MANCHESTER – Someone driving by the 1950s brick and glass block building on Canal Street might never guess that some very high-tech creations are taking place inside.
“Wow, we’re really proud you are here in New Hampshire doing this,” said an impressed U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte who took a tour of Mentis Sciences Inc. on Friday.
Ayotte got a close-up look at a giant, one-of-a-kind composite carbon fiber braiding machine that is used to wrap the company’s own advanced composite material around the nose cone of a navy interceptor missile.
“It’s the only one in the world that does that,” said Ayotte.
Brad Mate, project manager, explained that larger spools of quartz materials are wrapped around smaller spools and then the braider, which has a diameter of 13 feet, turns at a rapid speed, weaving the material onto the cone.
A second layer of material, the weave of which is in the opposite direction, is then placed on top by hand.
“There’s a lot of engineering involved,” Mate said.
A low-tech iron is used to flatten out any creases.
A smaller braiding machine is used to make sockets for prosthetics out of the unique, advance composite material. One of Mentis’ famous clients is South African Olympian Oscar Pistorious, the “Blade Runner,” who sprinted against able-bodied athletes with his bladed prosthetics.
Mentis designed and custom-made the high-tech, light-weight braided sockets that connected to his legs.
“It took almost a second off his time,” President John J. Dignam said. Pistorious, however, later became their notorious client when he was accused of murdering his girlfriend.
Mentis was founded in 1996 by Dignam and his late father, John Francis Dignam, who worked for more than 30 years at the Army Material Research Lab in Watertown, Mass., where he served as the U.S. Army’s director of missile materials.
When that facility closed, the Dignams opened their company, locating it first in Salem but then on Dow Street in Manchester. This summer, the company moved into the former Lew A. Cummings Inc. building on Canal Street.
The company’s focus is missile defense, but it also has developed lightweight body armor for soldiers, side helmet protectors and shin guards.
“Just send money and we’ll solve your problem,” Dignam joked.
After the tour, Dignam and other employees met privately with Ayotte to discuss classified projects, she said
Just recently, the company won a contract with Israel to make the material for randomes, a missile’s equivalent of a windshield, winning it over much larger companies including Raytheon. The contract is part of David’s Sling, an Israel Defense Forces military system being jointly developed by the Israeli defense contractor Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Raytheon, designed to intercept medium- to long-range missiles.
The company was HUBZoned-certified by the Small Business Administration in May, the first in the city. The program encourages economic development in historically under used business zones — “HUBZones” — through the establishment of preferences.
When certified, a company can benefit from competitive and sole source contracting and receive a 10 percent price evaluation preference in full and open contract competitions, as well as subcontracts.
Part of being certified, however, is that 35 percent of the employees must be residents of the city where the company is located.
That proved to be difficult so, under a Department of Defense-sponsored program, Dignam established a paid internship program, working with the city’s high schools, youth services programs and the Salvation Army to find the right teens to work among its mechanical engineers.
Today, 14 high school students each work about 40 hours a month, shadowing Mentis personnel, becoming involved in machine, computer repair, composite fabrication and machine and machine tool preventive maintenance, among other general duties.
There are 20 high school students on a waiting list to get into the program, according to the company.