A Look Inside Formula: What Makes a First-Class Boatbuilder? - 09/01/2010

Did you ever think about what it takes to build a fiberglass boat? It’s a lot more complex than just layering resin and fabric: Along with laminators, boatbuilders employ designers, engineers, mechanics, electricians, welders, joiners, upholsterers – a boatshop is a beehive of skilled craftspeople, all contributing to the creation of the boats we enjoy. There are lots of excellent production boatbuilders in the world today; one of the best is Formula, located in Decatur, Indiana. If you want to know what it takes to build a first-class fiberglass boat, pay them a visit, as we have.

Formula Boats
Formula builds bowriders, sport boats, high-performance boats and cruisers from 24 to 45 feet. The 292 is the smallest of Formula’s double-stepped FAS3TECH high-performance boats. The stepped bottom adds speed, but is tricky to design without compromising boathandling.

What Does It Take?

While building a boat takes a lot of individual factors, they can be grouped into three basic categories: Materials, People and Processes. In the 21st century, when most things are assembled by robots, boats are still built primarily by human hands, so one can make a good argument that people are the most important. Anyone can buy the materials, everyone knows, or can learn, the processes, but people – at least skilled people – are hard to come by.

Formula Boats
This R&D craftsman is checking a hull plug for fairness. Male plugs are used to create the “tooling” -- the molds for hull, deck, liners and small parts. Any inaccuracy in the plug will be transferred to the mold and, in turn, the finished boat. Companies like Formula spend lots of time, money and talent on tooling. In the past, some companies have used an existing boat from another company as their plug, a practice called “splashing.” That’s why in the 1970s and 80s there were a lot of boats on the market with identical hulls.

It Starts at the Top

Apparently the Porter family, owners of Formula for more than 40 years, does a good job of making their workers happy. (When Victor Porter bought Formula – then called Thunderbird Boats -- in 1976, he already had 20 years of boatbuilding experience himself.) Company management -- Vic Porter’s four sons and a daughter -- stresses employee involvement, using self-directed work teams to build the boats; the teams are encouraged to take an active part in improving both the product and the way it’s built. Formula also runs an on-site training program, Champions of Reaching Excellence, or CORE, to bolster workers’ skills in both professional and personal areas.

Formula Boats
Formula consistently achieves high levels of owner satisfaction, thanks to producing a quality product. And that quality comes in large part not from the materials that go into the boats, but from the craftspeople who build them. These workers are laying up a cruiser hull, carefully rolling-out the glass and resin to remove voids and air bubbles.

Designers Are People, Too

Even the best craftspeople can’t build a boat until somebody designs it, and for the past 35 years Formula’s designer has been John Adams. Adams combines an eye for aesthetics and styling with deep technical expertise. Both are important in boatbuilding, although style is subjective – a sleek, sexy boat for one person might look like an ark to another. But technology and engineering are finite areas, and Adams’ skills here contribute deeply to Formula quality. Using a single designer also gives the entire product line a cohesive style that makes each boat immediately identifiable as a Formula.

Formula Boats
Every boat starts as a plan, although today designers work on computer screens rather than on paper. John Adams has been Formula’s designer for more than 35 years – oddly enough, he lives in Colorado. This is the arrangement plan for the new 290 FX4.

Ever see a boat that looks like it was designed by a committee? We have, and in every case it was actually designed by one. The Bertram 31 is a classic example of how a committee can ruin a good hull. Formula boats simply do not have that problem.

Formula Boats
The 290 FX4 is the latest from Adams, launched only in June of this year. It’s powered by twin 320-hp MerCruisers.
Formula Boats
Adams’s hand is evident in all Formulas, one advantage of using the same designer for all boats in the product line, at least if the designer has an eye as good as Adams’s. This is a 290 Sun Sport, a precursor of the FX4.
Formula Boats
No part goes untested: Formula subjects even their radar arches to a drenching to ensure they are leakproof. Note they installed radio antennas and other accessories before testing, too.

Materials and Processes

All boatbuilders have access to the same materials; which ones they choose depends on what kind of manufacturing facilities they have, what they can charge for their boats and how high-tech they want to be. Formula, like most production builders, takes a middle road, using proven materials that balance cost with quality. Yes, in the perfect world all boats would be built from Kevlar and carbon fiber, vacuum-bagged and post-cured in a hull-sized oven – but not many folks shopping for boats like Formulas will want to pay for that kind of technology.

