2017-03-31 / Front Page

Landing School looks to launch ‘innovation loft’

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Students at work March 20 on boat-buiding projects at the Landing School in Arundel, as seen from the vantage point of a loft that will soon be renovated to become an Innovation Lab for out-of-the-box projects. (Duke Harrington photo)Students at work March 20 on boat-buiding projects at the Landing School in Arundel, as seen from the vantage point of a loft that will soon be renovated to become an Innovation Lab for out-of-the-box projects. (Duke Harrington photo)
ARUNDEL — The Landing School in Arundel has long had a reputation as a place to receive a world-class education in marine technology, but now it’s looking to expand from changing the lives of students to revolutionizing the boatbuilding industry as a whole, by creating a class where the assignments are made up, and the grades don’t matter.

According to Barry Acker, director of industry and student relations at the 40-year-old school, he and others are now trying to raise $200,000 to turn a loft overlooking one of the school’s main construction bays into an “innovation loft” where teachers and students can spend time putting hammer and glue to various “what-if” scenarios.

Landing School teaching assistants Cassio Nires, left, and Eric Bryanc work a computer numeric controlled (CNC) machining unit, which will soon be pressed into even more innovative use as part of the school’s new Innovation Lab. (Duke Harrington photo) Landing School teaching assistants Cassio Nires, left, and Eric Bryanc work a computer numeric controlled (CNC) machining unit, which will soon be pressed into even more innovative use as part of the school’s new Innovation Lab. (Duke Harrington photo) “If anything we come up with turns out to be feasible, then we can step it out to industry,” Acker said.

That concept is based on the famous Building 20, which once stood at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A temporary structure hastily put up during World War II, Building 20 was never given a formal name, but in the 55 years before it was finally torn down it served s a “magical incubator” for a host of innovative programs, in part because students could do things there that would not have been tolerated in a regular school structure.

As described by MIT professor Paul Penfield, “If you wanted to run a wire from one lab to another, you didn’t ask anybody’s permission — you just got out a screwdriver and poked a hole through the wall”

“It started out as just a place where these scientists and students got together to shoot the breeze, basically, but from that they came up with a bunch of really amazing things, like radar,” Acker said.

“So, the idea is that this loft we have, that really isn’t used for much now other than storage will become a kind of ‘skunk works’ room,” Acker said. “It will be a place where students and staff can gather together and talk about ideas, different things that might benefit the industry — different types of tools, parts, techniques, etc. — that are really not like anything out in the market right now. Then, next to that will be a rapid fabrication lab where, from discussion level, we can actually start by building prototypes.”

The Landing School already has much of the equipment it needs for the rapid prototyping. Thanks to the Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust and the Kennebunk Savings Bank Foundation, it has a used computer-numeric controlled (CNC) routing machine. Several years ago, it obtained, through the Maine Technology Institute, an Instron materials testing machine, used to see what angle and under what pressure different materials will break. And, with help from Bangor Savings Bank, the school bought an industrial grade 3-D printer.

It would like add a couple of additional printers to the new lab, but otherwise most of what needs to be done is infrastructure work to turn the existing loft into a ready workspace. A crane may be needed to lift down prototype hulls that are built, but otherwise the project can be completed for about $200,000, Acker said.

“That’s not a lot of money, but for us any money is a lot o’ money,” he joked.

The only other thing that remains, Acker said, is the will to do it, and to nail down details like, how, if at all, will any student work done in the loft count toward degree credit? And, if someone, or a team of students does come up with something adopted by businesses in the industry, who gets the patent rights?

“The key to all of this is that we are moving across disciplines, not within disciplines, to eliminated structure like faculty-staff-student, because this is something where everybody will have a say in this,” Acker said.

Still, the important thing, Acker said, is to remain focused on the goal of turning out from the Landing School innovative thinkers who will be snatched up by businesses, in and out of the marine industry, upon graduation.

“We’re tying to get our students, and our staff, too, to think in totally different ways, to say, this isn’t really working that well, if only we had a way to do ... whatever. That’s what we want students to be doing all of the time, to think way across different platforms,” Acker said, stressing that the new innovation loft will be a success for that reason, even if it never produces a single viable product.

In many ways, the new loft project is itself the sprouting of a new way of working born from the kernel of a single innovative idea.

Last year, school president Richard Schuhmann conducted a study of the Landing School’s carbon footprint, along with a life cycle analysis of the world-class boats constructed by its students. The effect of school operations on the environment turned out to be considerable, given that almost 100 percent of the wood used in every student project was then sourced from foreign counties.

