Moving targets

Posted on 3 Feb 2010 by The Manufacturer

Edward Machin meets Sealine, a manufacturer of luxury boats incorporating traditional manufacture with the best of the automotive industry’s production processes

Founded in 1972 by seafaring enthusiast, Tom Murrant, Kidderminster-based Sealine has since grown to become one of Europe’s largest production luxury boat builders, with a model range spanning sports boats and flybridge cruisers to luxury motor yachts. Sealine is a subsidiary of the $4bn turnover Brunswick Group who, in addition to its US facilities operates with boat manufacturing plants in Poland and Portugal, building boat brands such as Quicksilver, Arvor, Uttern, Valiant and, more recently, the US-branded Bayliner. UK production is represented by Kidderminster’s 14 acre, fully integrated site, with 50,000sq ft of covered workshops enabling Sealine to build the larger boats within Brunswick’s European sector — starting at 35ft and ranging in price from £180,000 to £1m.

Maintaining so diverse a product range drives, says manufacturing director, David Stretton, the company’s continually evolving production initiatives.

“This is of particular importance, given that Sealine operates within an industry that has long-needed both streamlining and an increase in modern engineering methods. While design for manufacture isn’t a novel concept within the automotive industry, for example, it would be fair to say that the boating community has often kept its processes somewhat more conventional.” Accordingly, while the majority of Sealine’s design and production is undertaken in-house, it does not rule out design partnerships with similarly-minded companies; its flagship yacht, the T60 AURA, jointly produced with Studio Conran being one such example. While perhaps the exception, operating as part of the Brunswick Group enables Sealine to leverage significant purchasing power — applicable both to boats designed alone and in collaboration with other industry-leading manufacturers.

More generally, “We see ourselves as excellent corporate citizens,” says Stretton, “recognised by the fact that Sealine holds the best record within Brunswick’s boat manufacturing operations for our health and safety, recordable incidence rate. Moreover, we have very recently been awarded environmental management accreditation ISO14001 by Lloyd’s Register (LRQA) — to the best of our knowledge we are the only UK boating company to receive such an accolade, and one of only a handful of boat manufacturing companies worldwide. Whilst we are in the early stages of our streamlining and cultural change, it is fair to say that we must be doing something right even to be recognised.”

(Auto)motivating Lean
Central to Sealine’s continued success is the overhaul of its manufacturing operations. Explains Stretton, “Given that they are widely accepted as leaders in the fields of continuous improvement when introducing Lean and production efficiencies, we look to take inspiration from the automotive and aerospace sectors’ best practices and implement them in our day-to-day operations.” As such, Sealine has introduced flowlines across its production facilities, albeit operated by boats mounted on trolleys and indexed as opposed to a traditional moving line — initially, at any rate. For example, every 2.5 days a boat is removed from the line, shifting all other parts along accordingly. With overhead cranes, such a process took approximately eight hours; it can now be done in 15 minutes. “Clearly, this is somewhat different in practice from an automotive moving line but, importantly, we take those modern manufacturing principles and adapt them to a boat-building environment,” says Stretton.

Having implemented the foundations of its production ethos, Sealine’s current projects centre on how to feed those lines into a concurrent assembly, thus breaking the work down by footprint or stage. Moreover, the company will be shortly introducing kanbans for the larger items of assembly — flybridge or engines, for example.

All lower value items will operate on a minimum/maximum or Vendor Managed Inventory (VMI) basis, with the final element being Direct Line Feed (DLF) in kit form that are issued from Sealine’s distribution stores.

“Take a propulsion system,” says Stretton. “Because we’ve broken the work and content down over the footprint, rather than delivering the entire system to our production lines, distributors will simply choose the relative kits from any given system.” Whereas the company would have previously done so in a single stage, kits are now delivered over three footprints — indicative of the fact that presentation of material to the line and principles of continuous flow sit at the heart of Sealine’s drive for optimum manufacture.

“The heartbeat of the line is currently moving at 2 ½ days, with the SC35 being used as a pilot,” says Stretton. “In December we introduced a 40ft boat to the set-up, and I am delighted to report great results so far.” Similarly, the SC35 used to be manufactured in four lines with up to 20 individual stages; the company’s production advances mean that its now operates a single line with eight stages.

With such tangible — and immediate — successes, does Sealine plan to extend the production model across its entire product suite? “At this stage,” says Stretton, “we are concentrating primarily on the small and mid range boats, given that our larger vessels are operating at considerably larger takt times; 28 days for a 60ft boat as opposed to 11 for the 50ft boats.” That isn’t to say that Sealine won’t apply these production principles to its biggest boats in the future and, accordingly, the company is engaging with industry leaders from the commercial vehicle industry to complement the traditional boat-making skills which have served it so well in the past.

Indeed, “While we are understandably delighted with the recent progress made at Sealine, it remains crucial that the company retains a balance in all that it does, nevermore so than with regard to our manufacturing processes,” assures Stretton. “For example, we don’t want to be seen as deskilling or moving away from the boatbuilding values and techniques that our customers have come to expect from a Sealine vessel. Ultimately, I see our role as manufacturing peoples’ dreams, and while technology undeniably has its place, we must ensure harmony between modern production methods and the long-established approach to manufacture which our company was founded upon.

Negotiating choppy waters
“While we are well set for 2010 and beyond, the goalposts for the boating industry have, I feel, been irrevocably shifted by the recession,” says Stretton. “Indeed, it is doubtful that the sector will ever again reach the order volumes seen two years ago, meaning that for Sealine to remain as a best in class manufacturer we must reassess each aspect of our business in turn. With customers becoming ever more discerning, and rightly so, we therefore continue to offer an adaptable, industry-leading product portfolio — manufacturing more high specification boats than previously being merely one example.” That said, and in spite of the company’s affiliation with Brunswick, Stretton argues that Sealine does not necessarily hold itself in direct competition with other best in class vessel builders. “Since our inception, Sealine has prided itself on the fact that we produce vessels for boating enthusiasts and connoisseurs who love great times on the water, given that the company was founded by precisely one such individual.

While practicality and storage requirements are therefore key for our customers, the styling DNA in our latest ranges are also unique among our competitors.” Out of adversity comes opportunity, says Stretton, and witnessing Sealine’s culture of continuous improvement it is hard to argue with him. The company has recently undertaken a recruitment drive, strengthening the workforce to undertake work on its burgeoning order book. “Traditionally, the winter months can see a lull in orders for the boating industry,” he says. “We hold the fact that the SC35 order book is filling up ahead of our expectations, and our other ranges also performing strongly as extremely encouraging signs for the business. Continually striving to give consumers further reasons to purchase our boats, should they need them, the upcoming year for Sealine looks like relatively smooth sailing — just the way our customers like it, in fact”