On the Brink - With Massive Defense Cuts Looming in Early 2013, Local Contractors Hope Congress Takes Action Soon

 

By Patrick Peterson Florida Today

Scott Lewit built a better boat with the help of the federal government.“Most of that is going to impact future capabilities,” he said. “It’s going to be more the long-range research. The ripple effects will be crippling. They survive on these government contracts.”

The U.S. Navy spent $1 million to help him design and build the prototype of a utility boat that is 40 percent lighter, more fue lefficient and less likely to injure its crew when it crashed into waves. The project kept him afloat during the recent recession and kept his nearly 40 employees working at the 24-year-old company.The boat-building technology he developed eventually could be adopted commercially, creating a more-efficient and more-profitable recreational boating industry. But Congress’ inability to compromise threatens to stop progress on this project. It also threatens the huge part of the Brevard County economy that depends on funding from the Defense Department. The threat is “sequestration,” and a lot of people are worried about its effect.

“You get the impression it’s going to wreak havoc across the whole system,” said Lewit, the president of Structural Composites in Melbourne. “It’s always disruptive if they stop efforts right in midstream.” Lewit’s company is one of 1,600 in Brevard County that could be punished if Congress can’t restore the money sequestration will strip from the budget. The $109 billion in cuts nationwide from the defense budget likely would end thousands of jobs and cut short research that could provide the technology to create new industries. Brevard stands to lose about $300 million, officials say.

During the recession, Lewit’s company received $1 million in federal contracts to design and build the Navy’s upgraded boat. He’s now working to extend that research and win a $7 million contract to design a shockabsorbing boat for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which would reduce injuries to boat crews and save fuel. “We’re at the point where we’re starting to gear back up, and we’re seeing a lot of opportunities,” Lewit said.  

Smaller companies, the source of most innovation, will be hit hardest because they don’t have the flexibility to shift into the commercial market.  “You’re going to lose the innovations they build on,” Howell said. “If you don’t have today’s business, you’re not going to be working on tomorrow’s innovations.”  

Lewit’s design uses lighter foam-core spars to strengthen the hull. Additionally, the techniques he developed for materials and construction methods for the Navy could be licensed soon by commercial boat companies, which are seeing their markets rebound from the recession. “We can do the same thing to the boat you drive,” he said. “We can leverage our government research dollars and move technology to the commercial market.”

Receiving Defense Department research grants is crucial to technological advances in many industries, and the remaining options for funding are few. “The banks aren’t going to give you a loan,” Lewit added. “You’re pretty much on your own.”    

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