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The third dimension of marine fabrication

Features | January 1, 2017 | By:

Opposite page and this page: John Bland says that there are often compromises to be made in a shade design for a boat. The beauty of 3-D CAD is that customers can be shown the compromises that need to be considered before the product is created.
John Bland says that there are often compromises to be made in a shade design for a boat. The beauty of 3-D CAD is that customers can be shown the compromises that need to be considered before the product is created.

John Bland revolutionizes marine fabrication by applying 3D CAD principles to the design process. 

Moving a business forward can mean advancing the use of technology. “Look at the motor industry—you wouldn’t be happy driving a car that was spec’d 20 years ago,” says John Bland, managing director of Tecsew Ltd., Gosport, Hampshire, U.K. “It’s the same in the textile industry. Whether it’s in the finish, materials or production techniques, we need to move the trade forward.”

In 1981 an 18-year-old Bland launched Tecsew as a part-time business that manufactured boat covers, canopies, sprayhoods (dodgers), biminis and awnings. “I had always wanted to work for myself, be in charge of my own destiny and be involved in a trade where I could make a difference,” Bland says. “I believe we should take what we initially learn and look to advance the process. I’ve never understood anyone in business that, years later, is still doing things the same way as they were initially shown.”

By 1984 the company had grown to be a full-time endeavor, and Bland hired his father to come on board. His father had expertise in sailmaking in the Royal Navy and commercial marine trimming. “For many when you work with your father, you’ve gone into a preexisting business,” he says. “That wasn’t the case for me. There was nothing set up beforehand.”

Bland’s father eventually moved on from the business, and 10 years ago Bland’s wife, Ally, came on as financial director, as well as doing sales. To date, there are 12 employees working at Tecsew, and Bland expects all of them to embrace an innovative approach to marine fabrication. “I don’t want staff who are going to be using the same processes 20 years down the line,” he says. “I want to see some of the development come from the staff as well as from me. If they have ideas in terms of improving or changing things I encourage them to bring those ideas on board.”

Computer-added value

For Bland, that kind of forward thinking currently means advancing the use of 3D CAD (computer-aided design) for marine fabrication. Tecsew had been using a 2D CAD system since 2001, and approximately seven years ago the company transitioned to using 3D modeling—a decision that has established his business as an industry leader in using innovative 3D CAD. “I believed there had to be a better way of doing things,” Bland says. “I believed 3D CAD was possible [for marine applications] but as far as I knew, it hadn’t been done. I decided to spend the time to learn and develop the process.”

Spending time to learn and develop the process meant that Bland devoted uncounted evenings and weekends at home studying and experimenting with designs before he was ready to begin using the process in-house. “The learning curve was very steep to start off with, especially not knowing for sure it could be done,” Bland says. “What we’re doing that’s unique is designing the whole product in CAD.”

Bland points out that his purpose for making such a big investment was to add value to the company’s brand, not necessarily to save money. “Initially what we found was that what may have taken six hours’ labor ended up taking 16 hours labor because of the new skills we were learning,” he says. “But about three years in we started to see savings—and, most importantly, our clients are much happier with the results.”

What makes the clients so satisfied is that they can see a CAD drawing of the product before manufacturing ever takes place—and make changes if they don’t like what they see. “There are often compromises to be made in a design,” Bland says. “The beauty of 3D CAD is that we can show them what compromises may need to be considered and they make the decision before the product is created.”

The result is better design, frames engineered to fold where they need to fold, and clear winches—all while giving clients the heights and spans they require. “We don’t have clients coming back saying they wished a zip had been placed here, a window made larger or to a different profile,” he says. “The client signs off on the product before it’s produced and after any changes they have requested have been incorporated.”

Another advantage to 3D CAD is the ability to work with clients who are not local, such as those in the United States or Australia. And only one person is required to visit the boat to take the CAD data. “We do not need a second trip with two members of staff to set up the frames and then measure or template,” Bland says. “The first time the frames go down to the boat is when the product is fitted.”

