Dec. 24, 2007 – A closer look at Yamaha’s new hull technology

By Jeff Hemmel
PWC Editor
After a season in which many industry insiders said Yamaha offered nothing truly new, 2008 is shaping up to be a banner year for the company.
Most of the hype surrounds the FX Super High Output. Already the model has been named a “Best Bet” by Boating Magazine, topped Popular Mechanics’ coveted “Wish List 2007” and garnered a “Products We Love” nod from Men’s Health. To top it all off, Popular Science then crowned the vehicle the “Best of What’s New” in its recreation category.
Why all the hype? Much of it concerns the obvious, like the industry’s largest displacement engine or Yamaha’s unique cruise control features. Beneath all the trappings, however, is a new hull construction process that deserves equal attention. In fact, if the statements are to be believed, it just might be a revolutionary leap forward in technology, resulting in hulls that are stronger, lighter, even offer a smoother exterior finish.
And while the technology itself is very big news, the process involves the tiniest of components. Welcome to the world of nanotechnology.

What’s In A Nano
By definition, nanotechnology refers to the manipulation of matter on a molecular scale. As a reference point, consider this: A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Or, as author Jennifer Kahn put it in the article “Nanotechnoloy” in the June ’06 National Geographic, about the distance a man’s beard grows in the amount of time it takes for him to simply lift the razor to his face. We’re talking tiny.
So what’s the big buzz about? By manipulating materials on this nano scale, scientists have been able to create all sorts of new and improved formulas, mixing and matching raw materials in a way previously impossible, and achieving new compounds with all-new properties in the process. Currently, nanotechnology has resulted in what its followers say are better sunscreens, cosmetics, clothing, paints, even food products.
And for 2008, even a couple models of Yamaha WaveRunners.
Yamaha’s use of nanotechnology all comes down to hull, deck and liner construction. Before nano, Yamaha, like Kawasaki, used traditional Sheet Molding Compound. The material, which consists of fiberglass, resin and a filler material, comes in sheets (dubbed a “charge” pattern) that look kind of like fiberglass chop. The material is laid into a closed, two-part mold of a WaveRunner’s hull, deck or liner, and then subjected to about 3,000 pounds of pressure and plenty of heat in a huge press. The combination liquefies the Sheet Molding Compund sheets, which allows the material to fill the mold’s various nooks and crannies. Less than 10 minutes later, the press opens and out pops the finished part with a smooth surface ready to be finished and little in the way of mess or nasty emissions along the way. Compared to normal fiberglass lay-up in an open mold, it seems like a no-brainer.
The catch? Sheet Molding Compound production is costly. Hull molds cost nearly $1 million to produce. Ever heard someone comment that a model will be around until the manufacturer gets their money’s worth out of the mold? It’s true. No company makes that kind of investment, then changes the product shortly thereafter. Traditional Sheet Molding Compound, however, is also heavier than fiberglass on an equal strength basis. On boats that weigh so little, every pound you can save means something, like better acceleration and speed, possibly even improved handling. As a result, Yamaha tasked its Sheet Molding Compound supplier to come up with a better solution. The result is NanoXcel.

Less Filling
NanoXcel maintains the basic building blocks of Sheet Molding Compound — random-strand fiberglass provides strength, while resin acts as the glue that holds it all together. Scientists discovered the filler, however, could be manipulated. Added to the mix primarily to add bulk and transport the fiberglass through the mold, common filler has always been calcium carbonate (CaCO3), a chalk-like substance that is basically what a TUMS is made from. Calcium carbonate, however, has its disadvantages. Its molecules are round and bond to each other only where they butt together (like gumballs in a vending machine), forming an aptly named butt joint. As a result, more space is needed, and the bonds could be stronger.
Enter those nanotechnology nerds. What the tech types discovered was that a new filler, made from exfoliated (think really thinly sliced) clay, could be used in place of calcium carbonate. This material had been “nano-engineered” to form a much stronger, much less bulky lap-joint form of bond. Like bricklayers laying a pattern of brick, scientists manipulated the exfoliated clay to bond over a much larger (at least in nano terms) surface area. Mixed with the resin and fiberglass, this new material could now use far less filler to achieve the same, or even better, strength. As Yamaha Product Manager Scott Watkins told us during a sneak peak in August, an amount of Sheet Molding Compound that once required a full handful of filler could now be produced with only a pinch of the exfoliated clay. To paraphrase the beer commercial, great strength but less filling.
According to Yamaha officials, the new formula results in a hull/deck/liner combo that trims about 25 percent, or roughly 70 pounds, off the equivalent 2007 counterpart. It is also roughly 20 percent stronger in lab impact tests. Yamaha also says the new Sheet Molding Compound results in a far better finish, resulting in a smoother, more paint-friendly surface than the previous mix.

The process didn’t happen overnight. Reportedly, NanoXcel was supposed to have been introduced last year but was held so that the finished material could be black in color to better hide scratches. That might be the reason Yamaha pulled the plug on a press introduction at the 11th hour in 2006 and seemed to come out with nothing truly new that year.
It’s also an indication that Yamaha truly spearheaded this technology, rather than just borrow something off the shelf. Another is yet one more piece of recognition, this time an Excellence and Innovation Award from the American Composites Manufacturers Association.
“Consumers will instantly be able to feel the difference provided by NanoXcel,” said Yamaha Watercraft Group President Mark Speaks. “The lighter weight material, with its remarkably smooth finish, is more nimble and agile in the water than anything else we've sold.
“We will be continuing our pursuit of advanced technologies wherever we can find real benefit to the consumer.”

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