The markets: Boatbuilding and marine (2017)

No other composites end-market suffered more recessionary strife than boatbuilding in the 2008-2012 downturn. Yet in 2013, recovery was already evident and by 2014, business had definitely taken a turn for the better. In the summer of 2015, mnay marine segments were near pre-recession numbers.

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No other composites end-market suffered more recessionary strife than boatbuilding in the 2008-2012 downturn. Yet by 2015, business had definitely taken a turn for the better. And at the International Boatbuilders Exhibition and Conference (IBEX, Tamp FL, US, US) in September 2016, National Marine Manufacturers Assn. (NMMA) president Thom Dammrich noted that new boat sales, which had grown 5-6% per annum from 2011 through 2015, log a figure as high as 10% in 2016. That’s up from the 6-8% growth he had anticipated for 2016 one year earlier at IBEX 2015, which was growth significant enough to position US recreational boating for a return to near pre-recession levels — 250,000 new boats sold, including power, sail and personal watercraft. Wakeboard/tow boats, outboard boats, jet-drive boats and personal watercraft had shown strong gains in 2015. Dammrich was, as 2016 closed out, clear that most boatbuilding segments had returned to pre-recession levels in terms of monetary revenues. Stern drives still lacked a bit in terms of unit numbers, running at about 75% of the prerecession high, but still trending up.

Most encouraging? New-boat inventory is still low, and consumer spending is high, an economic cocktail that promises strong demand. The US states of Alabama and Florida were called out as 2016’s new-boat purchase leaders at 10% growth, each. Dammrich declared that the marine industry was in the midst of “good times” and that those good times would continue for at least the coming two to three years.

            Composite boatbuilders who use glass-reinforced composites continue to abandon bucket-and-brush” methods for more weight- and material-conservative vacuum-infusion technologies. But in the powerboat and yachtbuilding world — particularly in racing and in the exclusive waters of the “superyacht” — carbon fiber/epoxy composites have come aboard for the long haul. Their light weight fosters speed of travel over the water and economical operation and gives the yacht designer a freedom to design with shapes unlikely or impractical with more conventional materials. The trend, here, too, is away from more labor-intensive methods.

Early use of carbon fiber was in one-off yachts to minimize draft and reduce hull wetted area to increase yacht speed for elite racing events, where winning was everything and cost was no object. Aerospace-grade, autoclave-cured prepregged carbon fiber was the order of the day and yacht construction was expected to be highly labor-intensive and occupy large expanses of time. Although that mentality still prevails in some racing circles, the emphasis for many other powerboat and yachtbuilders is now on greater cost-effectiveness without significant loss of strength- and stiffness-to-weight benefit. A case in point illustrates the current thinking and technological progression: Gold Coast Yachts (Christiansted, St. Croix, US Virgin Islands), for its first all-carbon yacht, intended for racing and pleasure cruising, realized prepreg would too costly for its customer’s budget. The company commissioned tests to compare wet bagging and vacuum infusion. New “water-like” epoxy resins have, in recent years, enabled infusion of large parts with once too-viscous epoxy resin systems. Test results, from several laboratories, showed that the vacuum-infused panels exhibited superior properties, including a 15% gain in compression strength while wet-bagged panels were inconsistent in fiber volume and had significantly higher void content because the high-viscosity resin used in wet-bagging does not infuse the carbon and expel air as well as the infusion resin will, he reports, adding that the fiber content for the infused panel was consistently within 2% tolerance, with “no noticeable voids.” Armed with this information, Gold Coast, together with a growing group of other boatbuilders, are meeting challenging customer specifications with infused carbon fiber/epoxy and finding it possible, as a result, to use lower-cost molds and cure at lower temperatures than prepregs demand.

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