Boat industry tool maker now aiming for the sky

July 6, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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HOLLAND — When Bill Christensen started Christensen Fiberglass Tooling in 2000, its sole business was making molds used by recreational boat manufacturers. Now the recession has left the U.S. boat manufacturers dead in the water, and Christensen is relying more on his growing aerospace business, plus working hard to become a supplier to the companies that manufacture the commercial-size wind turbines that are cropping up on the American landscape.

The boat building industry ran aground very suddenly last fall. Christensen said that last year, about half of his approximately $2 million in sales were to boat builders, another 25 percent to aerospace manufacturers, and the rest in a variety of industries ranging from processed food to drain covers.

The company is located at 126 Aniline Ave. North in Holland.

Last week Christensen reported that about one-third of his 32-person work force was on lay-off, and he expects sales for all of 2009 to be down about 30 percent compared to 2008.

"The marine industry was moving along quite well last year until around October. Then without warning, it didn’t slow down — it just stopped," he said.

"There's more marine companies under Chapter 11 now than we really want to admit," said Christensen.

A spokesperson for the national Marine Manufacturers Association said new boat sales in 2008 were down about 24 percent from the year before. She said that in the first quarter of this year, the trend was 30 to 35 percent lower than the same quarter last year. The NMA estimates that about 135,000 marine industry workers are unemployed.

"Today, unemployment in boat manufacturing is probably 70 percent," said Thom Dammrich, president of the NMA.

In early June, Genmar Holdings Inc. of Minnesota stunned the marine industry when it filed for Chapter 11 reorganization. Genmar, with approximately 1,500 employees, has five boat manufacturing facilities in the U.S., including one in Cadillac that produces Four Winns and Wellcraft boats.

Irwin L. Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Genmar, issued a statement in which he said the worst conditions he had previously experienced during 30 years in the boating industry "do not even remotely resemble anything close to what has taken place in the retail and wholesale recreational boating industry over the past approximately 12 months. If someone would have said to me as recently as even one month ago that Genmar would someday be filing for Chapter 11, I would have said it was not even a remote possibility."

Christiansen, who had worked for Tiara Yachts for 18 years before starting his own company, invested about $2 million in 2007 in the acquisition and installation of a very large and sophisticated piece of machinery, a CNC Auto-Motion Titan SX60 5-axis gantry mill, capable of producing manufacturing tools up to 60 feet long and 20 feet wide.

The largest mold the company made with the milling machine was for the production of a 50-foot-long fly bridge on a 74-foot yacht.

The 44,000-pound machine is "a gigantic robot carver," said Christiansen, which can be programmed to "whittle whatever we want" out of a very large block of composite, which is a mixture of fiberglass and plastic resin. The CNC milling machine was custom-ordered from an Indiana company, and there is only one other version of it as large as CFT's, which was shipped to Australia.

The giant milling machine is ideal for producing very large molds for power boats — but also for other large parts, such as aircraft wings, fuselages and cockpits. Other large molds are required for new designs in mass transportation vehicles such as buses and trains and for blades for large commercial wind turbines. All of these products can be made from composites. The strength and lighter weight of composites make them suitable for aircraft, and for vehicles that won't require as much fuel as a vehicle made from sheet steel.

For its first two or three years, CFT only made molds for boats. Eventually, the company earned a reputation for capabilities that were noticed by the aerospace industry, which led to customers in that sector. Christensen said he is not at liberty to name the aerospace companies CFT works for, but said the names "would all be very recognizable."

Aerospace is "an industry that is quickly moving toward composites," said Christensen, noting that the tail section of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is made of carbon composites. Boeing has more than 850 orders for the Dreamliner, even though its first flight was postponed last week for the fifth time.

Christensen said the molds CFT makes for aerospace are mainly used in the production of prototypes of civilian aircraft in development. Although his company hasn’t yet bagged any government contracts for military aircraft tooling, "it's something we definitely keep our doors open to. I would love to get into something like the drone aircraft," he said.

He noted that bullet-proof composites are also being used now for making cockpits more secure from individuals trying to hijack the aircraft.

Christensen said that the Obama administration is strongly supporting development of alternative energy to help reduce American reliance on foreign oil, and that has opened up "new opportunity to those who wish to pursue it. I believe by this time next year we will be in a much better position."

While aerospace could be 20 to 25 percent of his company’s business, Christensen said "the real targets for us are definitely going to be wind energy (manufacturers). Another one is transportation."

Christensen mentioned the ExpressTram people movers at Detroit Metro airport as a type of vehicle he would like to see CFT involved with. Another possibility is bus bodies made out of composites, which save fuel through less weight and aerodynamic design.

CFT has not yet made any molds for wind turbine manufacturers but is "in talks with some companies," he said. "These are right up our alley; it's large scale composites, and that's what we do here," he said, adding that he believes wind turbine tooling may some day be 50 percent of CFT's business. 

Wind turbine technology is "almost a blend of aerospace and marine," Christiansen said. Tolerances for components in commercial wind turbines are tighter than those in marine manufacturing, but not as tight as those in aerospace. The types of composites in aerospace are more sophisticated and expensive than those in marine, and the composites used in wind turbines will probably be more like those used in the marine industry, to keep costs down, said Christensen.

"You won't see a whole wind turbine blade built of carbon fiber. That would price it right out of the industry. That's more for aerospace," he said.

Fiberglass composites are everywhere, he said, ranging from amusement park rides to seating in fast-food restaurants.

CFT got some good press recently for its involvement in an unusual "automotive" project involving a car named Eleanor, a solar electric vehicle made at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In early June, with much fanfare, the MIT Solar Electric Vehicle Team went on tour across the U.S. and brought Eleanor to Holland, because CFT had made the molds for the car body and donated part of the cost to MIT.

"I couldn't believe it goes 80 miles per hour," said Christensen.

As for the boating industry, Christensen was asked if he thinks it will pick up again in the near future.

"The marine industry has always been one to have cycles," he said. New boat sales fell off when the federal government temporarily enacted a "luxury tax" back in the early 1990s. High oil prices have periodically kept many boats tied up at the dock, especially last summer. Now it's a combination of the lack of consumer credit and a lack of consumer confidence that has sunk boat sales.

Dammrich said the major reason new boat sales fell is the recession in general.

"People are just not feeling confidence about their future right now, and they're not going to make a major purchase," said Dammrich. "We've started to see consumer confidence improve the last couple of months. If that continues throughout the summer and fall, I think we will see a resurgence of the (boat) buyer as we get into the first part of 2010."

Christiansen said a continuing challenge to boating is escalating fuel prices, but he sees opportunity in that. Boat manufacturers "have to be able to mimic the automotive people," and come up with more fuel-efficient boats. At least one manufacturer already is making a boat that uses batteries for low-speed propulsion in harbors and channels.

Since most people go boating when it’s a nice sunny day, photovoltaic solar panels will be a good fit, he believes.

"It's a matter of time," he said, before we start seeing large yachts with solar panels on top to recharge propulsion batteries, and using less fuel as a result.

"In my opinion, they will have to re-think and re-design boats as we know them today."

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