Tilton’s Sealite USA making strides by air and by sea

  • Workers pour cement into the buoy mold for one of the navigation lights at the Tilton facility on Thursday.

  • Workers wire a portable airport navigation light command truck for the US Air Force at their Tilton facility on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Operators Paige Averill of Bow, foreground, and Luke Sutton align a mold cast to be put into a furnace that makes navigation buoys at Sealite’s Tilton plant on Thursday. The mold will be spun on two axes at once to evenly mix  plastic before being baked. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Engineering manager Jonathan Barry shows the solar protector for one of the navigational buoys the company makes at its Tilton facility.

Monitor staff
Published: 7/11/2021 3:48:20 PM

There’s a place in Tilton that has the greatest amusement park ride you’ve ever seen. It spins riders along two different axes at the same time, round and round and round, then bakes them at almost 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit until they’re ready to float.

OK, so maybe it wouldn’t be much fun to ride. But it is fun to watch.

“It’s a rotomolding machine. We call it the roto,” said Jonathan Barry, the engineering manager for Sealite USA, the American branch of the Australian marine equipment manufacturer, during a recent tour of the company’s Tilton facility.

“It’s so big we had to raise the roof to install it,” said Joanne Norris, who works in HR and finance for the firm.

The massive device – 20 feet high and 60 feet long – rotates molds (hence the name) filled with plastic powder to mix them well, then bakes them inside an enormous gas oven, creating what eventually becomes Sealite’s signature product: ocean and lake buoys of all sizes.

Their buoys range from navigation buoys on Lake Winnipesaukee to huge ocean buoys twice as tall as a person, which are filled with as much as 1,000 pounds of concrete as ballast and carry a variety of electronic equipment, including some that watches for sharks off Cape Cod. Customers range from the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards to lakefront associations.

As the company name would suggest, all the buoys contain lighting, either battery operated or solar-powered, to alert shipping. They’ve been made in Tilton for a decade and not even COVID-19 could shut the plant, which was able to continue operating all during the pandemic, although with many protocol changes.

As big as this business is, however, it’s not the Tilton facility’s biggest focus these days. That goes to the other part of the company, aptly named Avlite, which develops outdoor lighting for airport runways, taxiways and facilities.

“Our history is working with smaller airports, municipal airports. That’s an easier market to serve than Logan,” said Barry. But last year the company won a bid for something very different: a $23.5 million contract from the U.S. Air Force for airfield lighting systems.

“Since then it’s been non-stop,” said John Verryt, operations manager.

Norris agreed, noting that all hands from sales and back-office staff to the company president were in the plant recently to assist with assembly to meet a recent deadline. “We had more than 500 (runway) lights in here,” she said.

The company’s specialty product might be called airport in a box, although the official name is High Mobility Airfield Lighting Systems (HMALS). It’s a single trailer full of LED lighting equipment – everything from runway lights to Precision Approach Path Indicators that provide a visual guide during landing – that can be taken to a field site where airplanes need to operate and literally rolled out.

“It’s got 10,000 feet of cable,” Barry said, gesturing to the back of a trailer. “You roll it out, every 200 feet drop a light, within a couple of hours you have a whole runway set up.”

As if the huge contract wasn’t enough excitement, Sealite has just changed hands. It was sold in April to SPX Corp., a $1.6 billion engineering and manufacturing firm based in North Carolina.

“It made a very, very nice complementary fit,” said Paul Clegg, vice president of investor relations at SPX. He said Sealite and Avlite fit into SPX’s other product lines in what is known as the “aid to navigation” or ATON market, which includes lights on wind turbines, radio towers and oil platforms.

“On the surface it doesn’t sound that hard, it’s just lighting. Then you think about the environments they’re in, with wind, rain, lightning strikes, and you have to make sure those assets are lit so nobody runs into them. With warm marine applications; salt water, wind, waves, all these things – they take a real beating and it’s very expensive to have to replace these things, so you want them to last a long time,” Clegg said.

Electronics can be complex, too, because of the need for power and automated communications. “You have to know when they’re not lit.”

The Tilton plant was born out of a Gilford firm, Watermark Navigation Systems, that distributed Sealite navigation lights and buoys to the state government. It did so well that Sealite bought it in 2010. In 2013 the company moved to its current home in an industrial park near Exit 20 in Tilton.

Despite being located on the northernmost fringe of New Hampshire’s manufacturing region, officials say finding staff is not a problem – or, at least, no more of a problem than it is for all manufacturers in the state right now. The U.S. branch has 43 full-timers, including office and sales staff based in Gilford. It doesn’t disclose sales.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of the monthly Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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