Formula Boats
Every fiberglass part has its corresponding mold, and there are a lot of parts in the typical boat. Each mold must be prepped carefully before a part is laid up, then stored out of harm’s way before the next usage. Note that these molds are all inside -- not out back in the weeds.

Test the Resin

Most good companies can build a boat that’s adequate to meet its intended usage, but better companies like Formula go a bit further: Before using a new batch of resin, their quality-control folks analyze and test it to ensure it’s what it’s supposed to be. There are different resins for different uses, and sometimes one type is accidentally substituted for another. In the past, some boatbuilders have had to make good on laminates that failed due to using the wrong resin, a costly error. Formula by testing, knows that its resins meet spec.

Formula Boats
After the hull is laid-up, stringers and floors are installed for bottom support. Note how many stringers there are and how close together they are. This "eggcrate" construction is what makes Formula hulls so strong.
After the hull is laid-up, stringers and decks are installed for bottom support. In the past, many builders used plywood covered in fiberglass (or, in some cases, not covered, but just painted with resin); today, the better builders use high-density foam fully encapsulated with fiberglass.

Take Plenty of Time

A laminate hardens quickly in the mold, at least to the touch, but is not fully cured for days, maybe weeks or even months, depending on conditions. (That’s why dark-colored hulls often show “print-through” when taken to warm climates: The sun heats the laminate, prompting it to cure further and shrink a bit, revealing the pattern of the woven roving underneath.) Until a part is cured, it can warp or deform when removed from the mold if not handled carefully. Companies trying to maximize their output often lay-up parts quickly and pull them as soon as possible. Formula lets their hulls cure in the mold.

Formula Boats
Some Formulas incorporate a molded support grid in the bottom, taking the place of conventional glassed-in stringers and floors. The grid is bonded to the hull with Plexus, a modern adhesive with a stronger grip than resin. Building the tooling for the grid is expensive, but it saves time during manufacture and produces a stronger hull.

Formula, on the other hand, like all the better builders, takes its time, hand-laying its fiberglass parts. The laminating crew takes pains to ensure all the fabric is fully wetted-out with no voids or air bubbles and any excess resin is squeegee’d away. The parts are then allowed plenty of cure time in the mold.

Formula Boats
In highly stressed areas, such as engine mounts, the foam coring in the stringers is replaced by something stronger – sometimes even steel, depending on the boat and the size of the engine. Some builders used to use wood here, but that’s not done today, at least not by Formula.

Boats Are More Than Fiberglass

There’s a lot more to a fiberglass boat than fiberglass: Most problems with boats stem not from their structure, but from their systems. Many builders cut corners installing plumbing, electrics, fuel systems and so forth. There are standards for these systems: In the U.S., the American Boat and Yacht Council has a massive book full of standards for almost everything that goes into a boat. Until the past few years, though, adhering to these standards was voluntary, and nobody checked that companies claiming to build to ABYC Standards actually did.

Formula Boats
NMMA certification requires properly color-coded wiring, a practice Formula has been using for decades. The company takes pains to engineer all systems to be trouble-free, and to be easy to analyze and repair when needed.

Today it’s different. The National Marine Manufacturers Association requires that all its members – and in the U.S. that’s virtually every boatbuilder – adhere to the standards and be certified by NMMA surveyors. Each model in a company’s line has to be certified individually, and proof of certification is displayed by a plaque attached to the boat. Other countries have similar practices. If you’re shopping for a boat, the first thing to look for is proof it’s been built following the appropriate standards where you live. (NMMA certification does not require a sea trial, however, nor is each individual boat certified.)

Formula Boats
Once the boat is finished, water tested and detailed, it’s loaded for shipment. This 290 FX 4 will be shrink-wrapped before it hits the road. That’s the Formula plant in the background, one of the most modern facilities in the industry.

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Formul has never been a mass-produced boat line. We've always thought of its products more like Aston Martin sports cars -- low production units, great styling, lots of TLC in each unit, with the fit-and-finish that only great care can produce. They are at once a boat and a sculpture. We think they are something special in the world.