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Marine patterning tech, from beginning to end

One fabricator’s journey into the future.

Marine, Markets | August 1, 2021 | By: Jeff Moravec

Kyle Van Damme of Marine Tops Unlimited Inc., Omro, Wis., is among the new breed of marine fabricators who are embracing tech tools for manufacturing, convinced that the financial investment and the learning curve will be worth it. All photos: Marine Tops Unlimited Inc.

For nearly 40 years, Marine Tops Unlimited Inc. has provided custom fabrication for Wisconsin boats. Kyle Van Damme, who runs the company’s operation in Omro, west of Oshkosh, has for most of those years done fabrication the old-fashioned way: designing and measuring by hand, not by computer.

But Van Damme is now among the “new breed” of fabricators who have embraced the tech world, convinced that even with a steep learning curve, the efficiency and precision of the digital world is where the future lies.

“When we started thinking about it, we had more questions than answers,” Van Damme says. “Our thought process was simply that someday this will make us faster. And it would allow repeatability; if we had to work on a certain boat again, to replace something that was broken or worn out, we’d already have the CAD cut file ready to go. Kind of like, ‘press play and let’s start cutting.’”

Many of the manufacturers that make the hardware and software for today’s fabricators wouldn’t necessarily call theirs a nascent industry—some have been around for decades. What’s changed is that more fabricators are recognizing that they better get on board before the ship sails (so to speak). The future is here, even though there may be some bumps along the road.

What are the best tools?

While the number of choices among digital tools for marine fabrication may be relatively small, the investment is not inconsequential to most businesses, so everyone wants to get it right the first time. Van Damme says he had no preconceived notions about what products might work best for him.

“What we did was not real complicated,” he explains. “It was a lot of looking at what other people I knew in the industry were doing. We went to a lot of Marine Fabricators Association events, and other things, just asking questions.”

Marine Tops has a long history of “being very efficient and doing high-quality work,” which Van Damme believes made the transition to digital a little easier than it might otherwise have been. He also says that adopting both 2D and 3D digital processes, while a “daunting task,” was the right way to make the transition. He also points to the fact that the company has been patterning enclosures all in one shot for decades, which helped with the transition to 3D.

Carl Van Damme, Kyle’s father, uses plotter software to lay out and nest the bimini top pieces before the plotter draws them.

Van Damme says that his company has approached the move to digital in a relatively careful way. “We never wanted to be the guinea pig” for new, unproven products, he says. As well, he has kept the company’s cash outlay on the low side: Marine Tops has purchased much of the equipment and software it uses for about $50,000—not an inconsiderable amount, but fairly conservative as this goes. On the other hand, the company has yet to purchase an automated cutting table system, the final and most expensive part of a system.

While fabricators such as Van Damme have taken the leap into digital, he says it will be a while before he comes close to mastering the intricacies. “On some of this software, our industry will only be using one percent,” he says. “But by keeping close track to what we do and documenting all the steps for the various processes, I’ll be able someday to hand this over to someone else—and they’ll be able to do what we’re learning now, step by step.”

Van Damme doesn’t claim that his purchasing decisions are the ones every shop should make—everybody has their own needs, and how they can be met should be determined by a company’s own research. 

Measurements and models

There are several technologies for measuring boats, such as wired probes, laser pointers, laser scanners and white-light scanners. Van Damme uses a point-to-point patterning system from Prodim USA, based in Fort Pierce, Fla., called the Proliner, a turnkey solution that uses a cable for measuring. 

While touchless laser systems have been growing in popularity, Van Damme says he was worried about their “limitations, such as difficulty reading in sunlight … but then again all systems have some limitations.” 

Prodim’s Proliner uses a proprietary contact-based measuring system. “Because of this, we believe it is the most accurate and user-friendly system available,” says Zach Harris, Prodim’s North American area manager. “When you are physically touching the object, there is less room for errors, and that leads to higher accuracy.”

PhotoModeler software, which was Van Damme’s first purchase on his digital journey, extracts measurements and models from photographs taken with a camera (and almost any camera will do). The system works for accurate 2D or 3D measurement, photo-digitizing, surveying, 3D scanning and reality capture. 

The Rhino CAD DXF file that shows the layout of the window panels and strips.

The method of measurement is called photogrammetry, according to Alan Walford, founder and CEO at PhotoModeler, a Vancouver, B.C., Canada software maker, and can be done even with a cell phone camera. Each type of measurement technology has its benefits, Walford says, but he believes photogrammetry offers excellent accuracy and efficiency.

“One thing with a camera is that it reduces the need to revisit a site if you missed something,” he says. “All the data is there with a photo; you just need to pull it out.”

CAD tools for efficiency

Rhino® 3D CAD software for patterning, designing and modeling can create, edit, analyze, document, render, animate and translate NURBS curves, surfaces and solids, subdivision (SubD) geometry, point clouds and polygon meshes, according to the company. 

“One big advantage of Rhino is that it’s easy to learn and it’s easy to use,” says Van Damme. 

According to Scott Davidson, who works in business development for Rhino, “Efficiency is everything. The whole reason is to try to get a better product in the same amount of time, or the same quality product faster—hopefully both, depending on the complexity of the job.” 

But he says sometimes there is a different way to answer the question about what kind of value the product brings: “Does this give you the confidence to do covers you previously wouldn’t have tried?” 

The finished product, lying on top of a white piece of paper, after the plotter has drawn on the Strataglass windows.

Flattening software

From the outset, Rhino created software as an open architecture—and that has allowed companies such as ExactFlat to add value by offering products that increase the range of its use, in this case to “flatten” 3D drawings to 2D. ExactFlat’s “plug-in” software works with Rhino, the company says, to design or refinish almost any part of the boat, from the interior upholstery to marine covers. Other flattening software, such as that from SolidWorks, also works with Rhino products.

“It’s a very complex program,” Van Damme says. “Just like the Rhino 3D CAD, we use a very small amount of what it can do, but it’s been working well for us.”

Mark Jewell, president of Tri-D Technologies Inc., maker of ExactFlat, explains that sophisticated mathematical algorithms are used to generate 2D patterns from 3D source geometry, accounting for material curvature, warp, weft, weave, stretch and strain. 

“We know that fabricators expect 100 percent confidence in the accuracy of 3D to 2D pattern making and believe that we have perfected the process to warrant their trust.”

And he expects digital patterning to get more popular. “Doing the measuring without technology is a real learned skill, and few people are interested in learning that anymore,” Jewell says. “And the people who all know it are retiring.”

While Van Damme chose ExactFlat, MPanel offers similar software for 3D design flattening. In fact, says Timothy Akes, representative for the Americas at MPanel Software Solutions in St. Louis, Mo., “Sometimes we’re a better fit; sometimes ExactFlat might be a better fit—it depends on what products the fabricator is making.”

MPanel’s first product was designed for awnings, but MPanel Production, released about a decade ago, is devoted to marine fabrication.

“Some of our industry software evolves from other products, such as for upholstery, and fits well for that,” Akes says. “Because of where ours came from, it uses form-finding to make covers and enclosures that fit really, really well.” 

Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

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