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NZ research creates faster, stronger boats

30 September 2005

NZ research creates faster, stronger performance boats

A New Zealand company’s commitment to research is enabling the boatbuilding industry to benefit from its advances in composite materials technology. The result is boats, including those competing in the next America’s Cup, that are lighter and stronger, and deliver higher performance and increased safety in a cost effective package.

The world-class work going on at High Modulus in Auckland convinced the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology to back the company, providing more than $400,000, through its Technology New Zealand suite of investment schemes, to support the company’s global leadership.

High Modulus, with engineers in Auckland, the United Kingdom and France, is one of the world’s leading proponents for the use of composite materials in marine structures, through its expertise in structural design and process engineering. While composite materials are found in many applications, High Modulus is one of only two significant players internationally in the marine field.

The latest research project extends its ability to capture the position of technical leadership in the marine market, with High Modulus Senior Engineer, Michael Eaglen, saying it enables the company to accelerate plans to expand into international markets, and develop new products for the industry.

There are several components to the new research but a key focus is developing new boat strength test methods to replicate slamming events. These occur in rough seas when a boat leaps off waves, and slams back down into the ocean, generating high dynamic loadings. The combination of an analytical practical experimental approach to the study provides High Modulus with new knowledge to design structures and materials for boats, particularly round-the-world racers, super yachts and luxury and performance power boats.

High Modulus estimates that with its own highly qualified staff and the Foundation investment, it has been able to achieve in three years what would otherwise have taken eight. The Foundation provided half the $800,000 project cost.

Mr Eaglen says he is confident the knowledge gained will result in the development of new products, and not just design procedures, involving composite technology. Possibilities include off-the-shelf structural beams already fitted with engineered reinforcing in the way of holes for wiring or plumbing, and plates containing specifically tailored ply orientations to improve bearing strength.

There is heavy pressure on the 15 New Zealand based consulting engineers at High Modulus to meet an increasing commercial workload at the same time as committing to a major R&D programme. Current consultancy activity ranges from ‘proof of concept’ vessels for the United State military through to design of America’s Cup structures, a field High Modulus has been active in since the first fibreglass 12m yachts in 1987.

Managing Director and co-owner is Richard Downs-Honey, a keen fisherman, who has a 40-year friendship with co-owner and Engineering Director, Brian Jones, an ex-Olympian sailor. A passion for boating is almost a prerequisite for High Modulus employees.

“For R&D to have value it must quickly trickle down into the day-to-day design activity. The R&D projects we take on are those that deliver solutions to specific issues facing us, rather than simply adding to a general knowledge bank.

“We have a long track record of developing R&D projects to answer a single issue or address a defined problem but the Foundation investment enabled us to develop a more holistic approach to the bigger problems we face, in a project of significant size,” he says.

Heat testing

“Being the leader in marine composite technology isn’t just about designing boats that win races and don’t break. The R&D is not simply about finding something new. It’s using the research to produce results in the construction, be it reducing weight, improving safety margins or delivering a more cost effective solution to the builder.”

The range of applications of this technology is extensive. High Modulus engineering expertise has helped produce everything from reliable, robust high speed interceptor patrol craft for the Malaysian Customs, through to the super yachts such as Mirabella V. the world’s largest singe masted yacht, with a 88.5m (290ft) high carbon mast.


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