Success on the High Seas with Harken

The America’s Cup is considered the Holy Grail of international sailing competition. Its origin dates back to 1851, when a sleek, black schooner from New York crossed the Atlantic to challenge England’s self-proclaimed supremacy in the world of yacht racing.

Aptly named America, the schooner bested 16 English challengers in a race around the Isle of Wight to win a solid silver trophy know as the “One Hundred Guineas Cup.”

In 1857, the owners of America donated that silver trophy to the New York Yacht Club, along with a Deed of Gift specifying “that it shall be preserved as a perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries.” The trophy was dubbed the America’s Cup in honor of the yacht that won it, and it has become the longest contested trophy in international sports.

For most of its long history, the America’s Cup remained just that: America’s Cup. For 132 years, boats flying the flag of the New York Yacht Club bested all challengers to successfully retain the trophy.It wasn’t until 1983, when “Australia II” defeated NYYC’s “Liberty,” that the Cup found its way to foreign shores. America regained possession for a few years in 1987, then lost the Cup to New Zealand in 1995. The America’s Cup currently resides at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in Auckland, New Zealand, following that country’s successful defense on home seas against Italy’s “Prada” challenger this past February.

Over the years, America’s Cup racing has become one of the most prestigious and expensive sports in the world. Once primarily a battle between the United States and England, the Cup now draws challengers from many nations. This past Cup saw syndicates from Italy, Japan, France, Switzerland, Spain and Australia, in addition to five challengers from the U.S. and the defending team from New Zealand. It has truly become a world sport, and for those involved, it is serious business.

For Peter and Olaf Harken, the America’s Cup is more than business, it’s an opportunity to do some serious R&D. The brothers Harken are the men behind the company Harken, a Pewaukee, Wisconsin-based manufacturer of what is considered the best marine hardware in the world.

Harken first used the America’s Cup for research and development in 1976. They had just developed their first high-load, big-boat blocks with thermoplastic bearings, something no one else had done, and the America’s Cup provided the perfect opportunity to test the blocks in the real world.

“The America’s Cup-type boats, with the day-to-day training and racing that they do for something like six months, put wear and tear on equipment that you just can’t get anywhere else,” explains Peter Harken. “There is no other racing venue that will put wear and tear on the equipment in that short of a time.”

The other advantage to the America’s Cup, Peter adds, is that the boats don’t go out for several days at a time, they go out for several hours a day. “So if something breaks, or if something isn’t strong enough, they come back in with it and we can attack it. It gives us immediate feedback, and we can take greater chances on making equipment that’s closer in strength-to-weight ratio.”

As with most racing, the mantra for the America’s Cup is always lighter, stronger, faster. This applies not only to the boats themselves, but to the equipment, as well. Weight savings in one area, such as hardware, can be used to add weight in other areas for better performance. For Harken, that means constantly walking the fine line between strength, weight and failure.

For most of its products, Harken relies on outside vendors for machining and manufacturing. This approach has proven quite successful for the day-to-day operations; but when it comes to the America’s Cup, reaction time is critical. “The demands are very high on us,” says Peter. “Everybody wants everything instantly. That’s custom-type work where we have to do it quick and fast, and we have to be able to change quickly, get new stuff out in a hurry if that piece has failed.”

For this reason, past Cups have been stressful events for Harken. “Every time we went into one, the whole company would shudder,” says Peter. “The hard part was the hassle of getting parts done fast, and when we needed parts immediately, we’d have to go to other shops and beg to get them done. Lots of times they would come late; they wouldn’t be on time when we needed them. Then you’ve got the customer yelling at you, and that’s hard on the service people. It’s a real strain.”

After the 1995 America’s Cup in New Zealand, Harken started bringing some of their processes in-house to better prepare for the next Cup in 2000. “We decided that we had to do a lot more of this kind of work ourselves,” Peter says. “It’s much easier in our own shop to say: ‘Stop, get onto this right now.’ You can do that, no matter what the situation is.”

Harken had a few manual machines already, but needed more capacity to handle the expected workload. After careful consideration, they decided to purchase a Haas VF-3 vertical machining center to expand their machining capabilities.

“We looked at a lot of different machines,” says Len Post, CNC machinist and programmer at Harken. “We wanted more than just a decent machine that was going to hold up; we wanted service. Service is important to us, as I believe it would be to any machine shop. The Haas was the best machine for the price, and the service is phenomenal. I’ve never seen better service — ever.”

“A lot of the other machines were close in price to the Haas for the initial machine,” adds Peter Harken, “but as soon as you wanted options, the other builders put what I call ‘hose-job’ prices on them. Haas did not do that at all. The prices were far less.”

“But price was not the deciding factor,” Peter says. “We also looked at local and national service, and the cost of repair parts. Haas was better than any other manufacturer, by far!

