Closed For Improvements

Scott Deal doesn’t mince words when it comes to describing the advantages of Maverick Boat Company’s closed molding technology.
“It’s a truly elegant way to build a boat,” said the president of the Ft. Pierce, Fla., boat company. “No one can deny that the quality is absolutely phenomenal.”
Maverick is one of many boat builders enthusiastically embracing closed molding as the preferred manufacturing process for fiberglass reinforced plastics. In its third year of delivering boats made with the technology, Maverick now offers eight models that are completely made with its vacuum infusion closed molding process. That adds up to about 400 boats a year.
Still, the transition within the industry has only just begun.
“Everybody knows at some level that they have to go there, but it is a big change for most companies,” said Andre Cocquyt, master boat builder and president of
Cocquyt was one of the first advocates of closed molding for boat building. Today he estimates that, on average, just 20 percent to 30 percent of production has been converted to closed molding.
“I had hoped that by now we would be at least 10 percent higher,” he says. “There are companies with 70 to 80 percent conversion, but those are still the exception.”
At the same time, he believes that between 60 to 70 percent of boat builders are using some form of the technology.
Concern about meeting environmental standards was an initial driver behind closed molding technology, but there are plenty of other reasons for converting. Some boat builders cite productivity increases, others the overall improvement in the quality of the product. For Cocquyt, it is first and foremost an employee issue.
“For me, quality improvement is a bonus that we are discovering. I think the people aspect is the bigger driver,” said Cocquyt. “Open lay-up is one of the most brutal jobs to do in the summer, and attrition rates are just horrible. But if you go to closed molding, that pretty much falls away. People tend to stay when it is cleaner work. You also get a different level of employee.”
Whatever the reasons, closed molding has a growing legion of supporters within boating.
Transparent technology
Of the handful of different processes falling within closed molding, vacuum infusion is the most prevalent. Defined by Cocquyt as any process that uses a lower-than-atmospheric pressure to drive resin into the mold cavity, the vacuum infusion process (VIP) requires minimal capital to get started, in part because existing tooling can be used with just minor modifications. A 2004 Owens Corning survey of U.S. boat builders found that most conversions to VIP have cost less than $50,000 and, in many cases, much less.
Although training is required, the technology is relatively simple and easy to learn. More than 850 people who have taken Cocquyt’s week-long VIP workshops, even those needing a translator, have ended the week able to implement the process.
“I did the training in China where I had a single translator for a group of about 25 people, and it didn’t change the comprehension level of the class,” he said. “That indicates to me that this is a pretty transparent technology and the basics are easily understood.”
The challenge is in the details.
“Boat builders by definition are people who have learned to cut corners, and you can’t do that with this process,” added Cocquyt. “I compare it to piloting a small aircraft. Even if you’ve flown for 20 years, you are still going to go through your safety checklist each time; otherwise, sooner or later, you are going to have an unfortunate landing.”
A significant part of Cocquyt’s training seminar is spent on feeder and vacuum line design and layout, which controls the rate of resin flow and fill. Specs will vary from part to part.
Maverick worked on perfecting its closed molding technology for quite some time before delivering it retail.
“Over time, we’ve located new materials and come to better understand such things as the flow media and our pressure requirements,” said Deal.
That evolution is to be expected. Cruisers Yachts facility in Oconto, Wis., for example, began testing VIP last August on its 34-foot hull, and is still perfecting the process. “We’re continuing to become more efficient at it as we move forward,” said composites specialist Jim Blom.
One benefit already gained is the reduced weight of the hull — by about 200 pounds. Weight savings in other models and brands will depend on manufacturing techniques.
“We balsam core our hulls, so that requires less resin than if we would use solid fiberglass,” said Blom.
SeaStrike is another VIP convert in the initial stages of conversion. Via its joint venture with First Derivative Technologies, all of SeaStrike’s 20- to 36-foot models will eventually be built using FDT’s proprietary version of VIP. In addition to a stronger, more consistent boat, SeaStrike is looking for an overall 15 percent savings in weight.
“We haven’t yet had an opportunity to quantify the differences between how we’ve produced our products in the past and the new infusion method, but we have a good history on our old process,” said Tom Theis, president and CEO, SeaStrike, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “Once we are full blown on the new scenario, we will do performance tests.”
Unlike many boat builders easing into closed molding, SeaStrike plans to continue to hand lay all of its small parts for now. Some manufacturers start their closed molding transition by using light resin transfer molding, or RTM, for small parts. RTM, any system that uses higher-than-atmospheric pressure to drive resin into the mold, employs a permanent semi-rigid second mold making it suitable for mass production of small parts. VIP, on the other hand, uses a silicon bag or other fill bag for its upper mold, making it more suitable for large parts. Companies such as Cruisers and Maverick use both light RTM and VIP.
Volume producers
For independent boat builders, the overriding advantage of VIP is that it is an affordable option for remaining competitive against the industry’s consolidators. Both Genmar Holdings Inc. and the Brunswick Boat Group have invested heavily in closed molding technology.
The Minneapolis-based Genmar has spent millions developing its virtual engineered composites technology. From 40 to 50 boats a day are now produced at its plant in Little Falls, Minn., using VEC. “We are now building over 10,000 boats a year in VEC,” said Irwin Jacobs, chairman of Genmar.
Eventually, all Genmar boats 26 feet and under will be made using VEC. The conversion has gone slower than Jacobs expected, but only because Genmar’s focus has been on improving the process, he said.
“We are now making boats in two pieces rather than three,” he explains. “The hull, floatation and stringer system is all done at the same time. From a strength and consistency point of view, this has never been done in boating, and it is a real breakthrough for us.”
Jacobs admits to being surprised at where the technology is going. “In size and scope and what the future will bring, all of it is much bigger than we ever dreamt,” he said.
In fact, he believes that marine applications will ultimately be the smaller market for VEC. Products for other industries are already in testing at the VEC Solution Center, in Greenville, Pa. VEC’s advantage, Jacobs said, is that the system is designed to enable frequent tooling changes, giving a good return on investment with runs of only 500 to 5,000. Whereas, if it costs millions everytime tooling is changed, runs of 25,000 or more are necessary to make it cost effective.
Volume is also the theme for the Brunswick Boat Group, Knoxville, Tenn., which uses a combination of closed molding processes. In addition to a VIP, Brunswick has an exclusive licensing agreement for multiple insert technology, which is an injection-based closed molding technology it uses with its proprietary Rimfire (robotic in-mold fiber reinforcement) system. Rimfire automatically sprays the fiberglass into the mold.
“Therefore, we have a process flow that doesn’t require that we stop, put in fiberglass, join the top and bottom molds together and then inject the resin,” said Dusty McCoy, president of Brunswick Boat Group. “Doing it through a continuous flow process gives us more output.”
Brunswick now uses closed molding at two Sea Ray locations, and by 2007, plans on using it for all Sea Ray models 18 to 24 feet. To accommodate that, Brunswick is doubling the capacity of its Tellico plant, in Vonore, Tenn. Styrene emissions are expected to drop by 30 percent with the total changeover to closed molding.
Closed molding is also used to make fiberglass parts for many Brunswick businesses. In addition, plans are in the works for use of the technology on some of Brunswick’s larger models.
Brunswick’s method of closed molding requires capital and expertise, both of which it has in abundance, but the pay-off, according to McCoy, is more manufacturing flexibility as well as greater employee satisfaction.
“We moved to closed molding because it provides a much better working environment for our employees,” he said. “Secondly, it is incredibly efficient to make boats where every part is exactly the same as the part before it. Assembly is faster and therefore more cost efficient.”
While Brunswick’s technology was not developed primarily in response to environmental regulations, McCoy is confident that it will hold up against stringent styrene exposure limits. What’s more, should the need arise, the technology may be made available to other boat builders.
“We understand that, going forward, environmental and other restrictions may begin to become more onerous for the industry and it may be that we would make our processes available to other boat builders,” said McCoy.
Future materials
Cocquyt categorizes MIT and VEC in the gray zone between RTM and VIP, and sees that a blending of technology is where the industry is heading. “Something that is halfway between vacuum’s negative pressure and the positive pressure of RTM,” he said.
The technology advances will be driven by improved materials. When Cocquyt first began advocating for closed molding five years ago, not only were the material choices very limited, he was lucky if he was taken seriously by the suppliers. That’s changed now, and new materials are coming fast and furious.
“The materials have caught up with the concept now,” said Phil Bridges, open molding business manager, Reichhold, Inc., Durham, N.C.
For example, Reichhold’s Hydrex 100 HF is a low-styrene, 100 percent vinyl ester resin build specifically for VIP. “In a customer case study, they cut their labor by 30 percent and saw a weight savings of about 30 percent using our resin and VIP,” said Bridges.
In foreseeing more blended technologies, Cocquyt doesn’t see the demise of VIP. “If you’re making 40-foot hulls, it is hard to see that you need to make a few thousand of the same model. I’m sure we will come up with new techniques for small volumes, but vacuum infusion is turning into a pretty stable technology for large parts,” he said.
Barriers remain, of course. Cosmetics are still an issue, although Blom reports being pleasantly surprised by the quality Cruisers has achieved. Misconceptions about cost also remain, as does a reluctance to take the time away from production for a major new effort and the required training.
And then there are those boat builders that run into trouble by skipping a detail or two on their VIP checklist.
Despite these bumps in the road, the boating industry’s conversion to closed molding continues on pace.
“If we look back in a few years, we probably will see that it followed a pretty normal cycle,” said Cocquyt. “It took awhile to mature, but there is no doubt that closed molding is happening and that it is here to stay.”

