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Nothing new under the sun? Think again, says Jacobs

Modern Plastics has tracked development of the Virtual Engineered Composites (VEC) process for some years, most recently in November 2001, but now Irwin Jacobs, president of the firm holding the rights to VEC, says a new version of the process is about to "take the boating industry out of the Stone Age."

Jacobs is the personable leader of Genmar Holdings Inc. (Minneapolis, MN), the world's largest builder of recreational boats, and he is hardly bashful when predicting the impact that VEC Shield, the new VEC iteration, will have on the marine industry-or any other that is processing large glass-fiber-reinforced parts.

At NPE Jacobs predicted VEC Shield would be "a historical development," saying, "interest in our product has been nothing less than phenomenal." In a subsequent interview he says the show was a constant blur of processors eager to use the process. "I've never seen anything quite like it in my 26 years in the boating industry," he says.

Jacobs is a boating enthusiast and his enthusiasm for VEC Shield might seem a bit overboard, but at NPE he backed up his words with a prototype 18-ft Four Winns-brand boat chosen as the centerpiece of the GE Plastics booth. The boat's hull and deck has a near Class A finish, unheard of for such large parts. "It's a game changer," he says. "For the first time in history, [boat hulls and decks] are being made in a closed mold with no styrene emissions, and a finish you can see your reflection in."

VEC, and the more recently developed VEC Shield, is a closed mold process with tooling top and bottom. The bottom tooling floats in a liquid; heat and pressure are used to form parts. VEC cuts cycle times and styrene emissions compared to hand lay-up processing, the standard for making pleasure-boat hulls and decks. VEC Shield goes further by enabling the use of thermoformed thermoplastic sheet with a glass mat backing. A thermoplastic surface makes gel coating of parts unnecessary, which leads to lower cycle times, styrene emissions near zero, and improved parts appearance.

Under the system, computers monitor 500 variables during processing. The heat and pressure in the mold form a permanent bond between the sheet and the glass mat. There also is some natural adhesion between the glass mat and the backside of the ABS. Cycle times are about an hour for the boat hull, versus eight for hand lay-up, says Jacobs. This includes insertion of the thermoformed thermoplastic sheet and the glass mat sheet, about 37 minutes of closed molding time, part removal, and mold clean-up.

The notion of reducing styrene emissions to zero plays well in high places, and the U.S. government's Environmental Protection Agency, along with similar agencies in Europe and Asia, are "highly interested in VEC Shield," says Jacobs.

By 2005, Genmar's goal is to make all its boats up to 24 feet in length using VEC Shield, starting at a factory in Cadillac, MI that will be ready for processing later this year. The original VEC process has been used for 17,000 boats with no structural failures, Jacobs says.

Partners on the NPE display boat were GE Plastics, which supplied its Geloy ASA and Cycolac ABS materials; processor Spartech Plastics, which coextrudes WeatherPro G sheet using those materials; Kinro Composites, which thermoformed the hull and deck surfaces with the sheet; and Genmar. Kinro, a subsidiary of Drew Industries' Better Bath business, is negotiating to use VEC Shield processing units and technology. VEC Technology Inc., a wholly owned Genmar subsidiary, handles licensing.

Asked about the significance of Genmar's boat in the GE Plastics booth, Jacobs says, "They [GE Plastics] have been after us for some time. They needed an enabler so that their thermoplastics can be used in more markets," such as marine, and for larger parts in such industries as automotive, where GE is already active. "VEC Shield is the enabler," Jacobs says.

Matthew Defosse [email protected]

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