Fabricating with virtual vision

Published On: July 1, 2010Categories: Management

Katie Bradford uses computer imaging to fabricate hard-to-design projects.

“We can take a photograph of a boat, create a computer model of it and add to it the virtual structure that we intend to build,” says Katie Bradford, MFC, IFM, owner of Custom Marine Canvas in Noank, Conn. “That way the customer can see exactly what the product is going to look like before we bend the first piece of steel.” Being able to do business virtually was the farthest thing from Bradford’s mind when she started the marine fabrication company in 1985, with one sewing machine and one employee. But Bradford seems to have a knack for welcoming unexpected opportunities—and making a success of them.

A woman, a boat and a sewing machine

Bradford had always thought she was going to be a scientist. Her junior year in college she went to sea to study the marine sciences. “But when we were offshore I discovered that I wanted to sail professionally,” she says. She got her captain’s license and delivered race boats around the world, including two trans-Atlantic crossings. It was during those travels that she met a woman who did canvas work for racing boats, and first realized that she could possibly make a living by combining two of her passions—boating and sewing.

It was also during this time that she acquired the experience that landed her first job working at a sail loft doing sail repair, experience which involved an unlikely connection of elements. She was in Sardinia, Italy, racing sailboats. The condo at which she was staying had some “great waffle weave towels” begging to be transformed into a pair of shorts. Bradford had a Time magazine begging to be turned into a pattern for a pair of shorts. And the North Sails Repair Loft had a sewing machine set up for sail repairs begging her to use it to craft her one-of-a-kind waffle weave shorts. Not only did she end up with a custom pair of shorts, she ended up with a new career. Upon her return to the United States, Bradford applied for a job at a sail loft doing sail repair. “When they asked if I had any experience, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve sewn in the North Sails Repair Loft in Sardinia, Italy,’” she says.

After 10 months, Bradford was laid off and decided to start her own business. In an unheated building that was once a foundry, with a used sewing machine she bought from her former employer and one cousin for an employee, she launched Custom Marine Canvas. “We live in coastal Connecticut and seagulls love to break open clams on roofs,” Bradford says. “Every time a seagull would drop a clam on our roof, soot would fall on my work.” From those primitive surroundings Bradford expanded the business and moved to a more polished, 3,000-square-foot facility, hiring additional employees, including the man who introduced her to AutoCAD.

Photo modeling

“In 1991, a man named Paul Shuman came to me looking for a job and he said he knew AutoCAD. He also brought some sport kites he had made,” Bradford says. “Impressed with his sewing, I hired him on the spot, not thinking in a million years that we would ever use AutoCAD photo modeling because we were still a pencil-and-paper kind of company.” But when a project came up to design a cover for a rescue boat located on the bow of a ferry—while it was in motion—Bradford thought it was time to give photo modeling a try. “The ferry’s going 18 knots all the time and there’s no opportunity to have it sit still long enough to take a conventional pattern, where we drape material and mark it for the pattern,” she says. “So we rode on the ferry with a camera and put round file folder stickers all over this inflatable boat.” Using those stickers for reference points, Shuman took photographs from at least three different directions as close to 90 degrees as possible and loaded the photos onto the computer program, identifying the points so the program could generate a virtual frame of the inflatable boat.

From there, Shuman used the rendering program Rhinoceros (or Rhino) to complete the patterning. “In the rendering program you decide where the seams are going to go based on the shapes that are generated,” she says. “You work within certain tolerances. The number of pieces of fabric you need depends on how much shape you want to put into each project.” Bradford’s company made the cover out of 24-ounce vinyl and it fit perfectly. “And the beauty of having the pattern in the computer is that it’s easily accessible for future use,” she says. “The company has since reordered that cover.”

When a plan comes together

Since that first job, Bradford and her team have done many projects using photo modeling, although it’s still a small portion of the company’s total revenue. “The process is time-consuming,” she says. “We charge about $700 just to produce the image, so it’s only for the discerning customer.” But for some projects it’s really the only answer, and using the process brings magnificent results, according to Bradford.

Take, for instance, a recent project Custom Marine Canvas did using photo modeling. The customer wanted a sun shade for a sleek oceangoing sailboat, which Custom Marine Canvas designed to be partly welded and partly slip fittings. No one at the company ever met the owner. “The boat was in Newport, R.I., and the owner was in Texas, and so we photo modeled the boat, drew what we thought he wanted and he made changes,” Bradford recalls. “We made those changes and when he approved the design, we found a company in Maine that had done a similar type of top in terms of having it be partially welded. We e-mailed the file to the shop in Maine to make the frame. We made the fabric cover. By now the boat has left Rhode Island and is in St. Barth’s in the Caribbean. The frame shipped from Maine. We shipped our canvas top from Connecticut. The two pieces met in the Caribbean and the captain put the thing together half an hour before the owner showed up, and it fit like a coat of paint. That was something that would have been impossible without photo modeling.”

But with the help of photo modeling, Bradford made it virtually possible.

Sigrid Tornquist is associate editor of InTents, a publication of the Industrial Fabrics Association International.