Stingray Powerboats
Building a Better Boat

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Changing technology for changing times.

A new Stingray sportboat was being towed through the streets of Hartsville, South Carolina. Mounted on the deck were four heavy-duty wheels — which made absolutely no sense whatsoever to the people who watched it go by.

This was a very special Stingray. It was a combination prototype and new tool that would be used to build production molds, once the designers were satisfied with the on-the-water tests they were performing. Those tests called for the boat to be shuttled back and forth between the plant and the company's boathouse, several miles away.

The designers at Stingray avail themselves of the latest computer-assisted design (CAD)/computer assisted manufactured (CAM) technology that has swept the boating industry, in an effort to design and bring more and more new fiberglass boat models to market. Every detail of the new Stingray model is designed on a computer, which allows the designers to review their work in a three-dimensional format before it goes to computer-assisted manufacturing.

In this manufacturing process, a number of computer-directed routers attached to individual arms of a big robot start creating a finished shape out of a big block of foam, which will become an exact full-size model of the computerized design. The process has been perfected to the point where you could almost turn on the robot routers when you go home at night and have a finished boat sitting on the shop floor when you return in the morning.

Not every new model is a complete redesign, though. Often, the builder is very happy with a hull's performance and may only want to make some subtle changes. This can be done by taking an existing hull and adding a little foam here and there, which can be finished by hand or by the router, without having to cut out a whole new hull from scratch.

The modifications to the new Stingray seen cruising the streets of Hartsville were numerous and relatively small, so the designers left the steel shop wheels — used to roll the hull around the tooling shop — on the deck. The designers could make a number of corrections and tests in a single day.

There are at least three benefits that I see from Stingray's efficient tooling techniques. First, the company has greatly cut the cost of tooling, which will ultimately reduce the price of new models. Second, it becomes easier for the designers to experiment with radically new concepts and designs.

Third, because it has become so easy to make additional modifications, the designers are not reluctant to continue refining a hull's design. If you look at the suggested retail pricing on any Stingray model today, you'll see that the company is producing quality boats at very reasonable prices.

At the Larson Boat plant in Little Falls, Minnesota, I had an opportunity to observe the roll-out of some high technology in the building of Genmar fiberglass boats. Genmar calls their system VEC, which stands for virtual engineered composites.

Instead of the usual single mold, two molds are used for a part. Glass mat and cloth are cut and laid in the mold, as they are with the open mold process the new system replaces. The difference is that a specially formulated resin is injected into the double mold in a special climate-controlled room. The curing process is finely regulated, virtually eliminating emissions from the manufacturing process and producing molded parts that have the same smooth finish on the inside as on the outside.

Normally, a fiberglass boat-building plant is a pretty messy place, full of styrene fumes and fine fiberglass dust that's everywhere. However, with Genmar's VEC system, the grinding process has been completely replaced with multi-axis routers, driven by a computer that does all the part trimming and hole drilling.

This whole process takes minutes, and it is performed in another airtight environment eliminating airborne glass particles.

New technology allows boat builders to produce better quality products, but it isn't affordable to every company.

We have been seeing a consolidation of small companies taken over by larger ones, but size alone doesn't guarantee success. Recently, Outboard Marine Corp., builder of half dozen boat brands as well as Johnson and Evinrude outboards, declared bankruptcy. Bombardier acquired the outboard motor brands, while Genmar took over operation of the most of the former OMC boat companies.

Genmar has proven its ability to efficiently build quality boats, which is good for the industry and those dealers who had counted on the OMC boat brands for their livelihood. Other than a shortage of some of these products for a few months, it should be business as usual as we are getting back out on the water in 2001.

Duncan McIntosh
Go Boating


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