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Marine shops sail with CAD systems

May 1st, 2008 / By: / Feature, Marine, Technical

Speed. Accuracy. Replication. This is what you hear when you talk to marine fabricators about CAD (Computer-Aided Design) systems. The time from concept to finished product is faster than ever before. Modification is minimal, if not completely eliminated. Fit is perfect the first time, repeating a product requires little or no preparation, and there is a CAD system for every budget, from one-person shops to industry giants. That wasn’t always the case.

Wm J. Mills & Co. of Greenport, N.Y., put in an AutoCAD® system about 10 years ago but didn’t have anyone on staff to manage it. The company ended up hiring new employees with computer experience, vice president Robert Mills says. Between the new hires and the initial equipment investment, the cash output was significant. Mills says the company spent about $65,000 on computers and other equipment.

But thankfully, like other technology, appreciable price decreases are the rule.

“It wasn’t too long ago when you had to spend $20,000 to $25,000 on hardware alone,” says Timothy Akes, owner of CAD Effects, St. Louis, Mo., which represents MPanel software. “Now you can operate with a $1,000 laptop and software for under $10,000.”

Marine shops can turn out bimini tops and rear enclosures, like the ones on this boat, faster and more accurately using a CAD system to design the parts and to direct the subsequent nesting and cutting activities. Photo: Gerber Technology.
Marine shops can turn out bimini tops and rear enclosures, like the ones on this boat, faster and more accurately using a CAD system to design the parts and to direct the subsequent nesting and cutting activities. Photo: Gerber Technology.

Katie Bradford, MFC, IFM, owner of Custom Marine Canvas, Groton, Conn., bought her company’s AutoCAD software for around $500 back in 2000. The six-person shop already had appropriate computers and an employee with AutoCAD experience. A second employee is now AutoCAD-capable as well. Custom Marine Canvas, as the name suggests, makes only custom orders for the marine industry.

“I judge every purchase I make by whether I can justify the cost,” Bradford says. “How much will the purchase save, in other words? We paid for this software in two jobs.”

Using CAD for cutting

Without CAD, companies need physical storage space for their many templates of cardboard or acrylic plastic. These templates represent the size and shape of the parts to be cut from the material. The cutting is all by hand. The user lays out the material, sometimes multiple plies, on a large table, placing the template on top. Then the user, stabilizing the template with one hand and holding the knife in the other, cuts around the template, producing a cut part. The several parts, sewn together, form the end product.

“Modern CAD systems create and store the template size and shapes electronically,” says Gregg Jones-Henry, hardware product manager for Gerber Technology, Tolland, Conn. “Thousands of electronic templates, or cut files, store on a computer’s hard drive, much like storing digital pictures. When the company needs the file for cutting, it simply locates it on the hard drive, opens it and sends it to a plotter, which plots or prints the shape onto a paper for placing over the material. Or it can send the file electronically via a network to an automated cutter, which completely eliminates the need to plot the shape on paper and cut it by hand.”

There are a number of ways to enter data into a CAD system when creating the part for the first time. The user can digitize the existing cardboard or plastic templates using a digitizing tablet. This device looks similar to a drafting table but has an electronic network under its surface. The template is placed on top and a special mouse-like device is used to trace the perimeter. Each mouse click represents a data point, or vertex, that the tablet captures, creating the electronic version of the template.

If no hard templates are available, the part can be created right on the computer screen. Most CAD systems use a coordinate system and can draw straight lines, circles or curves based on specific coordinates.

The Chism Co. Inc. of San Antonio, Texas, purchased one of the first computer-driven, automated plotter/cutter machines. “It was in the late 1980s and the machine’s serial number was 007,” president Roy Chism says.

