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For many contractors, the growth rates experienced by the yachting sector in recent years are the stuff dreams are made on. But you also have to be able to propose high-quality products to an increasingly demanding public at competitive prices… The Poncin group accepted this daunting challenge, and the result is the new Harmony line of composite boats.
(Published on May 2005 – JEC Magazine #17)
Fresh arrivals in a market as congested as pleasure sailing need to have some hard advantages. The Poncin group isn’t exactly what you would call a fresh arrival in that market – to be specific, Olivier Poncin has been in the industry for at least 25 years, and the group owns the Catana shipyard, which specializes in catamaran building. The new Harmony line could qualify, however. It is taking its position in a market segment that represents about 80% of sailboat sales in France. The Poncin group is very export-oriented, so it is targeting more than just France. Its export objectives are about 80% of production for the three Harmony boats (38’, 42’, and 47’).
An unusual approach The above-mentioned hard advantages should be either technical or economic. In this area, the Poncin group not only innovates, it also is proposing a range of boats that have real high-tech advantages at much lower prices than the competition – and without skimping on quality, either. How can such a feat be achieved? It actually is quite simple: by innovating in every area, including technology, organization, and methods. The innovation desired by Olivier Poncin is the keystone of this bold project, and an unusual team has been working at it for more than two years. No fewer than fifteen million euros have been invested in a new production tool for the project. The innovation starts with the team itself, which drew in people from many different backgrounds; for example, Industrial Director Didier Otrzonsek, who comes from the automotive industry (Delphi, in particular). The decision to build a team with many different skills grew out of “an appraisal of how to build mass-produced boats and still get away from the run of the mill,” according to Mr. Otrzonsek. The basic idea is to take solutions, work methods, and type of organization that have already been tested in other industrial segments – but not in yachting – and transpose them to the production of ten-to-fifteen-metre sailboats. The group did not hesitate, either, to bring in outside expertise, such as that of the PPE (Pôle de Plasturgie de l’Est), or of the EIGSI (École d’Ingénieurs en Génie des Systèmes Industriels), an industrial systems engineering school located in La Rochelle.
Highly developed upstream planning As soon as the three Harmony boats had been designed individually, the teams were requested to design a line that could integrate the greatest number of standardized components without sacrificing the “personality” of each boat. Standardization does have its technical and marketing limits. In the present case, the helmsman’s seat, which tips backwards to become a swim platform with folding ladder, is identical on all three boats. The kitchen, bathroom, and many of the other deck components are, too. This design advantage creates savings in terms of purchases, tooling, and production that show up later in the market price, which is 10% to 15% lower than that of competitors’ boats. In the same spirit of doing better for the same price, without affecting the quality, architect firm Mortain & Mavrikios designed well-balanced hulls that combine well-illuminated, spacious interiors with excellent sea performance.
A modern production tool The fabrication had to be factored in at this stage of the project, and the range of available processes and solutions was wide and varied. Here, too, the Poncin group began to plan far upstream of the production process. The research led to several interesting developments that met the project’s specifications in terms of quality at a lower price or, as the company motto goes, “Quality is no longer a luxury”. The process and organizing it were really a matter of industrial approach, and the latest robotic and automated techniques were chosen. The less sophisticated tasks were eliminated. Most of the production stages (production being structured into a highly rational line) were organized in confined areas to meet the strictest of regulations, notably for VOC emission. Gelcoating and trimming operations, for example, are done in closed rooms using robots. The new plant is located just north of La Rochelle and will have a maximum production capacity of 1,200 boats per year using three 8-hour shifts, seven days a week. Production was to start up some time in March. To judge by the favourable reaction to the new Harmony line since it was first presented in September 2004 at the Grand Pavois in La Rochelle, the workload for the plant seems to be guaranteed over the coming months. The production objective for the 2005/ 2006 fiscal year is for 350 to 400 units. Over the medium term, operating the production tool will require 300 employees. “We have already set up specific training courses for learning our manufacturing techniques,” says Mr. Otrzonsek. The aim is to use a well-trained staff to keep ahead of the competition, but also, as he adds, “to transform the laminator’s job”. The authorities from the Charente Maritime department and the Poitou Charente region have given the entire project their full consideration, and have decided to support it.
JEC Composites Magazine: Were composites an integral part of the project, or did the solution become necessary as the project unfolded?Yves Dumontet:Olivier Poncin, who originated the project, has considerable experience in building composite yachts, and boats from 10 to 15 metres in length, in particular, which is the size range for the new Harmony line (this consists so far of three boats, 38’, 42’, and 47’). In this boat category, composite materials are a must in hull and (especially) deck fabrication, with only a few exceptions. Composites are an obvious choice, because they have great performance in terms of strength and weight. Generally speaking, their properties are better than many other products, and they are relatively easy to process. So, there you have a few reasons why composite materials are an integral part of the project.
J.C.M.: Are there other properties inherent to composite materials that worked in their favour?Y.D.: Yes, the very nature of composites and their great flexibility of use. Although we use mainly fibreglass as reinforcement, we do use aramid fibre for certain areas of the hull that undergo more stress and which are vulnerable to impact. Flexibility is an advantage. For matrices, we use an orthophthalic DCPD polyester resin that is not only perfect for our specifications, but also well adapted to our injection process.
