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Digital patterning: 2D and 3D tools

July 1st, 2021 / By: / Feature

How one fabricator stepped into the future.

Kyle Van Damme of Marine Tops Unlimited Inc., Omro, Wis., is among the new breed of fabricators who have embraced the tech world. Why? It’s where the future is. Photo: Marine Tops Unlimited Inc.

By Jeff Moravec

Marine Tops Unlimited Inc. has been providing custom fabrication for Wisconsin boats for just shy of 40 years. Kyle Van Damme, who with his father owns the company in Omro, west of Oshkosh, has for the vast majority 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 what could be 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—many have been around for decades. But they’re seeing a recognition among more and more fabricators 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.

In the “old days,” fabricators would measure and build boat tops by hand. Now computers and sophisticated software do the measuring, and often the cutting as well. Photo: Marine Tops Unlimited Inc.

What are the best tools?

The biggest question, of course, when a fabricator is considering the leap to digital is what are the best tools to use? While the number of choices may be relatively small, the investment is not inconsequential to most businesses, so everybody wants to get it right the first time around.  

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 he says helped with the transition to 3D.

Van Damme believes 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 needed for about $50,000, certainly 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. This article does not cover plotters and cutters, which will be reviewed in a future article.)

While fabricators such as Van Damme have taken the leap into digital, he says it will be awhile before he feels like he’s come close to mastering the intricacies. “On some of this software, our industry will only be using 1 percent,” he says. “But by keeping close track of 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.”

This article includes a brief overview of the products that Marine Tops has been using, with some comments by the product representatives. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and Van Damme doesn’t claim that the purchasing decisions his shop made are the same that every shop should make—everybody has their own needs, and how they can be met should be determined by a company’s own research. 

The Prodim 3D measuring device from Prodim USA employs one of several technologies that fabricators have adopted for measuring. Photo: Prodim USA.

Proliner 3D measuring device
Prodim USA

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 which 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.”

A PhotoModeler Technologies customer pins down a template for photo-digitizing. Photo: PhotoModeler Technologies Inc.

PhotoModeler Technologies Inc.

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 company says a beginning system can be had for less than $1,000, or if a camera does not need to be purchased, a subscription program begins at $59 per month.

PhotoModeler’s 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.”

Measuring a project using Prodim USA’s Proliner software at Marine Tops Unlimited. Photo: Marine Tops Unlimited Inc.

Rhino 3D CAD patterning/designing/modeling software
Robert McNeel & Associates

Rhino 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. Rhino costs just under $1,000, or about $500 for an upgrade license.

“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?” 

More and more, computer software—which helps generate models like the one at left—are an integral part of fabrication. But hands-on work by skilled employees is still important. Photo: Exactflat.

ExactFlat flattening software
Tri-D Technologies Inc.

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 to the boat. (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., explains that there are “sophisticated mathematical algorithms used to generate 2D patterns from 3D source geometry. They account for material curvature, warp, weft, weave, stretch and strain.” He continues, “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 and 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.”

This boat cover was constructed using software from MPanel Software Solutions Inc. Photo: Straightline Canvas in Kimberling City, Mo.

MPanel Software Solutions Inc.

While Van Damme chose ExactFlat, MPanel is a company that 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 complex tensile fabric architecture structures, but MPanel Production, released about a decade ago, is a vertically-focused solution 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.”

Also, Akes says, “It’s important to note that this is not a simple ‘projection to ground plane’ or an ‘unroll.’ It’s a rather complex algorithm that creates a true pattern.”

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