Trends in manufacturing technologies for marine composites

Scott M. Lewit, CCT, holds an MS in ocean engineering from the Florida Institute of Technology (1985). Lewit is president and founding partner of Structural Composites Inc. and COMPSYS Inc., the managing director of the Navy CCT Marine Composites Technology Center, and a co-inventor of the resin recirculation
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Like people, companies tend to either embrace or deny the need for change. Those that embrace change see that with it come new opportunities. When it comes to composite technology for boatbuilding and shipbuilding, it is clear that change is in the works. Let's look at the course the industry is headed and try to scout out our destination.

The recent economic downturn from which we are now emerging forced many recreational boatbuilders to rethink their business operations. Many weathered the storm through a combination of productivity gains, development of manufacturing agility and management of inventory levels in the field.

But some companies went further, using the slowdown to deploy new manufacturing technologies. Industrial robots are now on the shop floor. Robots can greatly improve productivity, consistency and quality. Volume boatbuilders have been able to show the benefits of robotic gel coat application. Robotic chop, as well as robots for trimming and drilling, is now in place at some of the more progressive, high-volume boatbuilders. These technologies are becoming more affordable due to the reduced cost of technology. Continuing technology refinement and resulting price reductions should make robotics affordable for mid-volume boatbuilders in the near future. Automation and computers are being used by approximately 20 percent of boatbuilders and suppliers to improve productivity and quality. Small companies can, with a little innovation and elbow grease, use low-cost personal computers and off-the-shelf components to develop state-of-the-art manufacturing control systems. The networking revolution enables an easy path to data exchange, while new wireless networking technology allows a new dimension in interconnectivity. The future in automation is very bright. Reduced prices and increased performance is all we can see. Add in a nice tax incentive, and what's not to like?

Closed molding technology is one of the most interesting developments for the marine composites community. The past is quickly becoming the present; we have begun to return to manufacturing processes that were the roots of the composites industry. In the '90s, much of the industry starting looking again at closed molding, but much like the bell-bottoms of the '70s, when a comeback happens, it is never really the same, more like deja vu. This time, however, there was a compelling driving force - looming implementation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's MACT (Maximum Achievable Control Technology) rules. Builders, suppliers, researchers, trade associations and the military all made significant contributions to the compliance cause. The result today is that closed molding is quickly reaching cost parity with open molding. Some applications such as yacht building have already crossed the cost threshold.

The future for closed molding will be optimization and cost reduction. Boatbuilders are starting to realize that closed molding offers the builder new opportunities in manufacturing and design that are not possible with open molding. Part integration allows for a reduction in the number of tools and easier assembly and outfitting. Using automated fabric cutting and preforms in combination with closed molding enables designers to further reduce cost through structural optimization. The reduced weight also can have a cascading benefit in performance and cost. New, lower-cost infusion processes that use less expendables and optimize fiber-to-resin ratio will lead to lower manufacturing costs. The near-term target is to make infusion a robust manufacturing process.

This is a great time to be involved in composite boatbuilding technology. But we must recognize that change is not optional. If we don't shape our future, the future will shape us. Either way, we'll change. We are an industry that is poised to see great improvements in manufacturing and engineering, if we choose it and become proactive. But we need only look to Europe to see a migration of some composite boatbuilders from Western Europe to nearby countries that have lower labor costs and reduced environmental regulation. U.S. boatbuilders could find themselves forced to do the same if they do not retain their edge through the use of closed molding and advanced manufacturing technology. That, too, is change, but not the sort I'd recommend we embrace.