Moldmaking by Vectorworks Marine
There are moldmaking gurus, those who seem to have a magic touch when it comes to the art of building a mold. “Much of it is skill, but some of it is just luck,” says Kurtis A. Hopf, PE, Vectorworks Marine’s Senior Vice President of Operations. “We kept asking, ‘What are the secrets to consistently making good molds?’ and couldn’t get a straight answer, so we began researching it ourselves.”
Professional engineers at Vectorworks started clearing the smoke and breaking the mirrors and turned what they called a “black art” into the science of moldmaking. Vectorworks is a virtual shipyard for the design, development, and manufacture of composite vessels up to 70 meters in length. From magic touch to Midas touch, Vectorworks has become a powerhouse for marine tooling design and manufacturing.
Describe and Prescribe
Jeff Gray, Vectorworks Marine’s CEO, was part of the Vectorworks team that, in the late 1980s, began close scrutiny of all the elements of moldmaking. “To make this a science, we needed to understand chemically and structurally what was going on during the process,” explains Gray. “Then we wanted to completely automate the process while very precisely describing and prescribing what needs to be done to reliably build a perfect mold.” Members of his engineering group had their work cut out for them in the fledgling company they named Vectorworks.
“I’ll be back with your forecast in just a moment.”
These familiar words frequently guide how we plan our days. Gray’s group learned that good moldmakers keep a keen eye on the weather. The wrong combination of temperature and humidity can turn a mold into a wasted, expensive day’s work. As a result, Vectorworks monitors ambient weather conditions very carefully and continually because the dew point (the temperature at which a vapor [as water] begins or would begin to condense) plays a vital role in how well and how fast a gel coat will cure.
Hopf says most moldmakers have some rules of thumb regarding safe working ranges for temperature and humidity. That may be a starting point, but Vectorworks knows they need to be specific. “We’re not meteorologists. However, we thoroughly understand that it’s generally not temperature or humidity alone that affects our materials but the relationship between the two. That’s critical information for a moldmaker to have,” Hopf relates. “In addition, the low HAP (hazardous air pollutants) tooling gel coats are infinitely more sensitive to ambient conditions than their higher styrene predecessors were. Our understanding of the interaction between the ambient conditions and the gel coat helps significantly reduce the amount of scrap and rework we’ll have to do on a mold.”
For Vectorworks customers, that means costs are contained, delivery is on time, and they can expect a tool that is ready to be put to work when it arrives.
Another “golden nugget” Gray’s team gleaned from its research was how important it was to have a proper, robust reinforcement structure behind the mold for dimensional stability. Hopf says the molds’ steel substructures tend toward overkill. Vectorworks is not stingy with the steel or thin with the laminate schedule. “We’ve spent a fair amount of time analyzing what’s really essential for moldmaking rather than just following what was done in the past. If a tool can’t survive shipping intact or it’s so fragile that it gets easily damaged during production, what’s the point?” continues Hopf. “Our designs bring important stability during shipping, so tools arrive in perfect condition and are sufficiently sturdy to withstand the usual rigors of the production line.”
The same design logic is applied to the company’s substructure for plugs, according to William Kulenguski, PE, Vice President of Engineering at Vectorworks. “The governing design constraint is that it has to be rigid, yet efficient to build,” he says. “Each structure is uniquely engineered to suit the geometry and its intended use.”
In the shop, the reinforcement ensures the tool maintains its shape if it is rotated during part manufacturing or moved in and out of storage. Hopf says it is more expensive to build tools this way, but customers prefer to put a tool to work, not rework.
From CAD to CNC
So Vectorworks had all this industry experience, expertise, and new information about tool and moldmaking, but it had not landed a contract that really tested and demonstrated its capabilities. Their business partners put every cent they earned back into the company to improve it and keep it moving forward. But not to worry; their first big contract was impressive.
Intermarine USA needed a fiberglass mold for a 120-foot displacement hull. “We had to rent a shed to build the plug because it was too big for our facilities,” says Gray with a laugh. “We designed the three-dimensional model in sections using CAD systems and then built the plug using conventional building techniques.” Gray says they used hand lay-up, and machining was driven from CAD stations. Hand surfacing and fairing were done to finish the plug. “We were confident about our CAD abilities and our results were tremendous, but this project proved that a CNC router was the next logical step, along with some bigger facilities.”
Vectorworks bought its current property on the Intracoastal Waterway in Titusville, Florida, in 1996. Over the next two years, the existing facilities were renovated by adding three buildings and two mills. During much of that time, staff even worked out of semipermanent tents so business could continue. Now that’s commitment! Today, the facility sits on 14 acres along the Indian River, with 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
The CNC Pulse
CNC machines are the heart of Vectorworks today. “We consider ourselves one of the state-of-the-art machining centers in the United States,” relates Gray.
