Thursday, March 19, 2009

Beneteau, the Greener boat builder

Kermit the Frog once said - “Itʼs not easy being green”. Maybe Kermit was a boatbuilder at some point in his life. Had he been, he would have known how true that statement was - and is. Components such as petroleum based products, lead, and wood from rain forests have routinely been used to build modern sailboats for a longtime, and most manufacturers still do use these things, partially from necessity and partially from choice.

The reality is that fiberglass boats must be made using materials that arenʼt always the friendliest for the environment. But the other reality in sailing is that the end product is quite environmentally friendly. Sailboats use very little fuel, and are mostly self contained under way, so pollution and sailing are rarely used in the same sentence. Thatʼs obvious, but letʼs go back to the manufacturing process and look at the things that make Beneteau a better and greener manufacturer.

Starting with the layup of the hull and deck, Beneteau is ahead of its competitors in using more environmentally friendly techniques such as injection molded decks on most models. Injection molding does away with the spraying of polyester resin into an openmold, which creates a large amount of styrene infused airborne residue that is not a particularly good thing, as you can well imagine. Injection molding incorporates a 2 piece mold into which precise pre-cut pieces of dry fiberglass are applied. The two pieces of the mold are joined together and resin is injected evenly into the mold and forced throughout the piece to ensure even penetration and saturation of resin into the glass. This process has a dual benefit - it guarantees much more consistent pieces in terms of weight and finish, and it eliminates all airborne spraying of resin, making a cleaner and safer workplace as well as a better product. This is a process pioneered by Beneteau and is used by very few others in the business because of the added expense to create the tooling and to implement the process in older manufacturing facilities.

The beautifully finished interior wood used by Beneteau, called ALPI, is created from veneers made from natural hardwoods grown in managed sustainable forests. It is a processed multi-laminar wood which is consistent in grain pattern and color, making it easy to repair or replace if necessary. The process involves using thinly cut veneers which are selected based on color and grain quality. The veneers are then put into piles and immersed into tanks containing pigment to obtain a light and homogenous tint.They are then immersed into a second tank of pigment to obtain the final color and to stabilize the color against UV rays and to seal them. Once this is done, they are sorted again to a chosen grain pattern, stacked,and glued using a proprietary waterproof glue into solid blocks of wood. This is the base for the ALPI product.

The blocks are then “sliced” very thinly on an angle, and the angle of the cut determines the grain width and character. The finished plies of wood are fully finished end grain pieces that are uniform in appearance and resistant to impact, thanks to the glue and compression incorporated into the manufacturing process. Beneteau then takes an extra step in the process and cuts the existing plies at another angle to add even more impact resistance and consistency in finish.

The finished are then sent to the plywood manufacturer to be glued onto Class “A”sheets of marine grade laminates. These finished products become the beautiful bulkheads and cabinetry that are the signature of Beneteau boats. While this is a much more expensive process than conventional methods used by most builders, the end result is a higher quality and harder finish than one would expect.

Beneteau has also been a leader in using cast iron for its keels rather than lead, which is much more toxic to the environment and not as durable in cruising boats. Cast iron keels will stand up to running aground without bending or losing their shape, which is a problem with lead, not to mention that the expense and restrictive rules of lead use are making cast iron the smart AND green choice for modern cruising boat keels.

These are but a few of the ways that the worldʼs largest manufacturer of recreational sailboats, Beneteau, is contributing to a healthier environment, both in their manufacturing plants and on the water. Good and green sailing to you!

*Thanks to Mike Thoney of Karma Yachts for permission to use his green article... Check out their blog here.

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