“Speed was another consideration,” he says. “We could get into machines that were much faster and had shorter cycle times, but they were $30-$40,000 more, and we could only put two vices on them. The cycle time was too short for the operator to move on to another job. He was stuck at that machine, basically, just to change parts and do a simple quick secondary job like deburring or checking parts.

“We determined that the larger table of the VF-3 would allow us to use four big double-acting Kurt vices and mill eight parts in one cycle. The cycle time would be long enough that the operator could do something else. He could do secondary operations, he could go on another machine, setup tooling or just use his expertise elsewhere.

“We’ve proven that we get more production output from our manpower with a higher capacity machine that has a longer cycle time,” Peter says. “This allows the operator to do another meaningful job, plus it takes the repetitive drudgery out of the work day. Our people are excellent, and we don’t want them stuck on one machine all day long getting bored.”

Kevin Monahan, Harken’s manufacturing manager and former chief engineer of the custom department, says the VF-3 has given them a lot more control than in years past. “We have a better handle on the quality, a better handle on what we’re going to make, and when. We can control our inventory, because we can make smaller batches. We can control our costs more accurately. It just gives us much more flexibility than if we went to a job shop and asked them to do the work for us.”

Peter agreed, “It’s made everybody’s lives a lot less tense, because we can react fast. If I have to make just one piece, I can jump into the Haas. We can pull the production out of there if we need to, and just do it. We’ve learned how to get in and out of that machine fast, so we can do just a onesie or twosie in there and not disturb the production flow that much.”

Harken still outsources much of their heavier production, Peter says, “because we’re not a real full-blown production shop, as yet.” He adds that they’re doing more and more in-house, though, and one of the reasons is pricing. “People look at sailboat gear as high-priced stuff. Well, it is. And the only reason it is, compared to, say, other products in the hardware store, is because of numbers. The sailboat industry is a very small industry, in general. We don’t produce in the hundreds of thousands; we can’t get the economies of production. But yet, we can’t just ask big prices.

We have to learn how to do really short-run stuff efficiently, so we can sell at a price the public will pay. A lot of times with outsourcing, it’s hard. Job shops are always looking for the big run, naturally. They like to setup a machine and let it run. So we’re always in that kind of a battle. If I only need a hundred pieces, they’ll do it, but the price will be up there.

“That’s one of the reasons we’re getting in our own machines. We don’t want to spend the time on that kind of battling around; we just want to get at it. Whether it’s one piece, or 50 or a thousand, we can do it without justification, and it’s just made life a hell of a lot easier.”

Such small runs are common with the America’s Cup gear, and the lead times are always short. “Frequently what happens is we’ll get a call from a customer today, and he’ll need a part as soon as we can get it,” Kevin explains. “We’ll get the order today, we’ll design it tomorrow, well make it the following day and we’ll ship it. If we had to send the work out, we’d be scrambling to find a shop that could meet that kind of lead-time. With the Haas, we can do it, and a lot of people come back to us because we can give them that kind of service.”

Having the machining capabilities in-house resulted in a very successful America’s Cup for Harken in 2000. “We had far less hassles than we had last time (1995),” Peter remarks. “This was a very smooth Cup. There wasn’t any strain on the people, and we were on time with probably 95 percent of the stuff. All critical things we were always on time with and got it to the teams. The end result was that all of the syndicates said we did a really good job. We had far more boats to handle this time than we ever have: we handled 17 boats. The most we ever handled in the past was four or five new boats, so it was a huge jump, yet it was ten times as smooth.”

“We had gear on every boat,” notes Kevin. “We had complete deck hardware packages on 11 of the boats, and we had blocks and travelers – everything except winches – on 16 of 17, and we had steering components on the 17th boat. You kind of hope for that kind of market share, but you never really expect to get it. It’s kind of a two-edged sword, because once you get the orders, then you’ve got to produce the stuff, and that was the challenge. The Haas was always there for us, and we were able to produce the parts quickly.”

Kevin adds that Haas CNC machines will continue to play a key role at Harken. “We’re looking at every opportunity to bring more work in-house, and that means buying lots of new machines. We’re looking to add another VF-3, and probably one of the new Haas Mini Mills immediately.”

Although the next America’s Cup is three years away, Harken isn’t sitting back and resting on their current success. They’re already preparing for 2003, when New Zealand will again defend the title on home seas. “We will be back there in full force in August of 2002,” says Peter, “and we are right now designing new gear. New boats will begin to appear by the end of next year, and we’ll have to have new gear ready for trial. As they say in New Zealand, ‘We’re full on!'”

The America’s Cup is a lot of work; but for Harken, it is worth the effort. “People ask why we do the America’s Cup, put such a big effort into it,” says Peter. “Do we do it for the glory and the PR and all that? No. It truly is our R&D. They always wonder, ‘Is there a trickle-down effect to the Joe Public?’ And we say, ‘Big Time!’ Every big-boat block and piece of big-boat gear that’s in our catalog is a pure trickle down from our R&D in the America’s Cup.”