Twenty years later, you can get started in CAD with only a computer or iPhone and a digital camera. And Chism predicts that someday, you won’t even need a computer.-

Benefits of CAD

With CAD nesting capabilities, the operator simply enters the width of the material to be cut and the number of parts needed. The system automatically nests these better and faster than a person could possibly do by hand. The nest is sent to the cutting process, and in just a few minutes the parts are efficiently cut. Photo: Gerber Technology.
With CAD nesting capabilities, the operator simply enters the width of the material to be cut and the number of parts needed. The system automatically nests these better and faster than a person could possibly do by hand. The nest is sent to the cutting process, and in just a few minutes the parts are efficiently cut. Photo: Gerber Technology.

As technology costs continue to decline, virtually any company can afford some type of CAD system. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that a company could afford to be without one.

Henk Monsma, general manager of Assyst-Bullmer Inc., Morrisville, N.C., notes the CAD benefit of nesting, or material optimization. In a CAD system with nesting capabilities, the operator enters the width of the material to be cut and the number of parts needed, and the system will automatically nest these better and faster than a person could possibly do by hand. The system then sends the whole nest to the cutting system, and in just a few minutes the parts are cut, using considerably less material than if it were done by hand.

Assyst-Bullmer software creates pattern pieces directly on the screen, grades them and creates markers for maximum fabric utilization, Monsma says. The straightforward, user-friendly and flexible software speeds the production process and achieves up to a 50 percent increase in throughput.

Storage requirements are another significant benefit. Regardless of the particular manufacturing environment, it is difficult to maintain hard templates over time. They require a huge amount of storage space. They need to be repaired or replaced periodically. They can be misplaced or lost. The perimeters deteriorate over time, resulting in inaccurate cuts.

With a CAD system, the electronic files store on a hard drive, which requires virtually no physical space. As long as files are backed up, there is basically no risk of permanently losing or damaging them. Should a modification be required, i.e., adding an internal cut-out, you can do it on the CAD system in a matter of minutes and then store the modified file forever.

A CAD system also saves time. It may take a hand cutter hours to cut the vinyl required for the seating on a single boat, but an automated cutting system can do it in a matter of minutes. With CAD, Wm J. Mills, which specializes in parts for Boston Whalers, can cut everything it needs for a 17-foot Whaler in an hour.

“We basically cut our time by at least two-thirds, if not more,” Mills says. “What used to take an hour and a half now takes 10 to 15 minutes.”

Precision is more than a buzzword among CAD users. Bradford says CAD eliminates the need for trimming and adjusting at installation time, and Akes notes that CAD systems provide accuracy to within 14 places past the decimal point.

“Most people can’t even tell you what a number that small is,” Akes says.

Most boat builders are now using CAD systems in the manufacturing process, so marine fabricators with CAD capabilities can use builder designs, Akes says. “So cover, sail, cushion…makers don’t even have to measure the boats. They can just take the electronic boat design and have everything they need.”

Bradford echoes that advantage. “Many of our customers are boat owners who live in Europe,” she says. “We just receive the boat diagrams electronically, and we’re good to go.”

The CAD replication feature also eliminates a lot of measuring. Designs for repeat orders are stored in the computer, easily retrieved with a click of the mouse.

Jerry Inman, vice president of marketing for integrated technology solutions provider Lectra, North America, says a CAD system in a marine shop saves time, cuts costs and can even reduce head count. “But we like to think of three real benefits,” he says. Inman emphasizes that CAD systems:

  • accelerate product development by 20 to 40 percent;
  • enhance product quality tremendously;
  • improve costing accuracy.

Increase productivity with CAD

Chism says the industry is at the leading edge of some interesting developments.

“The more powerful software programs combined with Internet and communication advances are positioning fabricators for perhaps the most critical business decision of their careers—automation or craftsmanship,” he says. “Advances in computing and computer communications are creating a change in how fabricators interact. These services, never before available, are emerging with the speed and cost associated with Internet solutions.”

According to Chism, CAD will be a good investment only if the digital content it generates can be further linked to computer-driven fabrication hardware—fabric plotter/cutter equipment. When that’s the case, a one-person shop can become a much larger, faster shop, all without incurring infrastructure costs.

Mac Isaacs is a freelance writer and former editor of Textile World magazine.

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