Most manufacturers in the marine industry are eager to eager to automate boat building, but don’t know how to make it happen. Here are the five major steps.

Amidst the challenging times of the pandemic, boat builders found a glimmer of hope as it brought an unexpected surge in sales. As orders rolled in and inventory dwindled, delivery times stretched to over a year, pushing boat builders to find new ways to increase productivity. 

That created a surge of interest in automation, especially in the processing of fiberglass components. The marine industry had been relatively slow to move toward automation compared to many other industries, but that’s no longer the case. Many, probably most, boat builders are inquiring about the benefits of automation and what steps are involved in the process. Their interest intensifies when they learn that typical improvements over manual processes are usually in the 30 to 100 percent range. 

Here are the five basic steps of the automation journey. 

1. Clarify your goals

The first step involves the thoughtful consideration of your goals. There are many potential benefits to automation, but you need to prioritize the ones that are important to you, align them with your company objectives, and gain acceptance from your workforce.  The most common automation goals are:

Shorten cycle time – Move more boats through your existing operations. 

Improve product quality – Tighten tolerances and minimize scrap by reducing human error. 

Reduce manual labor – Eliminate repetitive tasks from your production team so they can focus on higher-skill, higher-value assignments. 

Enhance safety – Improve the working environment and limit exposure to potentially dangerous tasks. 

Embrace sustainability – Reduce or eliminate the hazardous dust and other byproducts of fiberglass processing.

Any automation effort will deliver all these benefits. What’s important is that identify the most important goals or objectives for your company. If product quality improvement is your #1 goal, you probably won’t see as significant a reduction in cycle time as someone who puts production speed as their priority. 

2. Gather your part data

Automating the cutting, trimming, and gel-coating process is much easier to implement with strong 3D data detailing the geometry of each part. Your 3D part data can simply be exported to the off-line programming (OLP) software that will then create the position and path information. 

A growing number of boat builders have these data models, but many fiberglass components still exist only as hand drawings or 2D models. Without 3D data, your automation integrator will need to “teach” the robot the shape of each part and the path the robot should follow as it moves around the part. 

Converting your data from 2D to 3D typically requires support from a third-party provider. Automation integrators may be able to recommend a service provider to do the conversion, but this service is typically performed by regional providers that integrators may not be familiar with. 

3. Select your integrator

With your goals established and your 3D part data ready, the next step is to select your integrator, the company that will develop an automation solution for your project. Experience in the marine industry is beneficial since there are unique aspects to working in these applications and/or with fiberglass component material. 

Keep in mind that most integrators deal primarily with material handling. You should seek out a supplier who understands cutting and trimming, specifically working with common marine materials like FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic), SMC (sheet molding compound), and carbon fiber. Improper automation of cutting these materials will result in a significant amount of scrap while they develop your automation. You can speed the integration process and reduce trial-process scrap by selecting a company that knows these materials. 

Ensure they have the proven process knowledge and extensive experience in a variety of these cutting and trimming solutions, such as router and waterjet so they can make the best recommendation for your application. Having in-house technology and the ability to provide guidance for various solutions will give you a more holistic view of your automation project.

4. Simulate the process

Your selected integrator will next test the automated processes developed by their robotics software. This testing is done via simulation, not cutting actual parts. The result of this testing will be an automation program that’s typically about +90% accurate and optimal. Final refinements still need to be done with actual parts. 

The integrator will also conduct a reach study, evaluating the size of your parts. They will consider all the angles and distances the robot must access. This information is needed to properly size the robot to your needs and determine what hardware is needed to support and position your parts.

Now it’s time to fabricate your robot and it’s tooling, as well as the supporting equipment and any product handling systems. 

5. Final test and implementation

Next comes production trials, which includes verifying the proper cutting and trimming technology, whether it’s a router, waterjet, laser, or something else. If you’re using common materials and there’s nothing unusual about your parts, then this step may be unnecessary, but it’s still highly recommended for validation. 

With the cutting technology established, the integrator will make final refinements as your production team runs the initial parts. Based on the goals you specified at the start of your automation journey, they will optimize the process for speed, quality, etc. As the integrator pushes to get the most out of your process, you’ll need to evaluate the results to make sure the quality of the parts remains satisfactory. 

Does automation make sense for you?

The benefits of automation can be remarkable and more cost effective than you might think. It’s important to remember that you aren’t usually automating individual parts, which would be an expensive proposal. In most cases, you will automate series of parts, which increases the ROI on your automation project and eases implementation on the production floor. 

Decks, for example, are very similar for your boats of a given length, but there may be 20 different versions of each model within a series. With the first deck automated, it’s a simple matter to modify the program for different hatches, holes, etc. Having programs for each model of a part gives you the flexibility to quickly change from one SKU to another, enabling one-piece flow for low-volume models. 

Start your automation journey 

As a boat builder, you have a big advantage over manufacturers in other markets. While manufacturers in most industries are intensely competitive and carefully guard the knowledge they’ve developed, boat builders tend to view themselves collectively, sharing similar experiences.

Most of them are eager to move their industry forward and therefore more willing to share what they’ve learned about automation. When starting your automation journey, ask other manufacturers about the stumbling blocks they tripped over, insights they gained, and resources/integrators they relied on. 

Automating your processes will take time and investment on your part, but it can provide impressive payoffs in achieving your most important production, safety, and environmental goals. 

Bryon Machado

Bryon Machado

Business Development Manager

Shape Process Automation