User Story

Perception Kayak : thinkdesign

The big splash of kayaking popularity is paddling Perception Kayaks (Easley, SC) to record sales and production of new boat designs. Perception, the leading designer and manufacturer of more than 30 different types of kayaks including sit-on-tops, touring, and state-of-the-art white water performance models also designs and makes kayaks for Islander and Mainliner boat lines. Besides Perception's North American design center, UK and New Zealand-based operations comprise the company's international design team. See

Design challenges
From an engineering standpoint, the primary challenge in designing kayaks is the shape of the craft itself because they have virtually no right angles. By design, kayaks are very organic, sculpted forms. Therefore, perfect symmetry and precise tolerances are critical for optimum performance.

In addition to adhering to complex design requirements, Perception simultaneously launches its products internationally. To adhere to that regiment, the company's global design teams must maintain a very high level of communication throughout the design through manufacture cycle. According to Thomas Dempsey, Perception's director of design and research, "Design changes made on a boat being created in South Carolina must be quickly relayed to other designers located in the UK and New Zealand so that they can expedite the changes to their designs. The use of the Internet significantly helps facilitate this essential process."

Customer requirements
Perception must comply with the usual customer requirements that include delivering products to market faster, maintaining competitive pricing, and offering sleek, high-tech designs. However, besides those qualifiers, Perception adheres to other important design issues.

Product Quality
Quality begins in the design center by designing a precisely toleranced and perfectly symmetrical kayak. All the parts must accurately fit together. Upfront design is key to assuring that undetected problems will not trickle down to the manufacturing floor.

The Perception design team is completely focused on innovation and creativity. Dempsey adds, "It's management's role to provide our designers with the best tools available that enable our designers to hone their talents. This philosophy nurtures a creative and innovative culture. We believe we have developed a strategic environment for developing the best kayaks in the industry."

The company's CAD system pays a key role in Perception's product development program including enhancing communications among team members as well as facilitating the addition of performance factors to be built into each new kayak. The technology allows users to design a product and analyze its performance characteristics using naval architecture software. The analysis is verified by prototyping and field-testing.

Perception designers use thinkdesign for MCAD, ProLines for naval analysis, and AutoCAD for manufacturing documentation purposes. Perception's plant uses Visual Manufacturing software. Designers can download thinkdesign bills of materials and parts specifications to Visual Manufacturing floor operators for production.

Why thinkdesign?
Perception implemented thinkdesign in 1998. The package was selected over other commercial MCAD products due to its breadth of capabilities. "One of the key factors that differentiates thinkdesign from other products is that it allows us to work in solids or surfaces within the same easy to use system," notes Dempsey. "We evaluated other products, however, the complex kayak shape dictated that we needed a product that allows us to easily work in surface mode and integrate the design with a solid. In addition, thinkdesign is easy to learn to use. We couldn't afford downtime with a package that required a lot of training and time away from the creativity. Price was a factor, too. As a small company, thinkdesign is a good value."

Ultra Clean project
As a kayak trendsetter, Perception recently initiated multi-size kayaks. As boats have become more specialized for a variety of uses and for a wide range of users, the company realized that its paddlers are becoming more sophisticated. The one-size-fits-all boat doesn't float anymore. To meet this need, every Perception kayak comes in three sizes to suit paddlers' needs and body sizes on the water today.

Thinkdesign was used to design Mr. Clean, a high performance white water boat. Most recently, the company introduced Ultra Clean, a new, larger sized, and modified Mr. Clean. Dempsey says, "Thinkdesign allowed us to use the existing Mr. Clean files, modify them quickly, and deliver several prototypes out to our field testers within two weeks. Instead of the traditional methodology of starting from scratch and sculpting a form in our shop, we were able to reuse our thinkdesign files, make modifications, and CNC a new Ultra Clean plug very quickly. Traditionally, that process would have taken at least two months of really skilled round the clock labor."

Prior to using thinkdesign, Perception's design process was a 2D manual engineering environment. The design team was comprised of a myriad of resources including sculptors who designed the products and actual kayakers who were talented artists. "Before we implemented thinkdesign," notes Dempsey, "we were a small shop with limited funds. However, with the tidal wave of growth in the kayak business, we soon realized that we needed additional support in terms of trained designers and engineers as well as the tools to help us remain successful."

Conversion from 2D to 3D
For any company, the transition from drawing boards to MCAD can be either smooth or not so. For Perception, the move was easy for the designers who eagerly embrace any new technology. They welcomed the ability to work in 3D and provide machining data directly to the manufacturing floor using thinkdesign. There are other designers who create products ala the traditional artisan sculpting. "Each project dictates how we will approach the design," notes Dempsey. For instance, designers use thinkdesign to develop new white water and touring boats. However, if the company decides to design a general purpose, sit on top, recreational kayak, designers use traditional methodology. In other words, the migration from 2D to 3D is gradual at Perception. Dempsey says that the combination of old and new ways of developing new products works well. "Today, many companies are quick to jump on the bandwagon of using the latest technology, Sometimes they overlook the combination of new and traditional methodologies. As we ramp up our thinkdesign knowledge curve, I look back on our process. When we started our first thinkdesign project, we were able to CNC-machine a kayak hull and a deck. All the little details such as drain plug recesses, grab handle recesses, and other tiny intricacies were done by hand after the CNC plug was complete. As we progressed using thinkdesign, we simultaneously added boat features to the software. Gradually, over the course of four projects we are doing complete kayak designs using thinkdesign."

Prior to selecting thinkdesign, the Perception MCAD evaluation team spent approximately six months evaluating other popular MCAD products. One important criterion for selecting the new product was compatibility between the existing naval architecture software and the new MCAD product. Thinkdesign met all the requirements.

Dempsey notes that selecting thinkdesign was risky because think3 is a small company compared to the other suppliers. However, after evaluating think3's business plan and spending time with think3's management, Perception is impressed with the speed at which think3 has come to fruition. "As a small company," says Dempsey, "we were amazed with the tremendous customer service and support from the think3 team both local and corporate. We are a small account for the other big software companies. It was very difficult to get any responses and or assistance from them. The help from think3 has been fantastic."

Real-time benefits
Perception is realizing design time saving as the most obvious advantage of using thinkdesign. Dempsey adds, "We are generating three times as much productivity based on the budget set for one-third of the throughput. Thinkdesign has allowed us to keep up with a 30+% growth in the marketplace without really spending more money at the challenge."

Trends in the marketplace
Perception operates in a small industry. "From a technology standpoint," says Dempsey, "we are not leading the curve, however, within our marketplace, the companies that are going to lead are the ones that are going to make technological investments. For instance, five years ago almost all kayak companies were outgrowths of entrepreneurial efforts. Today, most of the leading companies have transformed from that mentality into real companies. The outfits that will be able to keep up with that trend, are the ones that embrace technology. As our marketplace becomes more sophisticated and exposed, the consumer assumes higher expectations for quality and performance. Five years ago, paddlers accepted boats that may not have been perfectly symmetrical. Today, they expect accuracy and leap-frogged performance from previous models. The only way to achieve those goals is the use of technology. We are not making any revolutionary new claims, just that we are charting a path -- following a curve of the general business marketplace. We believe that within our industry, we are applying these technologies before anyone else."

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Page last modified on February 17, 2000
Copyright 1999, 2000 by John Stark