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Our tech edge can be an asset outside boating

At some point during a marine business roundtable discussion prior to the start of the Providence (R.I.) Boat Show, someone invoked the name Herreshoff - as in Nathanael Herreshoff, aka Capt. Nat, aka "The Wizard of Bristol."


The invocation seemed appropriate, given the trends being talked about by the five panelists, whose discussion was organized by the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association. Although a number of state-specific issues were discussed, many of the strategies and much of the advice put forth was forward looking, with relevance and resonance beyond the borders of the Ocean State.

Broadly speaking, the topics included leveraging technology and processes to new industries and markets, training and developing a work force in a broad range of relevant industry skills, diversification and continued innovation. And there also was plenty of talk of Rhode Island boatbuilders using their expertise in composite construction to become leaders in building everything from large wind turbine blades to composite military vessels to megayachts.

If Capt. Nat were alive today, I'm guessing he'd feel right at home with the discussion.

Nathanael G. Herreshoff (1848-1938) of Bristol, R.I., was, after all, one of this country's greatest yacht designers, builders, marine engineers and innovators. And in some small way, the group of leaders who had gathered in Providence to discuss the future of boating in Rhode Island and beyond, as well as many of those in the audience, were spiritual descendants of this inventive pioneer.

"So many innovative technologies have come out of Rhode Island," says panelist and longtime RIMTA board member Michael Keyworth, general manager of Brewer Cove Haven Marina in Barrington, R.I. "It's partly because we have [marine] business leaders willing to take risks. And our work force is very well-trained and adept at doing things."

Rhode Island won't lead the way in terms of cranking out large numbers of production boats, panelist Rich O'Meara, president of Core Composites in Newport, R.I., told the audience. "But we can show the world how to build large composite parts," says O'Meara, whose company supplies advanced composite materials such as carbon fiber, high-tech cores and epoxies to the global marine industry.

The state's high-tech boatbuilders should leverage their expertise in prepreg and resin-infusion construction methods to other industries, such as aerospace and military, and to other products.

Regarding resin-infusion specifically, O'Meara says, "We are ahead of the rest of the industry in the knowledge and the use of that process." Diversifying, he says, will help smooth out the inevitable bumps and dips that are part of this cyclical industry. He believes the day is not far off when more builders will be putting together boats in one section of their shops, and building high-tech parts for other industries in another section.

KVH Industries, a high-tech mobile technology company whose roots are firmly in Rhode Island, weathered the downturn in part by having successfully diversified beyond its core recreational market to include more commercial and military work on a global basis, says director of marketing Chris Watson, another participant.

"Fundamentally, we are a technology company that developed a wide range of technologies for the marine marketplace, but that were adaptable to a wide variety of other applications," says Watson. "This opened a host of new opportunities for us."

Another panelist working on the leading edge of technology is Ben Hall, vice president of Hall Spars & Rigging of Bristol, which builds some of the most advanced masts and spars in the world. The company has two autoclaves - an enormous 151-footer and a 66-footer - that can cure everything from America's Cup masts to various parts for the aerospace and military industries.

Again, the point that Hall and the others were making: Technology and diversification is a winning combination.

Another key ingredient moving forward is a trained work force. Roundtable member Terry Nathan, president of the International Yacht Restoration School, said the school's core competency is its educational model, the essence of which is to produce workers with relevant skills. To that end, IYRS recently announced it was launching a full-time composites technology program this September in Bristol, which will augment its boatbuilding and restoration, and systems programs.

Technology, innovation, diversification, a skilled work force - it worked for The Wizard of Bristol. It's the right formula for this industry, as it dusts itself off and moves forward.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.


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