In the marine industry, the use of closed molding is discussed as coming technology about as regularly as the The Old Farmer's Almanac is consulted for weather forecasts.
Yet until now, talk has not led to much action. The process has not been used cost-effectively and has required more capital outlay than some smaller fiberglass-fabrication shops can afford.
"In the past, it's been time-consuming and expensive," said John McKnight, director of environmental and safety compliance with the Chicago-based National Marine Manufacturers Association.
But now, both internal and government-induced pressure could be changing that notion. A raft of emerging companies want to make closed molding as common to marine suppliers as lichen on boat bottoms.
The cause partly is external: The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed tougher regulations governing the emission of hazardous air pollutants, called HAPs, from plants. The rules are part of the Clean Air Act, which was upheld in February in a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Styrene, a leading culprit in those emissions, is found in fiberglass boat hulls and frames and in the tooling resin and gel coats sprayed on the molds.
According to a July EPA draft, styrene emissions can cause eye and mucous-membrane irritation. Longer-term exposure could affect the central nervous system, kidneys and blood, the report stated.
Much of the potential problems come from open molding, which involves coating a glass-reinforced mat with polyester or vinyl ester resin, allowing it to harden and then spraying it with gel coat.
The process regularly requires workers to wear white, spacesuitlike uniforms and handle materials with thick gloves. It also is labor-intensive.
New boat-building regulations — known as Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards — take aim at open molding, the traditional method of making boat hulls and frames.
The EPA rule for boat builders was drafted in July and will take effect sometime this summer, said environmental engineer Mark Morris at the EPA office in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
To comply, companies must use materials that lower HAP emissions and nonatomizing application methods, where mold spraying is not required. Companies will have three years to change.
The EPA estimates the marine industry will spend $14 million to comply.
The use of closed molds solves the HAP problem, Morris said.
"If you use closed molding, you're done," Morris said. "I don't know if that's possible, but we'd be happy if everyone went to closed molding."
That process typically seals two halves of a mold before the styrene is injected, capturing any unwanted emissions before they hit the atmosphere.
One new proponent of closed molding is VEC Technology Inc., a maker of fiberglass boat hulls. VEC is owned by boat builder Genmar Holdings Inc. of Little Falls, Minn.
Genmar uses the process on its Glastron and Larson boats, which primarily are 17-21 feet long. The process combats the slowness and messiness of boat hulls made through hand layup, said VEC President Steve Kubisen.
The technology reduces emissions by about 90 percent and is at least eight times faster than open molding, Kubisen said.
The company produces about 5,000 hulls a year. That figure is expected to double after the company adds four more molding stations in Little Falls and two at its plant in Greenville, Pa., later this year.
"With open molding, it is difficult to keep workers happy," Kubisen said during a Feb. 21 plant tour in Greenville. "And the EPA also has an issue with materials blowing out the stacks. Just reducing the need for emission-treatment equipment cuts processor expenses dramatically."
Genmar has invested about $30 million to date in VEC. The key to the process is a floating, fiberglass mold, said Robert McCollum, one of the system's inventors and now VEC vice president for process engineering.
The mold floats in fluid pumped through a hydraulic system, allowing interchangeable skins to be used in the same mold.
In the process, a fiberglass-reinforced mat is loaded on top of the mold, which has been sprayed with gel coat. The mold then is closed and injected with unsaturated polyester. After curing at high temperatures for 15-30 minutes, the mold is opened and the part produced.
In Greenville, boat hulls up to 600 pounds are built. Cranes stretching 30 feet high hold the mold half before it is closed. And computer interfaces control the operation and can be run from distant locations.
"We call it the factory in a box," said McCollum, referring to the cell. VEC is testing the process with John Deere Co. and several large, undisclosed producers of automotive aftermarket parts, recreational vehicles, heavy trucks and other products.
The company either will help those firms build and run their own VEC manufacturing sites or do the work for those companies in regional centers, Kubisen said.
VEC expects to record sales of less than $10 million this year. But that figure could climb to $50 million to $100 million in three years, according to Kubisen.
VEC's technology is not the only closed-molding solution. Many smaller marine companies are taking enterprising approaches.
Michael Angerer once owned Merrimac Industries Inc., a maker of spray-up camper tops. Ten years ago, he shifted to fiberglass boat parts and re-launched the company as New Boston Composites.
Last August, partner William Burns, a former Ford Motor Co. executive, took an ownership interest in the company. They decided to jettison the New Boston, Mich.-based facility's open molding process, with its high scrap rates and a revolving door of employee turnover.
"When we entered the marine industry, we found a process that was where injection molding was 30 years ago." said Angerer, vice president of engineering and development.
Instead, they launched a closed-molding system now being marketed both to boat builders and the outdoor-table industry, where the company makes slatelike and granitelike table tops.
The company changed its name last year to New Boston Technologies, after developing the vacuum infusion process, also known as low-pressure resin transfer molding, in 1996. Now, Angerer speaks of creating a revolution in the marine industry.
"We're on top of our game now and ready to make larger, more challenging parts," he said at the International Boatbuilders Exhibition & Conference in February in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "We're growing geometrically as fast as we can."
The company's process — used until now for smaller parts such as hatch covers and boat steps — starts with a two-sided, matched composite mold that is opened and sprayed with gel coat. A core of fiberglass, foam, wood or other materials is inserted, and then the mold is closed, vacuumed and injected with resin under low pressure.
By doing so, the company creates better-quality composite parts for the same price as with traditional processes, with no tool costs and far fewer HAP emissions, Angerer said.
New Boston plans to move into a 34,000-square-foot, leased facility in the Detroit area during the third quarter. The company will spend $180,000-$200,000 to start the facility. New Boston said it also hopes to open a 70,000-square-foot facility in the Orlando, Fla., area next year.
The company also is establishing a joint venture with a boat builder and a marine-lamination company, enabling original equipment manufacturers to produce hulls, decks and floors using New Boston's resin-infusion process.
Boat hulls are not the only area of composites activity. Melbourne, Fla.-based Compsys Inc. is making a dry fiberglass material that is preformed over a polyurethane flotation-grade core. The process either is custom molded or made continuously.
Its Prisma composite preform can be used effectively in closed molding to make bulkheads, stringer beams and boat frames, or to strengthen hulls and decks. The product also is being evaluated for truck cabs, which are closed molded.
"The industry is changing radically," said Compsys President Scott Lewit. "We used to be a totally integrated fabrication shop. Now, we consider ourselves boat builders instead of fiberglass fabricators."
Currently, it makes the products for 30,000-40,000 recreational boats a year at a 40,000-square-foot production facility that doubled in size last year.
Even with the activity, open molding is not necessarily facing extinction, said McKnight, based in Washington.
McKnight's marine association had asked the EPA to offer credits or incentives to fabricators that converted to closed molding, McKnight said. But while the EPA said the process should be encouraged, it did not want to create a new regulatory standard for closed molding, he said.
"You don't need to switch processes to closed molding," McKnight said. "It might be a choice you want to make."
Styrene limits are part of the requirements. But several composites materials producers said at the Fort Lauderdale show that limiting styrene in composite blends could hamper product strength and properties.
"Customers in all areas are likely not to want to lower the styrene amount [to under 35 percent] unless they have to," said H. Phil Bridges, spokesman for supplier Reichhold Inc. of Research Triangle Park. "The material would not perform as well and [would] be tougher to handle."