The next best thing

Although 3D CAD has revolutionized the way Bland works with clients, he’s always looking for the next best thing to improve processes—and Bland would like to see advances made in CAD survey equipment. “We’ve trialed with a lot of companies and several of them were adamant that their equipment would work out in the field and it doesn’t,” he says. “One of the problems is with the lasers. The surface of the boat is too shiny and tends to confuse the lasers, and there is so much ambient reflective light with the water that to the laser, both the boat and the water appear white. What you end up getting are hundreds of images that are like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are completely white with
no detail.”

The issues for CAD survey equipment are different for marine fabricators than they are for other industries, Bland points out. “Advances we’re seeing are made in terms of precision, so designs are becoming more and more accurate,” he says. “But for us we really only need accuracy to within an eighth of an inch. Rather than make these devices more and more accurate, I’d like the companies to talk to the textile industry and pay attention to what we want—like personal power (battery packs). We need something durable and weatherproof with the extremes in weather we deal with.”

The biggest value for a company as a result of CAD design is its database of designs, John Bland says. Everything his company has produced in the last 15 years is saved as a file.
The biggest value for a company as a result of CAD design is its database of designs, John Bland says. Everything his company has produced in the last 15 years is saved as a file.

Design data

The biggest value for the company as a result of using CAD is its database of designs, Bland says. Everything the company has produced using CAD over the past 15 years is saved as a file.

“It takes a lot of the skill out of repeat manufacture,” he says. “Equally as important, when we take more data from the boat we’re able to produce additional products down the road for the client. The initial order may have been for a dodger, but when the client comes back and asks for a bimini, we probably don’t have to revisit the boat. We can produce the bimini from the CAD data we already have.”

Yachting Monthly magazine awarded Tecsew its first 10 out of 10-point score for a reviewed product in October 2015, mainly because of the design process, Bland says. The learning curve may have been steep, but he says it’s well worth the effort. “You’re in a completely new career if you’re learning CAD design,” Bland says. “I don’t want to embellish it—but it is a whole new skill set and it’s going to take time.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.

When the U.K. distributer for the Bavaria range of yachts and motorboats needed a sprayhood (dodger) and bimini as standard products for a production boat, the company turned to Tecsew Ltd. to make it happen. The bimini needed to allow for full unhindered operation of all winches, so Tecsew owner John Bland used 3D CAD to ensure that kind of accuracy. Bland acquired the boat’s measurements using a Proliner, designed the products using the Rhino 3D modeling program and rendered them in Flamingo.

“When designing for a dealer, we are designing what will become a standard product on that particular boat, and so it’s very much a case of ‘one size fits all,’” Bland says. “As such it’s very important to design a fully functioning product that will fit the requirements for the majority of buyers.”

Tecsew can also create bespoke designs to specific customer requirements, which it will do with a design surcharge cost applied. “Take the sprayhood, for example,” Bland says. “We have three different models varying in height—one design remains standard and the others are bespoke. These will use the same CAD data but will take extra time in developing the CNC frame bending and cutting files—but there is no requirement for another trip to the boat.”

Q: How can people learn more about 3D CAD design?
A: I’ve done presentations for the Marine Fabricators Association (MFA), and much of that information is available on YouTube. In the videos, I cover the basics of 3D CAD design and specific instructions on measuring and designing biminis, cockpit enclosures, sprayhoods (dodgers) and boat canopies.

Q: What is the difference between 2D and 3D CAD design for marine fabrication?
A: For 2D what you do is measure around the frames—measuring the points on the boat where the canvas is going to go. For instance, if you owned a yacht and we bent the framework, then took it down to the boat, we could cut bits off the framework to customize it but we couldn’t change the radiuses, the curves—the geometry of the framework. With 3D, we can change the geometry of the framework before we manufacture it. We’re drawing all those services on relevant areas of the boat, not just plotting around framework.

  1. Be prepared to put in a lot of time to learn the process.
  2. Brush up on your geometry.
  3. Understand that models take a fair amount of time to generate and the time savings is on the back end of the process.
  4. Adjust pricing structures: charge upfront for CAD design in case clients back out.
  5. Educate clients about 3D CAD design benefits. The more people are aware of it, the more people will want it.

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