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3-D software and hardware for marine fabrication

May 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, In the Shop

Few words captivate the technology sector more than the word “change.”

This digital image, created in Rhino CAD software, shows the finished model of an ARG 31-foot Ocean Master. This model was used to prototype various tower designs.
This digital image, created in Rhino CAD software, shows the finished model of an ARG 31-foot Ocean Master. This model was used to prototype various tower designs.

Anyone with even a casual understanding of the technology marketplace recognizes that change is constantly afoot. For the marine fabrication industry, technological advancements in the area of three-dimensional software and hardware engineering are changing the way many fabricators do business. Think about it. You think in three dimensions. Your products are three-dimensional. So why not use 3-D technology in your product development? 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, from 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, 3-D technology, often referred to as CAD (computer aided design) technology, has proven very effective in his work in architectural interiors and exterior sculptural installations with fabric and stainless steel curvilinear structures.

The Proliner 3-D digitizer transforms objects into digital images by measuring coordinates in X,Y and Z planes. Rendering objects lie on a flat plane, like most canvas patterns. The touchscreen shows the drawing before any coordinates have been measured.
The Proliner 3-D digitizer transforms objects into digital images by measuring coordinates in X,Y and Z planes. Rendering objects lie on a flat plane, like most canvas patterns. The touchscreen shows the drawing before any coordinates have been measured.

“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.”

Indeed, 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 a spec sheet.”

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. But, 3-D technology offers a tremendous number of benefits to industry players, including:

  • Standardization of methods
  • Increased speed, efficiency and accuracy
  • Less time and labor
  • Less paper work
  • Storage of digital patterns for later use

“The advantages of using CAD over traditional methods are numerous,” Fadeev says. “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.”

Another advantage is perhaps the most obvious one—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

At Custom Marine Canvas in Noank, Conn., Katie Bradford says using her chosen 3-D technology—namely 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 uses 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 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 SolidWorks or AutoCAD. To cut parts and draw templates, Fadeev uses a plotter/cutter made by Carlson Design not only for its 1/16-inch accuracy, but because of its affordability as compared to similar machines.

“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. “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.”

Duvall 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.

“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,” 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.”

One project that illustrates the advantages of CAD over traditional methods is the virtual bimini. “Traditionally, to make a bimini first requires measuring for the overall size of it, then patterning the frame for a top,” Fadeev says. “With the virtual bimini, I modeled the frame from the original measurements, patterned a top on it, and exported a pattern of the frame and the pieces of the top to the plotter/cutter that then drew and cut them out. I gave the pattern of the frame to our metal fabrication department and the cut pieces of the top to our canvas department, along with spec sheets. This eliminated the need to manually measure when bending the frame, and eliminated the time and labor necessary to string up the frame and pattern the top.”

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.

“We also work in SolidWorks, which is similar to Inventor. In SolidWorks or Inventor, drawings are created in 3-D, but 2-D drawings are automatically generated and automatically updated as one makes changes in the 3-D model.”

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 single 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.”

Challenges and rewards

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, whereby 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.

In this analogy, the CAD tech is like a lawyer navigating his way through the laws of the land—the laws provide the framework through which the job gets completed. “But it is only by understanding the mercurial nature of the laws that the job can get done effectively,” Fadeev says. “A lawyer, before presenting his case before a judge, must consult with his client and gather evidence within the framework of the case. Just so, the CAD tech must consult with the fabricator and the related job department in order to do the job efficiently and without error.”

One rewarding aspect of using 3-D technology is in the seamless efficiency it offers, especially for jobs that may be on the other side of the globe. Take Custom Marine Canvas for example. Recently Bradford and her team 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. They e-mailed the file to a welding shop and “the canvas met the frame” for the first time in St. Barts. It fit perfectly.

“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, then 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 bright. In fact, industry experts agree that 3-D technology is here to stay.

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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