Smoker Craft Inc – parent to the Smoker Craft, Starcraft, Sylvan and SunChaser boat brands – says new investments in its pontoon boat plant are set to increase product quality to a standard beyond anything seen in the industry so far.
The company recently hosted BoatBlurb at its New Paris, Indiana facility to demonstrate its new pontoon tube production line – one where automated welding robots craft pontoon tubes with what the company describes as previously unattainable levels of precision and consistency.
The process starts with an all-new machine roller that turns flat sheets of marine-grade aluminum into perfectly round cylinders in seconds.
“The advantage to this new machine is that we get a perfectly round tube that doesn’t have any flat spots,” explains Smoker Craft process and automation engineer, Michael Boyle.
“Normally when you roll metal into cylindrical shapes there’s a small flat spot left over, and that can lead to complications when you weld the tube closed and attach the nose cone and end cap. It makes it difficult to get a proper seal. Being able to roll the aluminum sheets into perfectly round cylinders every time eliminates any potential for leaks.”
The aluminum cylinders then move to one of two state-of-the-art automated MIG welding stations where they rest horizontally on a long track. Above, three computer controlled robots permanently seal the cylinder closed with a precision weld running the full length of the tube. Multiple units can then be welded together on the same track to create tubes of the correct length for a given boat. Motor driven rollers on the track rotate the tube at precise speeds to allow perfectly consistent welds around the full diameter of the tube.
Pontoon tube nose cones and end caps are formed by separate robots nearby. Once the main tube body is ready, they’re welded into place to complete the pontoon tube.
But that’s just the beginning of the construction process.
A second track above the tube then positions multiple heavy-duty aluminum brackets that are used to attach the tube to the boat’s subframe, functioning like an automated high-tech jig. Sensors that can be programmed with specifics for every model in the company’s lineup verify the correct position for each mounting bracket, identify any brackets that are out of position or missing, and then secure the full bracket array while they’re robotically welded into place.
The machinery follows a similar process for attaching ride control structures like lifting strakes and splash shields. Tolerances are so tight that differences from one tube to the next are virtually zero.
“The digital robots deliver a level of consistency that even the very best welders in the world could never match doing it by hand,” says Boyle. “This equipment gives absolutely consistent, straight tubes with the mounting brackets and strakes positioned exactly where they need to be, and in absolutely perfect alignment with 100% repeatability. It’s a level of precision that makes for a better boat, and one that will last longer and give an even more enjoyable ride out on the water.”
Boyle says that while the automated equipment does reduce the overall amount of time required to complete a pontoon tube, the primary focus for the company is on improving product quality. “Right now we have a lifetime limited warranty on decks, tubes, and transoms, which is the best in the industry,” says Boyle. “Our goal is to make the best boats on the water – period. By eliminating inconsistencies and margin for error, we’re aiming to elevate that and take things to a whole new level of quality.”