...infrastructure. “What’s most impressive [about John] is that [composites] isn’t even his traditional field,” says Kristofer Grimnes, Harbor’s product development manager. “But he’s got the theories and numbers, and he can talk shop.”

Adds production manager Reid Potter, “He’s open to ideas. If you’re working with someone’s baby, they often can be protective of it. Not John.”

That may account for why HCB stands for Hybrid Composite Beam instead of Hillman Composite Beam. Hillman credits Zicko and Shevchenko with working to make the beam’s fabrication viable. “If not for Mike and Nick, I would’ve quit five years ago,” he says. “They haven’t made a dime on this. I pay for their meals, so at least we eat well.”

Seeds for the HCB concept were planted when Jean Muller International, where Hillman worked in the mid-1990s, began working with composites manufacturers on developing fiber-reinforced polymer bridges. Hillman was introduced to the Vacuum Assisted Resin Transfer Method and wondered what would happen “if you combined a concrete-and-steel tied arch structure with a [composites] box,” he recalls. In 1996, beginning with hand-drawn calculations on the train ride to work, the 14-year journey began.

“His HC B concept represents not just an incremental improvement to current bridge technology but a genuine breakthrough.”
— Chuck Taylor
HSR-IDEA program manager

Although composites offer life-cycle advantages of corrosion resistance and strength, they have met hesitation from the infrastructure world due to up-front cost and unfamiliarity. Hillman’s hybrid is helping to overcome these obstacles, say members of the American Composites Manufacturers Association. “This is a good stepping-stone for us,” says Dan Richards, president and chief operating officer of Zellcomp Inc., Durham, N.C. Richards introduced Hillman at a bridge industry conference in 2009 by saying, “Here is the next billionaire,” he recalls.

Hillman certainly wouldn’t mind becoming one, but his main financial concern is providing tuitions and weddings for his three daughters, Elisa, Karina and Nancy—ages 14, 13 and 12, respectively. His main professional concern is similar to that of many engineers—to build structures that serve society.

Bridge Approaches

Ironically, Hillman’s first ambition was to build skyscrapers. After graduating from the University of Tennessee in 1986, Hillman’s experience as a casting inspector on the Varina-Enon, cable-stayed bridge in Richmond, Va., made bridges more appealing. Working with the late bridge guru Jean Muller also inspired him. “Some engineers are like virtuoso musicians. Some are like famous conductors. But Jean Muller was the quintessential classical composer,” says Hillman. “He was bridge royalty.” Hillman acknowledges he was “intimidated” by the top-notch Figg & Muller engineers, so he pursued post-graduate studies at Virginia Tech in 1988.

Thomas Murray, Virginia Tech professor emeritus, calls Hillman “the most creative student I’ve ever had, and I’ve had close to 200 graduate students.” Murray advised Hillman on a research assistantship to develop innovative lightweight floor systems for steel-framed buildings. Funded by the American Institute of Steel Construction, the research project served as a “think tank” for open-ended, innovative ideas (see box, p. 32). A 30 x 30-ft mockup was load- and vibration-tested. “Architects thought it was great, contractors, too,” Murray recalls. But the system never advanced. However, the idea of a composites future had taken shape.

Armed with a master’s degree and newly married to Cornelia Roberts, Hillman joined Swiss post-tensioning firm VSL to work on a 385-m-long incrementally launched bridge in Utuado, Puerto Rico. He was “considered...