Stingray Powerboats
Control Tweak
International Boat Industry - October 1998
192RS

Stingray Powerboats is based in America's deep south well away from any metropolis in a mostly farming-oriented community. But don't let its remoteness from big business, or indeed its staff's Carolina drawl, fool you. This is definitely no 'Hicksville' operation...

Based in Hartsville, South Carolina, Stingray Powerboats boasts one of the most advanced boatbuilding operations in the business. The 150-employee company is currently one of the largest American independent builders. Indeed. Stingray claims that a recent survey commissioned for the NMMA puts it as the 12th biggest motorboat brand in the US market between 14-50ft (4.3-l 5 .2m), which is no mean feat when you consider just how many well-known brands it is up against.

There are 22 Stingray models across an 18-24ft (5.5-7.3m) range, using around six or seven basic hull mouldings. Apart from a small 18ft (5.5m) outboard-powered model, all are sterndrive boats, using both MerCruiser and Volvo Penta powertrains. The current range includes bowriders and deckboats, cuddy-cabined boats and sportscruisers. All models are trailerable.

Stingray trades on a solid reputation for good performance, excellent handling and an enviable overall build quality. Prices tend to be pitched at the volume end of the market - on average, say, somewhere between market leaders Bayliner and Sea Ray.

Production volumes at Stingray are currently in the region of 3,000 boats a year, which translates to an 'easy' 65 boats per week using just one day-shift. That's no where near the volume produced by Bayliner or Sea Ray, but it is nevertheless fairly impressive.

Al Fink -
	President of Stingray PowerboatsHaving built up its business slowly, but surely, over the past 20 years, Stingray has recently started to hit the plane and its growth figures have begun to register a quantum leap. The past two to three years have seen annual improvements over 30 percent. The company's most recent turnover figure was just over US$33 million. Next year the forecast is for that to jump to nearer US$40 million. When asked on what basis that forecast was made, Stingray founder and president Al Fink gave IBI a forthright assessment.

"We've managed 30-plus percent growth for the past two or three years by taking market share from our competitors. And I'm certain that we can do it again," he declares confidently. "Our market share in the US grew 34.9 percent for calendar '97."

USE OF TECHNOLOGY

If Stingray's bare figures look good its use of technology is simply staggering. Its Hartsville facility must be one of the most automated of any 'conventional' GRP boatbuilder in the USA. There are no production lines at Stingray, because lines, says Al Fink, run at the slowest speed. "We build in stages, that way big and small boats can be built side by side. Stuff only moves when ready."

Equally, an advanced computer system integrates every facet of the company's business - driving things along, but at the same time remaining flexible to production necessities.

That technology plays a major role in the production process is most evident in the moulding shop, a vast long hall with 47 work bays along each side. These are all capable of accommodating either a hull or deck mould, or both. An extensive overhead hoist and track network enables moulds and mouldings to be moved automatically from station to station.

overhead tram Monitored by a central control room located on a mezzanine floor mid-way along the moulding shop wall, the computer always knows where everything is and who is working on what job.

Moreover, the computer controls all the materials that go into each and every moulding. Fiberglass cloths and cores - Coremat. Klegecel and Trevira to name but a few - are pre-cut precisely and delivered to each station. Gelcoat and resin guns are continuously monitored by the computer.

Stingray uses relatively environmentally-friendly resins - low styrene, low VOCs - and uses 'Flow-Coater' guns that further reduce VOC emissions. According to Al Fink, the company has reduced ozone-damaging emissions by over 55 percent in recent years.

Apart from the smallest 18ft (5.5m) and 19ft (5.8m) models, which have marine ply stringers and cockpit-soles, Stingrays use plenty of interior mouldings, including GRP-moulded stringer systems and cockpit/cabin soles. Cuddy-cabin models even benefit from two-piece mouldings that include small sink units and locations for stoves and Porta-Potti chemical toilets.

Once ejected from its mould, every hull and deck is check weighed while being transported on the hoist. That provides yet another check on quality. Mouldings are given the same serial numbers from the outset and are 'matched' long before they meet up at the assembly stage.

flocoater The computer runs life here, says Fink. "Of course, we could build boats without it, but I sure wouldn't want to. Our records, traceability and so on are fantastic. To revert to manual data processing would be a nightmare." The system is constantly evolving and permeating every area of the business.

CONTROL

Control is all to Fink. "Hell, it (the computer) will even call me at home if something goes wrong. And if I'm away the system logs what's gone wrong and no-one can erase that record, so it's there flagged for me when I get back. Anywhere in the world I can see what's happening in the factory via my laptop and a satellite link. For example, I can check resin-tank levels or get a flowrate check on individual resin guns. My computer gives me instant-access to records of who did what and when, including full material batch analysis."

