An Algorithm of Skills
Living in the Digital Age has come to mean solving problems with technology. Learn how many boatbuilders have brought computer controls and automation into their production lines.
Boatbuilding is a skilled business. We take that as a given, of course, but if pressed as to why we think so, we might prefer to point at the beautifully varnished mahogany creation on the other side of the dock rather than tap the shiny plastic shell of our own pride and joy.
But make no mistake: Fiberglass boat construction is every bit as skill-intensive as any other kind, even though today those skills are increasingly being transferred to machines. And labor-saving and cost-saving automation is not the whole story: The boats that result are often better quality too.
Plug-makers used to be the ultimate skilled craftsmen in any production boatyard, producing the prime objects of our expectations: Any flaw in the plug is reproduced in the mold made from it, and then echoed endlessly in every molding produced. Even mahogany with 12 coats of varnish doesn’t reflect its imperfections as ruthlessly as a correctly cured crosslink polymer—or gelcoat, to you and me.
So the plug has to be flawless, and it was always the most skilled shipwrights who got the job. But even though such labor-intensive and exhaustive work doesn’t come cheap, with the increasing pressure on boat companies to produce new models every year, it is becoming increasingly cost-effective for boatyards to replace those superlative craftsmen with expensive machines.
Model Art is one such yard. You probably haven’t heard of these Polish fiberglass maestros, but they build for some of the biggest European boat brands, and recently picked up a contract to create three models for particularly quality-conscious Windy Boats. In 2011 Model Art invested in a computer numerically controlled (CNC) five-axis milling machine for plug-making. If that sounds complicated, wait until you see it in action: The cutting head can not only move along the X, Y, and Z axes—side to side, in and out, up and down—but also rotate around the X and Y axes. This enables it to carve complex shapes, typically out of polyurethane foam, faithfully following directions from digital files to translate the designer’s vision into reality. Model Art’s CNC mill can manufacture hull plugs up to about 49 feet by 16 feet. Other tooling suppliers around the world can create plugs with even greater dimensions.
“I had no doubts that we could provide the quality that Windy demands,” says Bartek Jursza, Model Art’s production director. “They trusted us to make their molds, and now they trust us to build boats.”
Molding technology itself has also advanced exponentially in recent years. In England, Princess Yachts has been developing resin-infusion techniques designed to ensure that the resin and glass, liquid and solid, which create the fiberglass laminate, are perfectly bonded to each other, with no gaps, voids, or dry spots. It’s a technique that involves encasing the molding in a carefully tailored jacket, injecting the resin into every corner via a spaghetti tangle of tubes, and using vacuum pressure to saturate the layers of glass mat.
The benefits of such automation are legion: “Resin infusion improves both quality and performance,” explains Julian Spooner, head of composites at the Plymouth shipyard. “We can now mold to the same strength using less material, so delivering a lighter product. Because we use less material, we can, and do, use higher-quality materials.” There are also environmental benefits, not just in using less material, but in keeping emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to a minimum.
This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.