The markets: Boatbuilding and marine (2015)

Boatbuilders show strong signs of recovery in the wake of the 2008-2012 recession, with some help from composite materials suppliers who now provide design and subassembly aid.

No other composites end-market suffered more recessionary strife than boatbuilding in the 2008-2012 slump. Yet in 2013, recovery was evident and, at the 2014 IBEX show, in Tampa, Fla., attendance statistics — 6,900 attendees, a 47% increase vs. 2013, and 558 exhibiting companies, up 15% vs. last year — supported the view that the boatbuilding industry is again healthy: Although annual retail powerboat sales were, as 2014 began, still far below the pre-recession high-water mark of 300,000 units, they were rising. By October, National Marine Manufacturers Assn. (NMMA, Washington DC, US) president Thom Dammrich was able to report: “We’re anticipating good times ahead for recreational boating. The industry continues to see healthy growth, with retail expenditures increasing 3.2% in 2013 to US$36.9 billion,” he noted in his annual State of the Industry address. “Americans are taking to the water in record numbers, and we’re anticipating continued steady growth of 5-7% in new powerboat sales through 2014.” He also reiterated the importance of recreational boating as a US$36.7 billion industry in the U.S., which provides 338,526 jobs at 34,833 marine industry businesses.

Markets and Markets (Dallas, TX, US) says in “Marine Composites Market by Type (Glass Fiber Composites, Carbon Fiber Composites, Foam Core Materials), by Application (Power Boats, Cruise Ships, Sail Boats) Global Trends and Forecasts to 2019,” that carbon fiber composites are the fastest­growing marine composite, driven by their strong use in racing boats.

The powerboat market for marine composites is expected to have wide scope for its expansion, which, in turn, will stimulate an increase in the consumption of marine composites. Powerboats represent the biggest subgroup of marine composites, and that segment is projected to be worth US$2.6 billion by 2019. Growth drivers include a recent rise in demand for high-speed boats, increasing demand for fuel-efficient watercraft and design flexibility offered by marine composites (which leads to low cost of manufacturing). Some of the restraints include the high cost of carbon fiber, repairability and recyclability issues related to composites, and increasing styrene regulations.

Projected changes in the dynamics of the marine composites industry in the years to come include the increasing size of the leisure market and increased applications of composites in powerboats, sailboats, jet boats and personal watercraft.

The North America region continued to be world’s largest market for marine composites in 2014. The US remains the key consumer in North America. Increasing leisure time, coupled with the growing number of HNWI (high-net-worth individuals) shifted manufacturers’ focus towards marine composites, especially for powerboats and sailboats.

Prefabrication, a growing boatbuilding trend in 2013, continued to play a role in the composite boatbuilding community’s return to health. Large suppliers to the industry increasingly offer digitally designed, cut, preformed and pre-infused stringers, bulkheads and, sometimes, complete interior structural grids, to composite boatbuilders. These prefab elements can be dropped into composite hulls and capped with deck structures, reducing the expense and difficulty of vessel construction for boatbuilders who are recovering from recessionary losses — both financial and technical, the latter due to the layoff and loss of experienced employees — during the 80% drop in new boat sales that occurred from 2008 through 2012. Although the hull and deck “shoebox” got lots of press, the complex structures that support them pose a disproportionately large share of the overall boat design and manufacturing challenges, says Russ Elkin, senior technical service engineer for core materials supplier Baltek Inc., a division of 3A Composites (High Point, NC, US). The benefits of digitized preforming and prefabrication go beyond saving weight in the grid and reducing labor. A stringer system also can be reengineered to better distribute stress, said Scott Lewit, president of Compsys (Stuart, FL, US), so the boatbuilder can go with a thinner and, therefore, lighter hull structure. “You can pull glass out of the hull,” he claims, “which is where big cost and time savings can be achieved.”

Today, recovering boatbuilders — especially those in the 6m-12m powerboat sector who are unable to afford the upfront investment in and negotiate the steep learning curves associated with computer-driven design and CNC-manufacturing tools — are turning to Baltek, Mahogany Composites (Mays Landing, NJ, US), Gurit UK (Isle of Weight, UK), Compsys and others for solutions. 

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