For as long as there have been robots, there have been discussions about their viability in manufacturing. YouTube has video after video showing robots building automobiles. In the U.S. marine industry, robots produce outboards, jetboats, runabouts, propellers and other marine products.
In Germany, Ophardt Maritim builds aluminum boats for the recreational, commercial and military sectors from its facility in Duisburg, using robots for welding and bending sections of the hulls.
“We were looking for a way to build boats in series that are built with the same precision,” says Michael Mathias, managing director at Ophardt Maritim. “If you want to achieve the same level of accuracy as high-end hulls made of carbon fiber and fiberglass, there is only one way: robotics.”
Robots are not as prevalent as one might expect, for one reason: volume. Robots aren’t cheap and a company has to produce enough units to justify the cost. High-volume companies such as Yamaha and Sea-Doo use robotics, as opposed to builders that turn out just a handful of hulls each year.
The longest experiment in automated and robotic boatbuilding, Virtual Engineered Composites, ended several years ago when Larson sold its VEC facility in Little Falls, Minn. “VEC was designed for volume, and when it first started, Larson and Glastron were building 20,000 models per year,” says Rob Parmentier, CEO of the Marquis Group. “It’s a cool process, and we built great boats, but it was 10 percent more expensive than open-molding. When volumes went way down, it was doomed. You have to have volume to justify it.”
KC Robotics is an automation supplier based in West Chester, Ohio. “The marine industry right now is underautomated and underserved,” says operations manager Paul Carrier. “The boating industry is not getting a lot of attention from the automation world because of the difficulties of getting in the door.”
Groupe Beneteau is the largest builder of fiberglass boats in the industry. It uses five-axis equipment for trimming and deburring, but has primarily used robots for gelcoat applications at its production facilities in France. It first started using gelcoat robots in 2014 on smaller boats. “Robotics are more complicated to implement in large-boat-model production units because manufacturing cycles are very long, making it more difficult to match a constant load to the robot,” Beneteau said in an email to Soundings Trade Only.
The company says it is looking at “cobotics,” or collaborative robots, where a robot works together with a person in areas like sanding and polishing. Groupe Beneteau says it is attracting younger employees interested in cobotics, as well as virtual reality, 3-D printing, digital procedures and augmented reality.
Carrier says he has heard the argument that boatbuilding is more of an artistic process, and he understands it — to a point. “There is some art in it, but you’re trying to have a repeatable process so the guy getting your 30th boat off the line is getting the same quality as the first one.”
At its jetboat facility in Vonore, Tenn., Yamaha uses robots to build several dozen boats each day. “If you built 28 boats per day by hand, you would have too many quality issues,” says Roy Reneau, division manager of manufacturing for Yamaha Boats. “Robots are a big part of the quality component.”
Reneau was at Yamaha when the builder first began using robots. The company was turning out about nine boats a day. To trim the hulls and decks by hand after they were pulled from the molds, then cut the holes for stowage, instruments and other components, required overhead fixtures that hold the parts in place. There could be eight or nine fixtures hanging above the workers.
Once output reached about 12 boats a day, the volume justified more robots, says Reneau, who estimates the cost of each robot ranges from $1 million to $1.5 million.
“The amount of fixturing you need to get the work done in time by hand, plus the costs of updating the jigs and fixtures, is excessive,” says Stefan Broeker, manufacturing engineering master at Yamaha. “When you look at the big picture, it costs more than investing in the robot.”
Yamaha uses CNC routers and cutting machines for fabrics, plywood, balsa and other items. Robots trim the hulls and decks when they come out of the mold and do the cutouts for jet pumps, hardware, dash panels and more. Another robot applies gelcoat to the hulls and decks.
Broeker says the time to cut a deck with four people on the job would have been 45 minutes for an 18-foot boat; two robotic arms do the job in 13 minutes. Also, the potential for one of those humans having a bad day is eliminated.
Vonore might be considered the robotics capital of powerboat production in the United States. In addition to Yamaha, Sea Ray has been using automated systems at its Tellico plant in Tennessee to apply gelcoat, cut holes and trim excess fiberglass from hulls and decks. The Brunswick builder has been using robotics, in one form or another, for 21 years. Its robots at Tellico work on 23- to 35-foot boats.
“It can take the robots less time to complete a task than multiple people doing it manually,” says Matt Tallent, manufacturing engineering manager at Sea Ray, who cites the benefits of cutting and trimming an SLX 350 hull. “This element would take three to four people an hour to complete, whereas the robot can tackle it in less than 45 minutes. It also delivers a more accurate and consistent cut.”
At its New York Mills facility for its Lund and Crestliner aluminum boats, Brunswick has a turret punch press that robotically cuts and bends parts as well as a CNC cutting laser. A robotic riveting cell will soon be installed at the facility. The company’s Fort Wayne, Ind., location has a robotic welding cell for small parts.
While most marine manufacturers have a narrow understanding of robotics, Yamaha appears to be leading the way. “Dealing with them is like dealing with a whole different world from the rest of the industry,” Carrier says.
Carrier explains that many boatbuilders have too limited of a perspective on robotics. Instead of only looking at how robots can be used for working with hulls and decks, they could make production of smaller parts more efficient. “If they can’t do the biggest, hardest thing, they don’t see the value,” he says.
“I was talking to a boat manufacturer at IBEX, and he said they use the same hatch for anchor lockers across their entire line,” Carrier adds. “It has slightly different holes depending on the model. You could build one fixture and reprogram the robot on where to cut the holes. We could automate a lot of that. It gets [a company’s] feet wet, and [they] can see how to scale up to larger systems and save money in the long run.”