Mandates on the Horizon?
Concern about the impact of styrene emission regulations has abated somewhat after boat builders were able to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT) standards long before they became effective last August. But that doesn't mean the issue has gone away.
Last fall, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health launched a study of the control of occupational health hazards in the boating industry that will assess both open and closed molding processes to determine their ability to reduce worker exposures. Depending on findings, the study will take one to two years.
Genmar Holdings Chair Irwin Jacobs has been pushing for a federal investigation of styrene exposure during production of fiber reinforced plastics, and a specific focus on his virtual engineered composite process, for some time. When consulted by NIOSH, the National Marine Manufacturers Association asked that NIOSH expand its research to address ventilation system design in open molding as well.
“This makes it a much more beneficial study,” said John McKnight, director of environmental and safety compliance, NMMA. “The industry is still using open molding, so it makes sense to determine what types of ventilation systems would improve airflow in the plants.”
Jacobs is confident that study findings will result in stricter controls.
“I’m pretty optimistic that the study will result in more constraints and show that not only is closed molding healthier, it is also a more scientific and predictable process for both cosmetics and costs,” he said.
Other factors could lead to stricter regulations as well.
“The EPA is required to evaluate residual risk of emissions eight years after MACT took effect,” said McKnight. “This may lead to new regulations down the road, but right now there has been no discussions about this. And it could be that the decision is that there is no residual risk in terms of this industry.”
Changes in state laws are a more immediate concern. For example, California proposed lowering worker exposure limits for styrene from the 50 to 20 parts per million last year. “They backed off after we provided them with some technical information, but that could surface again,” said McKnight.
Given the uncertainty, it’s likely that more and more boat builders will be exploring their closed molding options.
“My advice is that everybody develop a basic competency in this just to protect themselves in case the environmental regulations change significantly,” said Scott Deal, president of Maverick Boats.

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