The team at Newport Yacht Builders is building framing and interiors for hulls that exist in the cloud, a network of servers that use the internet instead of a computer’s hard drive. Within the memory of a few boatbuilders, today are the times when they lofted a vessel by scaling up the measurements from a wooden half-model and capturing three-dimensional points in offsets—heights and half-breadths—that could be used to lay down a full-size, two-dimensional image of the hull. From this, the shapes of frames could be painstakingly taken. The world has shifted toward computers in a little more than a generation. Designers and engineers render three-dimensional points in the cloud and, utilizing advances in materials and technologies, are developing entirely new ways to build boats.

Starting with the stringers and framing, laser scanning makes it possible to pre-form all the necessary components of a vessel, ready to fit into the bare shell of a hull as soon as it comes out of the mold. Photo by Newport Yacht Builders

Jim Thomson, co-founder and manager of Newport Yacht Builders in Newport, Rhode Island, has connected the technological dots. Using a laser scanner to create a hull model accurate by a millimeter, he and the team of co-owners at Newport Yachts design and build interior components that can be dropped into a finished hull. “Our push to get into this began with a big job we had out in San Diego with one of our best clients,” shared Thompson. “We thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could get the measurements? We knew the technology existed, but it was obscenely expensive. But we got a little scanner and were able to test it out, which got us going.”

While a hull is being laid up, Newport Yacht Builders can use a computer image of the hull to build an interior simultaneously, reducing overall build time and increasing worker efficiency. Photo by Newport Yacht Builders

Ramping up the learning curve, Thompson discovered that the technology required a team, and that his scanner was inadequate for what he and the team were trying to do. “We started with a small Leica,” he said. “But it wouldn’t pick up things that were shiny, and it really wouldn’t work outdoors.”

Laser scanner technology involves a high-speed infrared laser beam projected onto a rotating mirror. The scanner head paints the target object with a laser beam that is reflected back to the scanner, providing the geometry that is interpreted into 3D data. In addition to the distance measurement, Laser Scanners also capture measurements on the horizontal and vertical planes, providing a full scope of measurement data that creates a point cloud image of the target object —with accuracy down to a millimeter, depending on the quality of the scanner.

Seeing the potential, Thompson went all in for the Leica RTC360, which, along with licensing and software, represents a serious investment. The RTC 360 has a measuring rate of up to 2 million points per second and an advanced HDR imaging system. It can be used to create colored 3D point clouds in under 2 minutes.  

“Over five years, we went from a cold start to where we are now,” Thompson said. “We’ve learned to take the information this gives us, make sense of it, and put it into a digital form we can use. Ashley Reville Hill does the initial processing. She scans the raw data and runs it through the software.”

From there, the information goes to the lead designer, Ezra Smith. “Ezra designs the entire project digitally,” said Thompson. “Then it has to be engineered. Every tab and slot where things fit together has to be engineered on a computer to 15/1000 of an inch tolerance.” Thompson added that the process demanded a high skill level and took a long time, emphasizing the teamwork involved. 

“Once the design and engineering work is done, Ezra produces cut files that go to the CNC machine operator, who generates a nesting layout and the tool path the machine needs to follow for whatever material we’re using,” shared Thompson. “It could be coosa board, Penske, wood.”

Once infused with resin, various interior pieces are returned to the CNC machine to be cut and folded into the desired shapes. Photo by Newport Yacht Builders

These are the time-consuming stages of the work. “For the technology to operate at its potential, the process has to be well thought out,” Thompson said. “The speed comes in the building, and the fact that we can make all the different shapes we need without retooling.”

Thompson explained a process where two-dimensional material can be cut, infused with resin, and then bent. “We infuse it with resin in 2D,” he said. “You put a bag over the core material and check for leaks, and then you have a hose coming out that you put into a bucket of resin, and it sucks that in, so you get just the right amount. Then, it goes back to the CNC machine. The machine cuts curves in the back of the panel and then bends it to the specifications,” he said. “This is the engineering that creates 3D structure.”

The foam cores of various boat components are initially cut on a CNC machine and then infused with resin. Wrapped in airtight plastic, the process sucks the necessary amount of resin and distributes it evenly on the piece. Photo by Newport Yacht Builders

As the name implies, Newport Yacht Builders' primary focus is yachts, but Thompson is looking more into the boatbuilding industry in Maine. “We got into this more for refits than new builds,” shared Thompson. “But with new builds, it allows us to build all the interior's main parts while someone else is laying up the hull.” Thompson used this process to finish a Mussel Ridge hull built in Maine for Connecticut tuna fisherman David Szewczul. “Other than that, we did a refit on a scallop boat out of Cape May.”

For refits, a builder can come in and get pieces made or order them from a distance. “Compared to a boatbuilder going up and down a ladder to get into a boat, measuring, and fitting a piece, the laser scanning lets us build parts that fit perfectly the first time. We wouldn’t have a business without this,” he said. “And I can see it working for medium-sized shops and the larger of the small shops. They just need to make it cheaper and easier to use.”

For new builds, Thompson envisions new business possibilities. “I can see just making the guts of a boat for all kinds of boats, including commercial fishing boats like David’s. We could be building interior kits and supplying builders or finishing shops with interior parts that go right in.”

Thompson pointed out that the laser scanning technology combined with the CNC capabilities could add a new layer to the boatbuilding business. “We have a very versatile tool kit, and this is just some of what we can do. We show up with the scanner and an iPad in a backpack, and then a few weeks later, we’re delivering parts that fit,” he said.

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Paul Molyneaux is the Boats & Gear editor for National Fisherman.

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