Rafael Chou makes synthetic ropes do amazing things, even seemingly impossible ones.
A vice president of Samson, Chou directs the cordage company's research and development efforts. Under his supervision, a staff of 20 people at the company's research and development center in Ferndale, Wash., create new high-performance products and improve existing ones.
One of the most remarkable products to come out of Chou's labs is a kind of synthetic rope designed to replace fire wire.
As the term suggests, fire wires are lengths of wire line that are suspended from the outboard side of docked ships. The idea is that if a fire breaks out and the ship needs to be pulled away from the dock, tugs can come alongside, latch onto the fire wire and tow the ship away.
Fire wires are generally deployed by hand, Chou explained, and crews are at risk of back injury when doing so. So ship owners were looking for a lighter weight alternative that would pose less risk of injury to the people handling them.
A synthetic rope made of organic materials would not seem a likely choice. Exposed to a propane torch, a typical synthetic rope would fail in about 30 seconds, according to Chou.
Chou was confident, however, that he could devise something that would have the strength and heat resistance required.
What he came up with is a product named Vulcan, the Roman name for the god of fire. It consists of an aramid core with a heat and fire-resistant coating. The test of course was how long it could stand up to an open flame.
When the new rope was put to the test, people gathered around to watch and were amazed by what they saw.
"At five minutes people started betting," Chou said. They did not believe that any synthetic rope could last long. In fact, the rope lasted more than a hour of exposure to direct flame.
Chou was granted a patent for Vulcan fire rope in 2007, his third since his arrival at Samson six years earlier in 2001.
Today he and his organization have registered seven patents.
The research and development work done by Chou and his colleagues is fundamental to Samsonâ€™s identity in the market.
"We want to compete on quality and technology, not on priceâ€¦We do business with customers who appreciate value," he said."Rather than selling a product, we're selling a solution."
In other words, Samson wants its customers to think of the company as the source of the most technically advanced cordage products available. And Chou is arguably the person most responsible for creating and nurturing that image.
A decade ago, Samson's parent, Wind River Holding Co., based in King of Prussia, Pa., decided it wanted to find a way to differentiate Samson from other cordage companies. The way to do that, it concluded, was through leadership in technology. And the way to achieve that goal would be to create an industry-leading research and development facility.
Success would depend, of course, on finding the right person to run the R&D center. Samson decided that person would be Chou.
A native of Taiwan, Chou received a degree in chemical engineering from the National Taiwan University in 1982. He came to the United States in 1986 on a scholarship to study at the Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y. (The school is now a part of New York University.) He studied advanced fiber materials. He was awarded his doctorate in 1990 after completing his thesis on the interaction of engineering resins and Kevlar. Next came four years at the Textile Research Institute, which is affiliated with Princeton University. That time included research regarding how to define in a quantitative way the specific properties of composite materials.
"In order to improve a certain property, the first question is how that property is defined," Chou explained."If you can't define it, there is no way to improve it."
In 1994, he left the academic world to work in the industry for the first time, with Clark-Schwebel, a maker of specialty fabrics in Anderson, S.C. The products included printed circuit boards. He helped design the interface between glass fiber and epoxy resin. The goal was to produce a product with no voids between the fibers and the resins.
"If there are any voids," he explained, "water gets in and will short the circuit," clearly not a good thing in a digital device.
In 1998, he moved to Denver for a position with the Gates Rubber Co., whose products include timing belts in cars. These belts are typically made of reinforced fiber imbedded in rubber.
"Rubber is not very easy to bond to coatings and adhesives," he observed. His task was to improve the bonds between the rubber and the associated materials forming the belts.
This background put Chou at the leading edge of composite materials technology. He was an expert in engineering ways to make composite materials serve a specific function. In other words, exactly the kind of person Samson needed to lead its R&D initiative.
The emphasis on innovation seems to have paid dividends for Samson. Revenues have grown about 2.5 times in the last seven years. The marine side of the business, which accounts for about 60 percent of the total, has grown a bit faster than the inland side.
"New vessels, we're driven by that," Chou said.
The company is trying to expand it business base. In 2009 it added 35,000 feet to its manufacturing facilities in Lafayette, La., as part of its drive to expand its presence in the offshore oil and gas industry. The new space houses braiding equipment to produce the very long, large-diameter synthetic ropes that can replace the wire rope used for mooring oil rigs.
While the work done by Chou and his staff has helped the company to grow, it also has great human and environmental implications. As he explained, the research and development helps Samson's customers accomplish three things: greater efficiency, improved safety and protection of the environment.
"We help companies make more money and be more safe," Chou said.
The lines made by Samson use DPX technology involving high modulus polyethylene fiber (HMPE). Its advantages are its high strength and low weight (light enough to float in water). Its drawbacks include its surface slickness ("When you tie it to an H-bitt, it slips.") and limited resistance to higher temperatures.
So Samson is constantly looking for ways to make the ropes function better by doing such things as using different fibers on the surface of the lines to make them grip better, while improving their abrasion and temperature resistance.
For example, the Quantum series has an HMPE center and a treated surface. That gives the lines a fuzzy surface that greatly improves its gripping qualities.
"That's now the industry norm," Chou said.
Samson recently introduced a coated line called Saturn-12 that it says will increase the life of the line by as much as 20 percent compared with other HMPE lines. The 12-strand line designed for use by tugs has a patented coating that improves abrasion resistance internally and externally, resulting in longer life. It is suitable for use on drums or the pendant of an escort line. However, because the line is slippery, it is not recommended for use on H-bitts, capstans or cleats because it might slip.
The typical life of a synthetic line aboard a tug is about two years. A key question facing any vessel operator using synthetic lines is when has a line reached the point that it needs to be retired.
As Chou observed, "Dyneema is good stuff, but expensive."
So there is a strong economic incentive to keep using a line as long as possible. But if a line is used for too long, the consequences could be catastrophic for the crewmembers of a tug who would be at risk of serious injury or death from a line that snaps. And were a line to snap while a ship was under escort, an environmental disaster could ensue if the ship went aground or was involved in a collision that resulted in an oil spill.
Samson uses its research facilities to help its customers make good decisions on retiring their lines â€” decisions based on hard data that will allow the vessel operators to get optimal return on their investment without endangering their employees or the environment.
"It is almost impossible to derive the life expectancy of a rope from first principles," Chou explained. "Every application is different."
So Samson works with individual customers to determine just how their lines are being used and how they perform. That can include onboard inspections that might turn up things such as rough areas on a bitt that are fraying the line. Samson will also test the lines themselves to see how they are holding up in a specific operation over time.
Once Samson has learned all it can about a given operation, it can provide guidance on how the lines should be used and when they should be retired.
"We work with customers on retirement criteria, at what point do we retire the rope," Chou said. "We don't want the rope to break while they are using it."
Samson provides participating companies data on which they can make rational decisions about when to retire a line.
The lines Samson sells, along with the guidance the company provides, allow customers to operate more efficiently and save money in the long term, Chou said, but safety remains of first importance.
"We generate a lot of knowledge about how to use a rope safely," he said.
So the science that Chou brings to Samson helps him develop high-performance products, but it also means taking a rigorous, quantitative approach to operations and safety.
Or as he put it,"I'm responsible for quality."