to take exact measurements of the Chinese caps and created the design for the new mold. The design then was optimized to work with the new composite material. The prototype mold, designed and machined by students at UMaine’s 30,000-square-foot AMC facility on the Orono campus, precisely duplicates the Chinese cap.

“In general, I think the collaboration with John and Jake Marquis (R&D Program Manager at AEWC) has been just great,” says Spang. Engineering, design and composites, he says, “are not our areas of expertise, so we needed a great deal of guidance and advice. I just can’t say enough good things about it.”

Companies like Falcon pay a fee for AMC and AEWC project services, and much of the Falcon work was supported by Maine Technology Institute seed grant funding.

“A lot of what we do is prototyping design and process development work for clients,” Belding says. “We are working with companies to prototype new products and processes so they can learn what we have learned, and turn the technology over to a private company for manufacturing.”

Belding is comfortable working with companies to help them further develop their existing intellectual property and technology. The goal is to help companies with great ideas for new products get them to the market and support the advancement of manufacturing in Maine, he says.

“We work with everyone from start-ups to a company like Jackson Lab,” creating new designs and prototype tools, including scientific and medical instruments, Belding says. Since 2004, the AMC has helped companies throughout Maine solve manufacturing dilemmas, working in the past year with some 50 companies, according to Belding.

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