J.C.M.: What solution for osmosis did you opt for?Y.D.: For the outer surface, we use a gelcoat based on NPG isophthalic polyester resin, which has very good resistance to marine stress corrosion, and to osmosis in particular. The resin we use for building boats also has good osmosis properties, much better than those of standard resins, and perhaps even better than those of isophthalic resins made for the purpose.
J.C.M.: Your manufacturing process appears to be quite innovative. How is it different from those you see elsewhere?Y.D.: The guiding principle from the start was to manufacture all composite parts in-house, using closed-mould techniques, from decks to hulls to accessory parts. We differ especially in hull fabrication. We use a mould that I’ll call “mixed”. It consists of a rigid part and a flexible part. We have a process that is about half-way in between infusion and RTM Light. Our process calls on both these techniques, without really being typical of either. To put it more simply, we inject resin at low pressure, assisted by a vacuum to obtain complete filling, after simultaneously applying the precut reinforcement tapes on both parts of the mould.
J.C.M.: Did the process have to meet specific constraints?Didier Otrzonsek:We had to meet two main constraints: one was regulatory, in terms of complying with the upcoming regulations on VOC emission, and the second one was economic, with our objective of producing better and cheaper than our competitors. We are not the only ones in that market segment. The new standards concerning VOC (volatile organic compound) emission required us to stop using standard open-mould contact methods for processing composite materials. We were forced to find other solutions. Closed-mould manufacturing allowed us to meet the regulatory requirements. With our process, we register much lower styrene emission than what the standard specifies. So our operators are working in a healthy environment. At no time during the manufacturing process are they in contact with the gelcoat or resin, or even the acetone used during rinsing operations. The only things operators are in contact with are the reinforcing tapes, the moulds, and the buttons on the different machines when they set operations in motion. Our strategy meets all health and safety requirements. The second constraint was more in-house: we were aiming to set up a production process capable of fitting in with a progressive industrial logic that would lead to the production standards that are usual in many other industries. So we worked on and developed our own manufacturing process. The process guarantees enhanced productivity, impeccable quality, and unlimited parts reproducibility. For example, each hull will weigh exactly the same, no matter when during the year it has been made, and whatever the serial number. They will always have the same properties, the same geometry, and so on. We are protected against the most common human errors, for example the case where a young operator is a bit heavy-handed with contact moulding.
J.C.M.: Does that mean that, with this process, you are able to guarantee a consistent level of quality, whatever the conditions?D.O.: Yes it does! No matter which operator pushes the button that starts the machine, or what the weather is, or even what day it is, the quality will be consistent. With our process – and compared to a traditional approach – we guarantee the reproducibility of parts and the observance of the right weight and fabric placement.
J.C.M.: With this innovative process for the boating sector, do you feel that you’ve made a step in the direction of the industrial logic that you were seeking when the project began?D.O.: Yes, it was our goal, and it still is. That is, we are going to continue to cogitate in order to continually improve our methods. Our industrial logic is also concerned with upstream aspects, with a design for the line that makes use of a wider standardization of parts. This industrial logic is necessary, and will continue to be so for our boats, at all stages of design and production.
A ground-breaking concept The employees have been trained in the new concept, which is based on closed-mould technology. The catchphrase is “do it right the first time”. Cycle times are shorter, compared to other technical solutions. The technique used is called IAMM (Infusion Assistée en Moule Mixte), or vacuumassisted mixed-mould infusion. It makes use of injection and infusion, and produces consistent quality and a homogeneous resin mixture in all mould sections. The bottom half of the mould is rigid for moulding the ribs in a process that is similar to RTM (injection), while the walls are vacuum infusion moulded using a standard plastic film. The mould is filled with extreme care, and resin/mould temperatures, injection pressure, and volumes are all under close supervision and managed by PLCs linked up to sensors. The plies and preforms are carefully placed in the mould before the filling step. This stage of the production process was also carefully planned so as to ensure total quality.
Composites to the rescue The hulls are made of closed-cell foamed PVC sandwich, 20mm thick and with a density of 80kg/m3. Instead of traditional laminating techniques, where the ribs are bonded and relaminated to the hull after demoulding, the Poncin team opted for an innovative solution that allows positioning the ribs during lay-up and making them integral with the hull during the step where the resin is vacuum injected. The result is an extremely stiff, strong structure. Structural analysis was used to model the stress the hull is subjected to so that aramid structural reinforcement can be added in the heavily stressed areas of ballast during the lamination process. The one-piece rudder-head-and-blade unit consists of a foam core with fabric laid up so as to hug the contours of the part, and a carbon head that is much stronger for much less weight, and stiff enough that it bends less under load. Since both sides of the decks are moulded concurrently, some parts that used to be bonded on are now moulded in, so they are not subject to deterioration. The visual aspect is first-class. The Harmony project is still in its early stages, and a whole new phase is beginning with the start-up of the new Marans plant. A 34-footer is already being studied for expanding the line. This bold project could not have been conducted successfully without the aid of composite materials, which are revealing their huge potential, once again.