BRIDGTON, Maine — Frank Howell calls it a rumpus room, making it sound far less serious than it really is.
When the U.S. Army needed gear to make its soldiers more maneuverable in hot, dry climates, the answer came from Howell’s rumpus room — known to the rest of the world as Down East Inc.
It’s a creative firm specializing in solving problems through invention. It’s located at 11 Depot St. in Bridgton.
“It’s a safari. It’s an adventure. It’s a mystery,” Howell said. “It’s all of those things wrapped up. It can be enormously entertaining while being enormously frustrating.”
Started by Howell’s father, Pete, Down East Inc. holds numerous patents for materials, clips, connectors and frames — simple things that do simple jobs using modern materials in intuitive, efficient ways.
“It’s about creating an environment where inspiration can strike and new ideas are born,” Howell said. “Coming up with ideas and combining them in new ways is only part of it. The rest of it is that moment of inspiration, where there is truly something unique.”
The centerpiece of the shop is a table big enough for several people to gather around. There are offices and desks all around the table, and a room nearby with rapid prototyping gear for putting together models quickly.
There’s a shipping area downstairs and some tools for manufacturing, but most of that work is outsourced to operations around Bridgton — many in Maine, most in New England.
The bulk of the work at Down East Inc. occurs around that table. The top is made of whiteboard material for drawing ideas. It’s covered in military gear, 8-inch-tall wooden mannequins and plastic cups of brightly colored Play-Doh.
“You’d be amazed at how much design work you can do with Play-Doh,” Howell said.
There’s an antique dressing doll to one side for modeling full-scale modern armor and a replica plaque from the Titanic on a wall nearby.
“That’s to remind us what can happen if we don’t do our jobs,” Howell said.
Not every solution they come up with is a winner, at least not right away.
“Success, at least in my experience, is about being brutally honest about what’s good and what’s bad,” he said. “It’s about understanding the merits of an idea. And as it progresses, the idea will either improve and evolve or it will not. And we need to understand early in the process when it’s not improving so we can stop. Out of that exercise comes a better understanding of why, which can lead to further inspiration.”
Case in point are the frames they designed for the Army’s backpacks. Since Vietnam, Army rucks have depended on a tubular steel frame for support.
“We understood the military was considering a complete redesign,” he said. “They wanted a system that improved its ability to carry, in terms of balance and comfort, but also greatly improved in terms of durability. They would break large numbers of these every year, just throwing them off of a truck. The tubes would break and they wanted a better solution.”
Down East’s answer involved a new polymer plastic that stayed sturdy as it flexed, working with a soldier’s body on the march.
What’s more, the patented polymer was durable, withstanding bullet holes at close range and tank treads across the top better than the metal frame. It was lighter, too, a boon to soldiers.
Their design became standard issue in 2004 and has since been adopted by the Marines, other countries and domestic emergency response crews.
“There was a broad need and that was public,” he said. “We had no idea if we could actually solve the problem, but we wanted to try.”
Then Howell got wind that the Army needed something lighter for troops in Afghanistan. It had to leave room for body armor as well as the hydration packs soldiers carry on their backs.
“We understood that we had an opportunity to create a new load-carrying system, taking what we’d learned and going beyond,” he said. “We wanted to create a lighter pack that could carry 60 to 80 pounds; one that could support the load but could work with an understanding of modern soldiers.”
Down East went back to the design table.
His team began tearing into their backpack frame, cutting it apart and welding it back together again and again.
“We had, what we call in Down East speak, a good design day,” he said. “Something popped.”
The result was a U-shape that was sturdy but left room for more heavily laden modern soldier’s gear.
“It has to be able to work in any situation — with body armor, without it, with full hydration reservoir or with one half empty,” he said. “It has to be even more flexible, but it has to be just as sturdy.”
Their solution wasn’t the only one the Army considered, but it was the one the Army chose. They now hold the patent to two of the three standard packs issued to soldiers: the original 120-pound ruck, the large modular lightweight load-carrying equipment, or MOLLE large, and the new MOLLE medium ruck.
You might be able to find one of Down East’s packs in an Army surplus store, but it’s not available at the retail level or anyplace else.
Distributed by MCT Information Services