The computer can control catalyst and resin mixes precisely, and fine-tunes settings every second. Before this system was implemented operatives were setting the guns once a day. The computer will also monitor temperatures and is programmed to shut equipment down if things get so hot that there is a risk of damage. This latter point has had a significant effect on maintenance procedures.

For example, preventative maintenance operations have been pretty much minimized. Now the computer can keep tabs on apparatus constantly and give early warnings of serious wear. Prior to computer monitoring, maintenance crews worked to a regular schedule, replacing components before they ever got close to wearing out and causing a production problem. Now it is almost a 'just-in-time' approach to maintenance. For example, air-compressors are monitored for their current draw so that any fluctuation beyond a small percentage tolerance for more than a few seconds flashes up a warning, sending someone to go off to check them.

This type of early-warning logic has been applied to all of areas within the company. For example, the company's fleet of delivery trucks, which transport around 75 percent of US -market boats, even benefits. Drivers carry infra-red heat sensors to periodically check wheels and tyres - worn tyres, wrong pressures or dodgy wheel bearings all register higher heat readings The driver doesn't need to even touch each wheel or tyre, but can check to see whether closer examination is necessary from several paces away by simply pointing the sensor toward each wheel. The sensors are a bit like TV remote-controls.

water-jet
	cutting machineAl Fink's love of gadgets has prompted some interesting choices of production machinery too. For example, the company has been a pioneer in the use of water-jet cutting machines, which work by blasting an ultra-fine jet of water through a machine head at high pressure. The process is clean, accurate and not really very wet, as water consumption is far less than one would think.

Stingray boasts a number of large-bed CNC (computer numerically controlled) water-jet machines which cut a wide range of different materials. These are used to trim stringer system and liner mouldings cleanly and accurately and to cut out upholstery carpets and canopy/bimini fabrics, the latter nested automatically and handled in multi-layer piles.

PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT

Technology also plays a major part in product development. A few years ago Stingray claims to have pioneered the use of large three axis CNC mills and closed-cell high-density foams. It is now in the throes of installing a five-axis machine. These mills are used to rout out prototype profiles and also to create mould plugs once a design or modification has been proved.

In the early days the mills were used to make quarter-scale models, but now whole boats can be created or modified in no time at all. "We used to leave the machine overnight and come back eagerly in the morning to see what we'd got," says Fink. "Now we know what we're doing we don't mess around with scale models, we just get on with the real thing. It's so quick and easy."

Today a new plug for, say, a 2Oft (6m) model can be made by taking an existing plug for a slightly smaller model, spraying it with a layer of quick-setting high-density foam and re-machining the whole thing. A resin finish is then applied and fine-sanded.

For example, a new hull profile is very quickly assessed using this technique - an existing boat (complete with sterndrive attached) is turned over and the bottom sprayed with foam. A new bottom profile is then routed out. This can then be put in the water and tested, as the set foam is strong enough to run on for a limited period. Indeed, the company's development team even claims to have cut a profile one morning, tested the boat on the water before lunch, and then recut the bottom before running again in the afternoon. Another claim is that one old 23-footer (7m) has had at least 30 different hull profiles.

The Stingray reputation for excellent performance stems from good power-to-weight ratios and clever design. For example, it has its own patented hull profile which it promotes as the Z-Plane. zp hull logo The idea uses Z--shaped strakes that perform like mini reverse chines, biting the water while deflecting spray downwards. Stingray combines this with raceboat-style notched transoms which allow engines to be mounted higher for less drag, enhanced fuel efficiency and better top speeds.

For product testing, dealer demonstrations and as a location for publicity photographs, Stingray owns a 'Lake House' and foreshore. Capable of showing off the entire product line-up in-water, it is located beside nearby Lake Robinson, a four-mile-long (6.5km) banana-shaped expanse of freshwater made remarkable by an average annual water temperature of around 35° C - a result of the nuclear powerstation at one end using it for cooling purposes. Stingray's annual dealer and press meetings are held there over several days in July.

EXPORTS

Stingray exports account for around 13-14 percent of sales (roughly US$4 million), a figure which is said to have grown steadily over the past couple of years. Most business outside the US is with Europe. The main markets there include the UK, Germany, France, Holland and Denmark. Other areas will soon be targeted as more and more emphasis is placed on growth beyond the domestic market.

Despite plans to grow its model range, Stingray sees itself primarily as a trailerboat builder. Nevertheless, a soon-to-be-launched flagship 27ft (8.2m) sportscruiser is likely to push trailering to the absolute limit.

Stingray has recently launched a web site and is now considering sending out catalogues on CD-ROM with "everything on there" in response to all internet enquiries.

International Boat Industry Magazine
October 1998




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