“As you can imagine, it’s quite an impact to transport all those raw materials here from all over the world,” he said, “and that translated into a sizable carbon footprint for every hull we built.”

So, Schuhman guided the school into a 180-degree turnaround and now almost all its wood is purchased here in Maine and New England.

The result has been nothing short of remarkable. According to Acker, not only has the Landing School reduced its carbon footprint by 90 percent, by switching to local lumberyards, it has cut the cost of materials by nearly 66 percent.

Meanwhile, Schuhmann says the quality of Maine wood is, in many cases, actually superior to the products from former go-to sources. For example, the school has substituted Maine-grown black locust in place of African sapele, and now uses local white pine as the basis for most of its veneers.

“Usually, when you try to do something socially conscious, it ends up costing you, so it’s really great to be rewarded like this in both savings and superior materials,” Schuhmann said.

Now the school is making its green experiment standard operating procedure, expanding its sustainable practices from wooden hulls to composite materials. Thanks to a $52,000 grant from 11th Hour Racing, a division of the Schmidt Family Foundation, the Landing School is about halfway through construction of a 21-foot center console boat, working to standardize the process from one-off experiment into a model that can be replicated on a commercial level.

“What we really want to do is develop a strategy that any company in the marine business could use,” Acker said.

As the boat nears completion, Acker said, students will turn away from traditional petroleum-based construction materials, to instead use corn and soy-based epoxies, along with burlap and flax in place of carbon fiber and fiberglass.

During the first week of February, the school also received a $97,000 grant to build a lobster boat incorporating the same green principles. For that project, the school will work in partnership with the Maine Mari- time Academy in Castine.

“They’ll do design work, we’ll actually do the building, and then we’ll jointly do all the testing and sea trials, so it’s a great collaboration,” Acker said.

However, even though some phases will be handled at Maine Maritime, Acker said almost all Landing School students will have some role in the project, including design and systems work.

The Landing School enrolls about 80 students each year from all over the world. As a fully accredited school, students are eligible for federal loans, but it also maintains dozens of large scholarship funds, often aiding non-traditional students, male and female, from those fresh out of high school to older individuals looking to change careers.

“We’re not interested in their SAT scores, we’re interested in their motivation and their passion to work in the marine industry,” Acker said. “If somebody really wants to come here, we will help them figure out how to do it.”

But the promise of a more financially rewarding career is often not the reason new students choose the Landing School, although that is nearly always the result.

“Our students get amazing jobs,” said Acker, who handles all career placement. “Right now, I could probably get each student four or five jobs, even before graduation. Companies from all over the country are really anxious and excited to hire students from the Land- ing School.”

“There are remarkable opportunities in the marine industry,” Schuhmann said. “At the job fair we hold each April, we get as many companies as we do graduates, and each one is here actively recruiting. So, not only can our graduates find work, the work actually comes here to find them.”

However, what Schuhmann and Acker point to with pride is a recent survey which asked students what they feel they are getting out of their education at the Landing School.

“The promise of a good salary was actually way down the list,” Acker said. “The top five answers were achievement, recognition, just the work itself and the satisfaction of learning this trade, and advancement, along with personal and professional growth.

“Yes, everybody wants to be able to pay the rent and put food on the table, but it seems that what people today really want is a career that offers those five criteria,” Acker said. “So, it was nice see that students feel like they are getting a solid footing in that here.”

“Our students don’t want to sit in a classroom for the whole year, they want to do something that is creative and constructive and really challenges them,” Acker said.

And that mindset, boosted by results of the sustainable building project — now expanded from a one-year pilot to a four-year study — has led to the new innovations idea.

One thing all students and teachers at the Landing School have in common, Acker said, is “at some point, they all got bit by the boat bug.” As a result, it’s not unusual to find students and teachers huddled together in groups outside of class time, brainstorming ways to improve the trade.

“What we are seeking for our students is way for them to come up with new products for the marine industry that really haven’t been thought of yet,” Acker said. “Our goal is to work directly with marine companies on ideas to see if we can come up with new products to meet their needs.”

The Landing School is about a lot more than getting students to mimic teachers in the tasks needed to build a boat. One reason its students are in such high demand, Acker said, is that students come away with the critical thinking skills needed to be leaders in their field.

“These new programs are just another way to get our students to think about things creatively,” Acker said. “It’s all about getting our students to think differently about how things are built, and where things come from, about how things work. It’s really that kind of thinking that drives this overall program.”

“That’s why the boats our students turn out are already often better than what is commercially available,” Schuhmann said, noting that private buyers are often lined up to snatch away the student output. At the Landing School, it’s hands-on learning that has real world results.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

Return to top