Having served in the yacht design trade I can tell you that nothing causes more wear and tear on a designer’s fingernails than launch day-there are simply no guarantees. Will she float on her lines? Will she make speed? Will her owner be satisfied or will the market embrace her? Successful yacht design is ultimately a blend of art, engineering and luck. Recently I had an inside pass to Sea Ray‘s Product Development & Engineering facility (PD&E) and learned how the world’s largest boatbuilder improves the odds.
It was not my first visit to the Merritt Island, Florida, facility, although this visit would be different. The builder’s product development process is the earth in which seeds of new designs germinate and Sea Ray does not often show its hand. When Sea Ray‘s Vice President of Marketing, Rob Noyes, offered me a behind-the-scenes look I was surprised. I have known Noyes for more than thirty years and recognized his enthusiasm. “It’s not just the process, it’s the people,” he explained.
Sea Ray Design Director Tom Bucaccio greeted me at PD&E. In the five years Bucaccio has spent at Sea Ray, his goal has been to raise the bar of what is arguably the marine industry’s most sophisticated design organization. After earning a degree in industrial design from the University of Bridgeport, Bucaccio worked on transportation design projects including aircraft, cars, and trains. His first taste of marine design came at Bombardier where he served as a design manager responsible for personal watercraft and sport boats. A twenty-five-year product design veteran, he has a keen understanding of the synergy that exists between successful design and the marketplace. While creative designers like to think outside of the box, Bucaccio explained that successful brands and products evolve. “Not every product needs to be transformational- good design does not have to be pushed to the extreme. Sea Ray is a brand with a distinct heritage-the challenge is moving forward without forgetting the past.”
Bucaccio formalized Sea Ray‘s design organization, establishing a distinct creative space within PD&E that is not pigeonholed into specific product categories. Designers work as a team on everything from sport boats to larger yachts. Bucaccio believes that this variety keeps creative minds fresh. Brand focus is also critical.
“It is not uncommon for companies to lose sight of their brand identity when they are challenged or mimicked by competitors,” said Bucaccio. “We have developed brand guides for each of our lines that serve as foundations for all of our design work.” For the yacht program the guide’s keywords include “heritage,” “confidence,” “elegance,” and “timelessness.” This is the essence of Sea Ray yachts as determined by its loyal customers in focus groups. Bucaccio’s team begins a design with little more than these keywords and a simple design brief. The tone is also tempered with examples of good design-a fine automobile or fine furniture for example. Bucaccio refers to this stage of the process as the “bubble-up or churn-up” where new ideas are explored free hand.
While Bucaccio’s team is thinking out of the box, PD&E’s engineering team is developing it. With a hull form and structural envelope in hand Bucaccio’s team produces a dozen conceptual versions of a new yacht. After fine-tuning, half a dozen concept designs are presented to key Sea Ray dealers for comment. Ultimately three versions are offered to senior management for approval. “These versions typically range from conservative to not so conservative,” said Bucaccio who suggests the team’s favorite is typically shared in the exchange. “It was not design by committee but conformation of our creative concept,” said Bucaccio.
In my opinion, Sea Ray‘s new designs demonstrate how effective the process can be. They are transformational to my eye. The sheer lines are less shapely and busy and seem to reconnect with the builder’s design evolution. “In the late 1990s, Sea Ray took an organic approach to its styling in response to trends at the time,” said Bucaccio. “Our goal with our new designs is to move towards a more classic look that is not trendy.” Bucaccio and his design team have literally straightened things out with sheers that are purposeful or as he suggests, “more formal.”
Genetically Sea Ray‘s new designs appear Euro inspired-a trait Bucaccio embraces. “We once said that it happens on the West Coast first in terms of edgy design-these days Europeans have proven avant-garde as well.” Edge alone however, does not make good design and Bucaccio believes that Sea Ray designs are unique because of their American DNA. He suggests that style and fashion play well in young foreign markets, while a sense of visual quality or craftsmanship is a must in Europe. “Here in the U.S. we expect all of these assets as well as practicality and creature comfort.”
The yacht line, for example, features stylish exterior windows that also offer a good view from within. Hull-side windows do not appear as an afterthought-they are integrated into the styling. “We use what we call anchor points to transmit styling cues and lines from one part of a design to another.” European interiors can often appear sterile and stiff. Comfort and style are the keywords for Sea Ray‘s yacht interiors and furniture is designed with this in mind. Before committing to tooling a new boat, Sea Ray builds a full-size interior mockup. “Mockups are a cost-effective method of confirming what we are seeing on the computer,” explained Bucaccio.
Sea Ray has launched eleven new boats in the last twelve months and are working on new designs that will debut in the next twenty-four months. While I expect there may be a bit of nail-biting when these new designs are launched, Sea Ray‘s team has no worries, based on what I saw at PD&E! We’ll double check when we run the new 540 Sundancer in the next few months.
Sea Ray, (800) 772-6287; www.searay.com