Issue: Volume: 23 Issue: 5 (May 2000)

USER FOCUS: Making a Splash

A kayak maker rides the digital design wave

By Karen Moltenbrey

The sport of kayaking-an obscure pastime less than a decade ago-is making a big splash with today's sports enthusiasts. As a result of this growing popularity, kay aks are becoming more specialized for a variety of uses and users, to the point where the "one size fits all" handcrafted boat design simply doesn't float anymore. For many kayak companies-most of which were small entrepreneurial outfits just a few years ago-these new demands have placed them in a sink-or-swim situation.

"As our marketplace becomes more sophisticated and exposed, the consumer assumes higher expectations for quality and performance," says Thomas Dempsey, vice president of design and development at Perception Kayaks in Easley, South Carolina. "Five years ago, paddlers accepted boats that may not have been perfectly symmetrical. Today, users expect accuracy and leapfrogged performance."

Perception, which has been designing and manufacturing kay aks since the 1970s, produces models sold under its own moniker and by subsidiaries of its parent company, Watermark Paddle Sports. Prior to 1998, when Perception adopted 3D tools to design its boats, the company was limited in the diversity of kayaks that it could provide, offering only two or so new models a season. Last year, by using Think3's (Santa Clara, CA) ThinkDesign mechanical-design software, Perception introduced 18 new kayak models-from sit-on-top versions for the surf, to large touring types, to state-of-the-art white-water performers.
Using Think3's digital design software, Perception Kayaks is satisfying growing customer demands for higher quality kayaks and specialized models that suit a wide range of paddler tastes and experience.

"Each model is optimized for a specific type of use, so the designs differ dramatically," says Dempsey. "With the 3D tool set, we can make variations to an existing model on the computer, rather than starting from scratch and modeling each pattern by hand."

Although the size and style of the boats vary, one design factor that remains unchanged in all the models is the highly sculpted, organic kayak shape. While computer-aided design tools have made kayak design more efficient, tackling the inherently curved form still remains quite challenging. "From an engineering standpoint, the most difficult aspect of designing kayaks is the shape of the craft because it has virtually no right angles," explains Demp sey. "Even the simplest of kayaks has more curves than a Lexus."

The need to achieve those complex shapes was a determining factor for Perception when it chose ThinkDesign as its mechanical CAD package. "We evaluated other software, but the complicated shape dictated the need for a product that allowed us to easily work in advanced surface mode and integrate the design with a parametric solid within the same system," Dempsey says. This feature, he notes, enables the designers to seamlessly generate the various types of tooling required for the kayak and its components.

One of the biggest advantages to using ThinkDesign, according to Dempsey, is the ability to achieve perfect symmetry and precise tolerances, which are critical for optimum performance. "From the viewpoint of the paddler, a kayak-like an automobile-needs to be symmetrical. With a kayak having such an organic shape, getting the left and right sides to match exactly takes a tremendous amount of time and skill to achieve by hand," he notes. "But by using our CAD and CNC milling system, we can preserve symmetry to within a couple thousandths of an inch."

Prior to implementing ThinkDesign, Perception designers-mainly sculptors and kayakers who were also artisans-used a 2D manual engineering approach. With Vacanti Yacht Design Software's (Renton, WA) ProLine naval architectural software, the group would create the cross sections of a boat, then output the data on a full-size plotter for reference while hand-fabricating the sections. "It was very time-consuming. But that's how the most advanced of our competitors still do it," Dempsey says. "Those that are less advanced still do things totally by hand, bypassing the [digital] drawing process and proceeding directly to model making."

Today, a team of two or three Perception designers create a model using ThinkDesign on a Windows NT platform, then transfer the files into ProLine for performance analysis of power requirements, rolling resistance, and so forth. Once those changes are incorporated, the group uses a CAM package to translate the ThinkDesign files for CNC mill ing. After tweaking the foam and molded-plastic prototypes, the group transfers the design files into Autodesk's (San Rafael, CA) AutoCAD for manufacturing and documentation purposes.

"The paddle-sports industry is small compared to other industries, so from an engineering standpoint, the way we deploy 3D design may not be extremely leading-edge. For the kayak industry, though, this is a quantum leap," Dempsey says.

Perception recently realized the advantages of using 3D tools when it created a line of high-performance white-water boats for different body sizes. Once the original design was finalized, the team quickly modified the files for the other sizes and delivered prototypes to its field testers within two weeks. "Traditionally, that process would have taken at least two months of exceptionally skilled around-the-clock labor to hand-build independent versions of each boat," says Dempsey. "Now we can easily carry over the proportional and design relationships from one model to the next, as well as preserve certain design elements to use in other product lines."

Even with all the advantages digital design offers, Perception does not ignore the value of skilled craftsmen. "Many companies today are quick to jump on the bandwagon of using the latest technology, and sometimes they overlook the combination of using new and traditional methodologies," Dempsey says. "When we purchased our CAD system, that didn't mean our skilled artisans weren't needed anymore." Rather, Perception is using both approaches, as 3D designers work alongside craftsmen.

"I have some guys here who are old-world craftsmen and wouldn't know how to turn on a computer, and then there are others who are proficient with CAD but wouldn't know what to do with a chisel," says Dempsey. "So a CAD-literate person may be work ing on one type of design, while a person well-versed in the traditional arts is working on another. The key is that each person is extremely knowledgeable about his respective type of design."
Tackling a kayak's compound curves and adjoining surfaces makes the design process especially difficult.

Although Perception is still in the early stages of using 3D design, Dempsey estimates the company is achieving triple productivity on a flat budget. "This has allowed us to keep up with a 30% growth in the marketplace without really spending more money. "It's more about the opportunities we can now take advantage of, such as speed to market and quick revisions."

As for those competitors who don't use 3D technology-they may find themselves up a creek without a paddle.

ThinkDesign, Think3 (