He says Vectorworks pioneered limited production tooling — skipping the plug stage and machining the female mold directly. CNC machining made this approach practical. “We still machine plugs, and we’ve improved the industry practices for it, but direct machining saves nearly half the mold production time. With our reliability standards, why wouldn’t a customer choose this route?”
Gray says some think that anything less than a fiberglass mold is a “one-off.” However, Vectorworks warrants its limited production tools (LPT) for three pulls, and manufacturers have pulled many more than that. For high-volume production, a fiberglass mold is still the choice of nearly all builders, but with a little innovation and product development time, Vectorworks says that direct machining a mold will become a process that will hopefully blur the distinction between the traditional steps to fiberglass moldmaking and, perhaps, someday make it obsolete.
The company’s fifth and newest mill is its most sophisticated. It is 103 feet long by 28 feet wide by 13 feet tall, compared to two existing mills, which are 65 feet long by 19 feet wide by 10 feet tall. Hopf says the more powerful motor at the cutting head of the CNC will cut four to six times faster than the other machines. This capability enables Vectorworks to accommodate entire, larger hull molds and produce them in record time. An 85-foot hull LPT, for example, can be machined and tooled out in six to eight weeks instead of approximately three months for a conventional plug and mold.
From Napkin to Product
The costs to have an entire product development staff and correlating equipment under one roof are sometimes overwhelming for many marine manufacturers. Even larger manufacturers often do not want to make the investment or take on the headaches.
Vectorworks has a full-blown product and development center (PD&E) with two licensed, professional engineers on staff who are surrounded by a strong supporting cast of engineers and 3-D modelers. “If the part needs a mold, we can design and machine it,” says Gray. Vectorworks can literally take a sketch of a boat on the back of a napkin, completely engineer the hull and systems, and then generate 3-D surface geometry for all the necessary components. The next step is tooling, where three, five-axis routers machine male plugs or female LPTs based on the models. Vectorworks finishing crews then carefully improve the surfaces and laminate, brace, and tool out FRP production molds that are ready to hand over to production. If they are building an LPT, they just improve the surfaces and the tools are ready to work.
Moldmakers have some rules of thumb regarding safe working ranges for temperature and humidity. That may be a starting point, but Vectorworks knows they need to be very specific.
“From there, the mold could be turned over to large part lamination or private label manufacturing. We have experience using just about any lamination process out there, including the closed mold process multiple insert tooling (MIT). From ‘napkin’ to water, we make the process seamless,” says Gray.
Hopf says there are people who can do individual steps in the process as well as Vectorworks can. “But we don’t believe there is a company in the marine industry that can put all of the steps together and do it all as well as we can,” he says.
As materials and processes evolve or new ones become available, they must be evaluated. “We are constantly evaluating. What seemed to work right last year suddenly changed,” explains Hopf. “We look at things proactively. Gel coats are constantly challenging us, and we use every kind of resin, from polyesters to epoxies. Our tools are used in every kind of manufacturing process, and we have to keep ahead of that, too.”
NAC has been Vectorworks’ distribution partner for the past three years. Stuart La Haise, NAC District Manager-Florida, and Mike Spoto, NAC Sales Representative, play active roles in the account. “Vectorworks brings challenging opportunities that require an open mind and all your experience at the table,” says Spoto. “The level of talent [at Vectorworks] is high and demanding, so you’d better be ready when you arrive. They are continuously working on different projects on many levels. To me, this is the heart of our industry wrapped up into one firm — from concept to production.”
Customer relationships are just as critical. Before Vectorworks personnel start working on a new mold, they want to know which manufacturing process will be used. “We work very closely with our customers,” says Hopf. “If we know the mold is going to be using infusion, for example, we work the infusion details right into the mold. We also want to know how the mold will be handled and whether there are any potential hazards in the plant that may affect moving the mold. When the mold arrives at the customer’s facility, it’s costly to address surprises. We prefer to do it properly here.”
Private label boat manufacturing became an option three years ago when Vectorworks teamed up and then merged with Composite Structures. Gray says this business venture will likely be the company’s most significant growth area as smaller manufacturers take advantage of Vectorworks’ one-stop shopping capabilities. With overhead costs constantly increasing via insurance costs and MACT, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements, many companies with great boat designs are finding they just cannot cover these overheads and still market their products at competitive prices. The same holds true for a lot of small part manufacturers. Vectorworks now offers private label manufacturing to spread this overhead over a number of smaller products and help keep the final product costs more competitive.
“We are very, very sensitive to the confidentiality of our customers in engineering, tooling, and manufacturing,” Gray adds. “Visitors can see projects in process, but there is never a company name associated with what they are viewing, and we never show them precisely what is going on with the particular project.”
With engineering and private label manufacturing taking off and growing exponentially while the company continues to grow and improve its tooling capabilities, things are pretty busy at Vectorworks. “It’s a good problem to have,” concludes Gray.
Learn more about this Multi-dimensional company at www.vectorworksmarine.com .
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