Carrier says besides manufacturers of fiberglass boats, more aluminum builders are interested in automation, especially with welding. “I wasn’t sure if it would catch because you’re dealing with long runs, and butt joints and aluminum welding are difficult,” he says. “I’ve been talking to several aluminum builders about arc welding specific areas of a boat with a robot that would be more toward their budgets.”
The Sanding Challenge
KC Robotics hasn’t designed any sanding or finishing systems for boatbuilding. “The challenges with sanding, buffing and cutting systems is always tool compliance, part location and part variance,” Carrier says.
Broeker says Yamaha is designing a specialized tool for sanding fiberglass parts. “We’re working with a company that can determine how much pressure a robot puts on a deck or hull to grind or polish it,” he says. “It’s very promising.”
Ophardt Maritim’s operations in Duisburg looks almost like a Terminator movie, with welding robots sitting at rest with arms folded. They include a Kawasaki spot-welding robot, 7-axis Kawasaki high performance robot for welding smaller hulls, and two larger Kawasaki robots for welding bigger hulls. Mathias notes that one robot can weld 22 points in 90 seconds. A skilled welder would probably take a half hour to duplicate that. Going forward, Ophardt Maritim plans to expand its robotics rather than curtail their use.
Mercury Marine has added almost $1 billion in assets in the past decade, according to Jerry Cegielski, general manager, machining operations. The engine manufacturer has installed 25 robots in machining applications alone. They sand propellers and paint engine parts. For the V-6 and V-8 outboards introduced this year, there is a suite of nine robots that takes an engine block from a cast-cylinder block all the way to being ready for components to be installed. The robots recognize whether it is a V-6 or V-8. It would take 15 people over three shifts to produce the same number of engines, Cegielski says.
In addition to more efficient production, robotics increase safety. At times during the foundry process, a Mercury block or other part can be as hot as 400 F. Robots don’t have to wait for the part to cool. That’s one reason they’re used for finishing about a third of Mercury’s foundry work.
Evinrude, meanwhile, is moving away from a fixed overhead conveyor system and implementing automated guided vehicles for outboard production. “AGVs provide so much flexibility since they basically follow a taped line on the floor of the production facility,” says Jeff Wasil, emissions compliance engineer at BRP. “If you want to add an operator station, for example, it’s as simple as laying out a new piece of tape for the AGV to follow to that station.”
Adding a station to an overhead conveyor would be much more complicated. Also, eliminating the overhead conveyor means there are no engine blocks hanging overhead that could fall on workers on the line.
All of the new Evinrude E-TEC G2 engines are built on AGVs. Evinrude also has implemented an automated end-of-line outboard test system to detect quality issues.
Yamaha Marine Precision Propellers Inc. and Mercury’s propeller facility are using or adding robotics in the near future. Jonathon Burns, general manager of YPPI, says that the company currently uses some robotics in the shell room where the mold of the propeller is created with a ceramic shell around a male wax mold.
The company is expanding its facility. “It will be heavily robot-ified,” says Burns. “It has to do with consistency of the part we dip, which makes a better propeller,” Burns says. “It’s not replacing human jobs. Our personnel will be able to audit the process and make sure the robot is doing a good job.” The new plant will be online in about a year.
In addition to using robots for the shell room, YPPI will be using robotics to pour the molten materials, which will be safer for workers. “The automation we’ll have in the foundry will be a big-time advance,” says Burns. “It’s a complete system, so it’s not just the robot. We’re letting the robots eliminate as many variables as possible.” Yamaha is working with VA Technologies from the United Kingdom.
At Mercury Propellers, general manager Dirk Bjornstad says that in the past three years, the company has added Kawasaki robots “that control the dipping process and the whole shell management system.”
Whether it’s Yamaha or Mercury, the basic steps to making a prop remain the same. It starts with a male wax mold and a ceramic shell is formed around it. An autoclave removes the wax and then the shell goes into an oven where it is heated and becomes a high-strength hollow ceramic mold. “You really want that shell to have the appropriate strength so when you fill it with steel it doesn’t crack,” Bjornstad says. The shell is filled with molten steel or aluminum and when the prop cools, the ceramic flakes off.
Mercury is working on robotics to pour molten steel into the shell instead of humans performing the task with ladles on long handles that are heavy and difficult to pour.
In 2015, Mercury installed robotic cells with Fanuc bots that have arms with four different grinding wheels for finishing the props. “Ninety five percent of the props are ground using this process,” says Bjornstad. Finishing and polishing are still done by hand.
Robots vs. People
Since the days of folk hero John Henry competing against the steam drill, people have worried about machines replacing them. Mercury and Yamaha executives say that is simply not the case. “The guy that’s out there now checking the quality used to be the guy drilling holes in the boat,” Broeker says. “When you go to robots, you still need to have the person, too.”
Mercury’s Cegielski says using robots actually adds to the workforce because the machines require programmers. An added bonus is that the age range of most people working with robots is between 25 and 35. That addresses the aging workforce, one of the biggest challenges the industry faces.
To get watercraft and jetboat output up to 30 units per day, Yamaha plans to add another robot by the end of the year. “Generally, we’re pretty much increasing the capacity of the companies we work with,” Carrier says. “Jobs don’t go away; they just get shuffled within the plant.”
“Before they put them in, I was one of the people who was hardest to convince that it would be worth the investment,” Reneau says. “When you factor in the safety and quality, it’s hard not to justify having robots.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.