Mississippi Adventure Weekly Features
Virtual Engineered Composites Case Study

Where Ecology Meets Economy
(Written by Bob McCollum, VEC Technology Vice President of Process Engineering. Responsibilitiesinclude designing, implementing and improving all systems relating to the VEC process.)

The Challenge
The challenge our team faced was molding fiberglass composite parts, such as the hulls, that were acceptable for use in recreational boats without creating all the air pollutants that the standard molding processes produced. Our industry predominantly uses open molding, which creates a large amount of air pollutants. In open molding, layers of resin and chopped fiberglass are sprayed into a mold. Once the proper layer thickness is reached the fiberglass composite must cure over a few hours. Air pollutants are emitted during both the spraying and the curing processes. We knew that closed molding would solve the pollution problem, but there was no available process that fit the needs. We wanted to create a reliable process that could be used to create the composite parts without any negative features or problems the customers would notice, but without the emissions. This ended up as a closed molding process we call VEC (virtual engineered composites).

We really didn't have any competing interests. We were trying to do something that several companies had attempted and failed, due to the technical issues they couldn't overcome, but we were certain that it could be done.

Addressing the Challenge
We started the project with a meeting we called Future Molding Day, a brainstorming meeting involving employees, customers and suppliers to make sure we got as many points of view as possible. In the meeting we laid out all the details of what the perfect closed molding process of the future would do.

We organized all the Future Molding Day details into sections that ended up defining the individual areas of a CMS (composite molding system) that later would be called a VEC cell. These details were really goals for things like cycle time (how long to mold a part) and reliability, and became our targets for each of the sections of a VEC cell. We needed to learn as much about each section that was available. We split up the sections between people in our engineering team and assigned one person to each section.

The next step was benchmarking - determining what closed-mold materials and equipment existed and how it would fit our needs. We visited as many companies that we could that had any involvement in closed molding. We also visited and met with every equipment and material supplier in the closed molding field. We learned quickly that we would have to develop our own materials and equipment to hit our targets because there weren't any available systems that would hit them.

We were in a time crunch because we had limited money to complete it. Our president had gathered investments from several individuals to fund this project. The investment was not unlimited. We needed to complete the project before the money ran out.

Who Helped Come Up With a Solution?
We had a clear understanding of what we needed for each section, and the benchmarking helped us learn this by identifying each company's shortcomings to our Future Molding Day goals. We used everything we learned to develop the systems for our process with our own people. Once the systems were clearly defined we did hire some subcontractors to perform work but we ended up doing most of it ourselves.

On our team there was a chemist, a mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, and computer programmers. The chemist was responsible for the raw materials that were to be used in the VEC process. We had to create our own resin formulas and blending systems to meet our goals. The mechanical engineer was responsible for all the equipment; molds, injection equipment, material handling equipment, etc. The electrical engineer was responsible for the wiring of all the electronics and sensors. The sensors we use are extremely critical to provide feedback about what is happening in each step of the process.

What Was the Solution You Came Up With?
The final solution was the VEC process. It is a highly automated closed molding process that has very low emissions and is affordable and reliable.

Throughout the progress of this project we held several review meetings to evaluate our progress and identify and agree upon our next steps. We also made sure to identify if there was more than one good idea to fix a problem. We evaluated each idea as a group so we could pick the best option.

The ultimate test of our project success was when Genmar Holdings, Inc. used the system in production of boats and was satisfied that it met the criteria. Genmar is now the owner of the VEC system and is bringing on several new VEC Cells to produce more boats.

Notes:
VEC Technology is located in Greenville, Pennsylvania and is owned by Genmar Holdings, Inc. Genmar, which is headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the world's largest recreational boat manufacturer. In August 2000, Genmar opened its state-of-the-art VEC manufacturing plant at its Larson/Glastron Boats facility on the shore of the Mississippi River in Little Falls, Minnesota.

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