Down East Inc. invents better pack frames for military

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

Probably the last thing on the minds of our U.S. Army Soldiers or Marines, as they go to fight in the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, is whether their backpack is sturdy enough to handle the job.

CUTTING EDGE TECHNOLOGY — Tom Bardsley, quality assurance manager at Down East Inc. of Bridgton, demonstrates one of the many strength tests their back pack frames must undergo in order to pass the rigorous standards of the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army. (Geraghty photo)

Not a problem — Bridgton inventor Frank Howell has done all the worrying for them. For the past eight years, he and the people who work for him at Down East Inc. have been designing and perfecting a very lightweight yet incredibly strong plastic backpack frame that has replaced an older model made of aluminum and steel.

In 2003, the U.S. Army selected Down East’s pack frame technology, made of a revolutionary new polymer plastic designed and perfected in Down East’s research and development company on Depot Street, behind the Magic Lantern Theatre.

“We have produced over 1.5 million combat field rucks that are given to every soldier that they use in their deployment,” Howell said. It’s called the Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment (MOLLE)-large rucksack system, capable of carrying 200 pounds.

Two years ago, the Army was looking for a new frame capable of carrying lighter loads, suitable for soldiers fighting in the steep terrain and remote outposts and mountains of Afghanistan. Down East delivered once again, beating out two other systems by producing a plastic frame, shaped like a giant U, that is specifically designed to be compatible with body armor. It carries 80 pounds, half as much as the larger frame, and allows body armor to be easily taken off or put on. It’s called the MOLLE-medium “and works very well,” Howell said. As a first tier subcontractor, Down East has delivered over 200,000 of those frames to defense contractors, such as Boeing Aerospace, who have the billion-dollar contracts for the packs.

Last year, the U.S. Marines announced their intention to outfit their corps with a new combat field ruck, and Down East was invited to take part in field-testing and evaluation trials. A few weeks ago, after extensive testing, the Marines selected an updated version of the MOLLE-large system Down East produced for the Army as their new primary combat ruck.

“We’re producing 245,000 of them right out of the gate” over the next 12 months, Howell said. Also capable of carrying 200 pounds, the new ruck weighs half a pound less than the Army’s version, and is more versatile.

It was recently tested in a fully-loaded 120-pound pack, dropped from a plane. It withstood the impact without a scratch. It cannot withstand a direct bullet impact, but it is very resistant to shattering, Howell said.

“The way the frames are shaped are an important part of the new technology,” Howell said, as they better distribute the heavy loads soldiers and marines must carry. The lightweight plastic frame allows for the main pack to be securely mounted onto it without the use of tools, and allows the pack’s load to be spread evenly onto the user’s hips and shoulders.

REVOLUTIONARY NEW FRAME — Justin Kiger, in charge of new product development at Down East Inc. of Bridgton, shows off a revolutionary new ruck sack frame developed by the company that will be used by the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan. (Geraghty photo)

“They (the frames) have solved so many important problems for the Army,” Howell said. Before, the aluminum and steel frames “would crack and break, sometimes even when they drop them off the truck,” he said.

In a recent interview at his business, Howell was understandably reticent about offering too many details of the work that goes into the design of the frames. Suffice it to say that the frame’s composition is “a revolutionary polymer” of plastic, and they have been thoroughly tested for all kinds of combat situations.

The Marine packs will be used by Marines doing rotations of up to three days at observation posts, long patrols or helicopter assaults where a trip back to the forward operating base may not happen for up to 72 hours.

“I have a wonderful team here,” said Howell of his 10 employees, who are: Nicky Howell, chief financial officer; Justin Kiger, new product development; Tom Bardsley, quality assurance manager; Michelle Kilgore, director of administration; Ali Kiger, production manager; Mark Smith, prototype and production; Patti Murphy, A.O.R.D.; Mike Libby, maintenance; and Jacki Kennagh, human resources.

Howell also owns and operates the Magic Lantern Theatre, and Kiger is proud to say he has the job of picking what movies are shown.

In 2007, the Army gave Down East a special award, recognizing the company as being “The Innovative Small Business Performer of the Year.”

Down East, founded by Howell’s parents, Clarence “Pete” Howell and Shirley Howell, began supplying the military in 1973 when it won its first contract with the Navy. In 1964, the Howells also founded Howell Laboratories, now located on Route 117.

“My father was a gifted inventor,” Howell said.

Down East is currently involved in five or six other development programs “that are in various stages,” Howell said. “We expect to be very busy.”

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