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It began as a vision — the idea of making fiberglass boats in a clean factory much faster than the traditional, labor-intensive method stuck in the 1950s. The vision prompted Irwin Jacobs and his advisers at Genmar Holdings Inc., the nation’s second-largest powerboat maker, to buy a small Pennsylvania company that had developed a computer-controlled process for making fiberglass parts. The Virtual Engineered Composites process is cleaner, stronger and cheaper than the old way, and lets Genmar make fiberglass boats much more quickly. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The chemical molding system is essentially a portable, self-contained mini-factory that can be used to make almost any molded product anywhere. It can be operated on site or remotely over the Internet. “This thing is bigger than we even thought it was,” said Jacobs, who believes VEC technology has the potential to change manufacturing worldwide. Robert Lacovara, director of technical services for the trade group Composites Fabricators Association, agrees. “In the composites industry, it’s very unique,” Lacovara said. Closed-mold systems previously have been limited to making smaller electronic and automotive parts, he said. Genmar began regular production of Larson and Glastron pleasure boats in August at a new $20 million factory in Little Falls, the world’s first automated boat plant. It intends to expand the VEC technology to other Genmar plants that make smaller pleasure boats, and eventually to license it to other manufacturers. “Now we believe our technology is worth even more than our boat company,” said Jacobs, who made a name for himself during the 1980s as a corporate raider. “Our biggest challenge from here is who will be the partner or partners in taking VEC outside of the marine industry.” The new and old Genmar plants stand side-by-side in Little Falls, and show vividly the differences in manufacturing techniques. At the old 400,000-square-foot factory, the stench of styrene hangs in the air as the open-mold process is carried out. Workers wear waterproof boots, coveralls and face masks while swabbing sheets of fiberglass inside the molds and use power sprayers to apply resin. Heavy steel piping supports the fiberglass during its 12-hour curing process. After that, the boat hulls and decks are moved to another area, where workers use hand-held power tools to grind and sand the fiberglass to shape. At the new plant, about a quarter the size, banks of computers control most aspects of VEC production. To make the hulls and decks, two composite skins are placed over a polyester mold and hardened through a thermochemical reaction. The mold is then closed and filled with pressurized water that holds the skins together. Computers regulate the mixture and make adjustments for more than 800 variables, including temperature and humidity. Areas that undergo heavy stress are strengthened with computerized precision. The process is monitored by computer from the Pyramid Operating Systems Inc. facility in Greenville, Pa., where Gene Kirila and Bob McCollum developed the basic technology that Genmar refined after buying the company in 1998. The boats are removed from the closed molds after only 40 minutes and require only a few minutes of curing. The small amount of trimming necessary is done by a robotic fiberglass cutter that can trim 55 feet per minute. “The old process needed 40 molds to make 40 boats in a day,” said Jeffrey Olson, president of Larson-Glastron. With the new process, he said, each mold can be refilled every 40 minutes. The process also eliminates more than 70 percent of the styrene emissions, Olson said. The new facility will slowly be brought up to full production of 10,000 boats per year over 18 months.
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