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3-D technology advances marine fabrication

June 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, Marine, Technical

Simplify and standardize fabrication methods with cutting-edge software and hardware tools.

In the world of technology, change is a constant. For the marine fabrication industry, technological advancements in the area of three-dimensional (3–D) software and hardware engineering are changing the way many fabricators do business. With 3–D technology, three-dimensional products that the brain understands in three dimensions can now be developed in 3–D, too. While some programs may be cost prohibitive for certain end users, more and more are finding options that fit their budget and enhance their bottom line.

The how and why

For years 3-D technology was off limits to most, reserved strictly for those computer gurus with high-end computer devices and whiz-bang programming skills. The technology was expensive and often difficult to use, but today’s 3–D technology software and hardware can be found throughout a range of industries—from architecture to medical, and automotive to marine. In fact, many industry experts believe that anyone using a computer to design physical objects will benefit from today’s 3–D technology.

For Charles Duvall, owner of Duvall Dynamic Spaces, West Rockport, Maine, 3–D technology (often referred to as CAD for Computer Aided Design), has proven very effective in his work in architectural interiors and exterior sculptural installations with fabric and stainless steel curvilinear structures. “3–D software is great for surfaces and membranes,” Duvall says. “We now use MODO software, which allows animation and combines photography into drawings in many unique ways. In my opinion, this is a total breakthrough in the design process—to have these things merge together in a workflow that is relatively straightforward.”

Greg Fadeev with Canvas Designers in Riviera Beach, Fla., says that 3–D technology’s primary role in the marine fabrication industry is to simplify and standardize methods of doing work by automating manual tasks through the use of cutting-edge software and hardware. “The process works like this: the pattern is digitized and imported into the CAD software, where it gets mapped and nested,” he says. “The nested pieces are then cut out by a plotter/cutter and sent to the relevant job department along with spec sheets.”

Like any new technology, incorporating 3–D technology into fabrication shops—both large and small—can be challenging. Not only are the software and hardware components often expensive, but there is a significant learning curve for those who are new to the technology. However, 3–D technology offers tremendous benefits in the shop, including standardization of methods; increased speed, efficiency and accuracy; less time, labor and paperwork; and the ability to store digital patterns for later use.

“Because CAD involves standardizing methods, a person with little or no previous knowledge of marine fabrication can, with the right training, do work that would usually require first-hand knowledge gleaned from the long years of experience typically associated with a veteran fabricator,” Fadeev says.

Perhaps the most obvious advantage is that manual tasks, such as fitting, patterning and cutting parts, are automated. “CAD, by its digital nature, requires fewer tools than traditional methods,” Fadeev says. For example, to draw a circle manually, one would have to use a compass or a piece of string tacked to a work bench. With CAD, you’d simply mouse-click a tool on the screen and type in the desired diameter.

Tools of the trade

At Custom Marine Canvas in Noank, Conn., Katie Bradford says using her chosen 3–D technology (Photomodeler and Rhinoceros) is inexpensive, yet the results separate them from the competition. “It is possible to render a finished product on a customer’s boat before bending the first piece of steel,” Bradford says. “When we don’t ever get to meet the owner, it’s a dandy way to agree on a design. Of course, paying someone to learn can be costly. I bought the software for my employees to install on their home computers to play with on their own time.”

In his shop, Fadeev uses three tools that can be directly compared to their manual analogues of fitting, patterning and cutting parts. First, he uses a Prodim 3–D digitizer that has a wired pen and remote control to convert physical points to digital. “The Prodim is the most versatile and wide-ranging digitizer on the market today, with a range of 16 feet and the ability to combine large drawings together on the move through the process of ‘leap frogging,’ which uses reference points to combine multiple drawings into one,” Fadeev says. “Other digitizers depend on optics, thus making them ineffective in the sun, or else [they] have a limited range.”

Rhinoceros 3–D is Canvas Designers’ CAD software of choice because it is flexible, well suited to 2–D patterning and 3–D modeling, customizable and much less expensive than comparable CAD packages, such as Solid Works or AutoCAD. To cut parts and draw templates, Fadeev uses a plotter/cutter made by Carlson Design not only for its one-sixteenth-inch accuracy, but also for its affordability, compared to similar machines.

Challenges and rewards

“3–D technology gives the ability to work in layers, makes changes throughout in a parametric 3–D software, and allows one to keep track of the most sophisticated project, provided one stays organized and plans ahead and understands the software,” but, Duvall says, “the learning curve for really understanding a 3–D program is very high and only a few people use more than 20 percent of the capability.”

Generally, the challenges associated with incorporating 3-D technology are the same as those associated with working with a protean standard. “When doing custom work, especially custom marine fabrication work, where every boat necessarily differs in shape and size, it is important to remember that standards, like laws, are merely guidelines and are thus susceptible to change,” Fadeev says.

One reward is the seamless efficiency that 3–D technology offers, especially for jobs that may be on the other side of the globe. For example, Bradford and her team recently designed an unusual sunshade for a boat. They photo-modeled it in Rhode Island, then it left for the Caribbean. Via e-mail with the owner in Texas, they agreed on a design, e-mailed the file to a welding shop and “the canvas met the frame” for the first time in St. Bart’s. It fit perfectly.

For Duvall, incorporating 3–D programs including Rhino, Modo and Sketchup into his business operations has allowed him to use a dozen shops to fabricate parts, which are then brought together for assembly. “However, it is still easy to make mistakes, and one has to learn what problems exist in each shop,” he says. “The 3–D drawings help but are no guarantee.”

“I learned to make scale models and draft, so it was a leap at age 50 to start to draw in 3–D,” Duvall says. He is quick to point out that although the 3–D world is a great tool, it is only a tool; it is simply a means to an end. “ Drawing in 3–D doesn’t equal good design, so I feel I have a big advantage since I use hand sketches and scale models as a reference. I don’t want to lose this idea. The downside of 3–D is that no one makes models or hand sketches, relying too heavily on the computer to visualize things.”

Recently Duvall invented and designed from scratch an entire retractable exterior canopy system for a marina in the Grand Caymans. The 3–D drawings included all fasteners, hardware, rigging, blocks, gearboxes, fabric and every aspect of the system, including complex curvilinear elliptical stainless-steel masts. “Prior to drawing this in 3–D, I actually drafted everything in a conventional way as a reference, which worked well as a checking system,” Duvall says. “This increased my comfort level. We also build mock-ups and prototypes to test the concept along the way.”

Making the commitment

“Because the 3–D world is an expensive investment with a high learning curve, one needs a large enough project to justify the purchase,” Duvall says. “Really it takes a minimum of one to two years to become familiar and somewhat fluent, and longer to become very fluent.”

Before purchasing 3–D imaging software and hardware systems, try out the software prior to purchasing to see if it meets your needs. Many manufacturers offer 30-day free trials. Also, taking a one-week class is a good investment prior to purchasing.

“It is a big commitment to learn 3–D software,” Duvall says. “Start simple with the hardware. Most current hardware is sufficient. When you can understand why and what you need, than invest specifically. It is easy to waste money and never use the capability.”

As the growth of 3–D programming options continues on an upward spiral, the future of incorporating this type of technology into the marine fabrication industry is promising. With a close eye on their bottom line, marine fabricators of all sizes are becoming firmly rooted in this technology by streamlining the process it takes to create the best end products for their customers, efficiently and effectively.

Maura Keller is an author and freelance writer based in Plymouth, Minn.

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