Owners of a Ligonier, Ind., company say the coal-hauling industry is looking closely at a new product it is bringing to market. Structural Composites of Indiana Inc. hopes the coal haulers like what they see.

Ten-year-old Structural Composites has traditionally focused on making fiberglass parts for the RV industry. But anticipating a downturn in the industry, it started about five years ago to find customers in other sectors, according to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

If its rail car cover system is a success, it will result in more business than Structural Composites can handle on its own, co-owner Ken Baranowski said Tuesday (Dec. 8).

“We won’t physically be able to do it all,” Baranowski said. “We’ll have to license other companies to help us.”

Baranowski led visitors on a tour of his plant in the Ligonier Industrial Park on Tuesday. Ligonier and Noble County are particularly keen for new business after a year that saw unemployment rates top 17%. The county adjoins Elkhart and LaGrange counties where many of the nation’s RVs are manufactured.

It’s now completing the first phase of its most ambitious attempt at diversification.

By Dec. 22, Structural Composites will have delivered 80 covers for the coal cars that locomotives haul between mines and electric power plants. The first cover will be placed atop a rail car Thursday in Danville, Ill.

The curved, center-opening covers are intended to keep coal dust from spilling out onto the crushed rock that supports railroads and to make trains more aerodynamic.

The dust undermines railroads, mandating expensive repairs, and the rounded covers promise to cut drag on empty cars by 15% to 20%, said Dana Wallace, Structural Composites’ sales development specialist.

The newly covered cars won’t start hauling coal until next summer, when work is complete on a North Dakota power plant served by the Dakota, Missouri Valley and Western Railroad.

But Structural Composites is talking with more than 10 firms about making covers for cars that haul coal, steel and other products, said engineering manager Arturo Machado.

But the new business hasn’t transformed Structural Composites yet.

Thanks in part to a rebound in the RV industry, the company’s workforce is up to about 50 from about 30 in February, but it’s still down from a peak of about 130 a year earlier.

Employees clad in white jumpsuits work side by side on the plant floor, making front ends for Class A RVs, the 45-foot rail car covers and other products as the smell of styrene wafts throughout.

They spray a gel coat into wooden molds, followed by a mix of resin and fiberglass. After the products cure, they’re pried out of the molds for finishing.

How much resin is used at Structural Composites is a good measure of how much business it’s doing. The company is down from 300,000 pounds a month at its peak to about 90,000 pounds.

“So we’re off pretty substantially,” Baranowski said.

He said he hopes the company’s efforts to diversify will get it back to where it was – and keep it growing.

But moving into a new industry isn’t easy, Machado said. The coal covers require parts and materials Structural Composites had not used before, and railroads are subject to regulations with which the company was unfamiliar.

“You’re going to feel almost stupid when you go into a new industry,” Machado said. “It’s like learning a whole new language.”