Yacht Equipment Manufacturer Is Racing Towards The Future

How has this manufacturer managed to fill a 200-page catalog full of high quality, innovative products that are used all around the world? By drawing on the sailing expertise of its employees and also by introducing the very latest technologies into its operations, including a CAD/CAM program.

Blocks. Lifts. Travelers. The language of sailing is a language unto itself—and it’s a language that Harken Yacht Equipment (Pewaukee, Wisconsin) knows very well. Since the mid-1960s, this family-owned business, started by brothers Peter and Olaf Harken, has been producing hardware for yachts, sailboats, and racing vessels.

Bill Goggins, Harken marketing manager, comments, “The 3,500 parts that we sell today basically sit between the sailor and the sails. Our blocks or high-performance pulleys are used to do everything from hoisting the sails to controlling or trimming them.”

Hardware produced by Harken is used by most of the world’s top boat builders and has been pressed into service at a number of prestigious yacht races including the America’s Cup.

How has Harken managed to fill a 200-page catalog full of high quality, innovative products that are used all around the world? By drawing on the sailing expertise of its employees and also by introducing the very latest technologies into its operations, including a CAD/CAM program called SurfCAM (Surfware, Inc., West Lake Village, California).

“In order to come up with one innovation after another,” continues Mr. Goggins, “we depended on our great people and became a technology-driven company. That’s why we’ve been using SurfCAM for the past 6 years.”

“We have to be certain that we’re designing and manufacturing high-performing parts at all times,” Mr. Goggins continues. “People expect our parts and components to work reliably day in and day out, for a very long period of time. So our parts simply cannot fail, even under the most extreme conditions. It’s just not an option.”

With that mindset, Harken began searching for a CAM solution back in 1996. The CAM solution they selected was SurfCAM. “We thought our parts were complex back then. Some of them had ten machining operations, and it could take us up to a week just to program them because we were doing everything by hand,” explains Len Post, Harken’s chief machinist. “Today, we’re programming parts that require 50 different machining operations, and we’re able to program and machine them in less than 48 hours.”

To machine blocks and a myriad of other sailboat components, Mr. Post and his staff generate SurfCAM programs for two CNC knee mills made by Tree, a Haas Mini-Mill, and a Haas VF III milling machine. The amount of machining that’s required to go from a raw piece of stock to a finished component is surprising. “We were recently working on a 150 millimeter runner block,” explains Mr. Post. “It started out as a 22-pound piece of aluminum stock, and by the time we were finished with it, it was down to just 3 pounds. It was one of the most complex pieces we have machined to date.”

The reason that so many machining passes are necessary for Harken parts is because of the many design considerations that engineers have to take into account: function, strength, durability, size, cost, weight and even aesthetics. Many boats are best suited for aluminum parts, while others require stainless steel or even titanium.

Mr. Mr. Post speaks very strongly about the ability in SurfCAM to change the order of machining operations by simply dragging and dropping. “Let’s say you’ve got 25 or 30 operations for each side of a part,” he says. “You notice a little bit of chatter on the machine tool, and say to yourself, ‘If I move this operation downstream, the part would probably come out better.’ Well, with SurfCAM, you can do just that. You can drag the machining operation that’s currently third in line, for example, and drop it into fifth place. You couldn’t even do something like that manually. You’d probably have to start from scratch and write the program all over again.”

A major concern when buying any piece of software is how aggressively the vendor is going to improve it over time. Mr. Mr. Post believes that Surfware, Inc., like Harken Yacht Equipment, is committed to continuous innovation. Specifically, he talks about how quickly SurfCAM embraced high speed machining. “Where machine tools were operating at 6,000 rpm 5 years, ago, you can now buy a machine that runs at 40,000 rpm," Mr. Post explains. "That’s more than a six-fold increase, and it changes the whole scenario of how you are going to machine a part. SurfCAM was quick to support high speed machining. So as tooling has gotten better and machines have gotten faster, we’ve been able to take full advantage of these advances. We haven’t had to be shy about reprogramming a part or trying out a different tool.”

Every machinist has his or her own way of doing things. That’s yet another reason why Mr. Mr. Post believes that the software has been so warmly received at Harken Yacht Equipment. “For every operation that SurfCAM offers, it presents you with a number of different ways to approach it.

"Take pocketing, for example. It doesn’t just give me one spiral option—it gives me three or four. I have my favorite ways of doing things, and they are not the same ways that I started out with. There’s a lot of very good machining know-how inside this product, and the longer you use it, the more you discover.”

In the past, Mr. Post’s machine shop would have pushed back on a part, such as a lightning hole or a profile that had 300 different entities in it. The shop might have asked engineering to reduce the number of entities in order to simplify the machining process. “That’s no longer the case,” Mr. Post reports. “Today product complexity is not an issue at all.’

Mr. Post concedes that product designs are never perfect when they come into the shop. “Sometimes the geometry doesn’t meet, so you have to either trim it out or fill it. Or you might have to insert a small radius or fillet because the end mill can’t fit into a square corner.” Rather than send the design back to the engineering department, which uses both AutoCAD and SolidWorks, these minor changes are made inside the SurfCAM environment by taking advantage of some of the program’s built-in CAD capabilities. “The changes usually don’t have to do with the quality of the design,”Mr. Post states, “but rather with its manufacturability. By making a few simple changes, we can speed the process along and start cutting metal faster.”

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