Building the Fastest Boats on Water

Perched on her side on a street in industrial Seattle is Miss Elam, one of the fastest hydroplane boats in the world. She owes her existence in large part to some top-notch software and engineers, and a very lucky event in March of 1960.

That year, Sven Ellstrom and his bride were on their way from Sweden to Alaska. They ran out of money in Seattle and decided to stay. Sven started making laminate panels. He made the first laminate flooring in the United States. Ellstrom Manufacturing still makes laminate wall panels used in airports all over the world, as well as host of other products, from insulated glass to parts for the trucking, marine and aerospace industries. ‘We produce a half million parts a month every month,” notes Vice President Erick Ellstrom.

It’s the company’s proximity to water, however, that led Sven’s son Erick to build his first hydroplane boat out of wood when he was 12. Eventually, Erick and his brother Tom built a prototype that would become Miss Elam. As work on the boat progressed, the two brothers found they couldn’t find anyone to make many of the parts they wanted, nor could they find anyone to make them at the exacting standards that would translate into the speed they wanted. The answer was to build the parts themselves. Ellstrom Manufacturing had considerable talent to draw from. They employ 175 people and already used Mastercam® software to machine parts. Ellstrom continued to use Mastercam to create the part programs for Miss Elam. The results were stunning. ‘The second time it was in the water, it won a race,” says Erick. Needless to say, Ellstrom employees love the opportunity to work on the boat projects!

Two of their proudest innovations are their propeller and their T53 and T55 case halves used to house gas turbine compressors. ‘We like to make high precision stuff anyway,” says Erick. Still, they needed some help getting to the 10th of a thousandth. They turned to Steve Kidd and his staff at Cimtech, their Mastercam dealer. Cimtech helped reverse engineer and design programs with the tight tolerances the brothers were looking for. ‘The better the tolerance, the better the miles per hour,” says Erick.

‘We draw it all in Mastercam and we cut it in Mastercam using a 5-axis Mazak Variaxis 630 to machine the parts. When we made the move to more complex 5-axis programming we also invested in VERICUT® CNC simulation software to verify that the programs were accurate and protect the machine,” says Greg Thayer, a programmer at Cimtech.

After creating the NC programs in Mastercam, they began simulating the machining process in VERICUT by simulating the G-code data. ‘There often can be a difference between the motion as programmed and the code after it’s run through the post processor. Especially on a 5-axis machine.” says Greg, ‘The smart way, and the real power of VERICUT is to simulate the post-processed G-code.” Ellstrom verifies G-codes on everything they run.

The combination of Mastercam and VERICUT has been very successful to the bottom line, both in terms of speed on the water and time and money saved in the shop. When they tried out a new propeller a few months ago, the speed improved by six m.p.h.. That’s phenomenal when you’re talking racing. Last year, Miss Elam was second in national high points and set records in five of the six courses she raced with speeds exceeding 150 m.p.h.

‘We looked at all the CAM software out there,” says Erick. ‘We stayed with Mastercam because it does everything and it’s easy. Some people say if it’s easy to use, it must not be very sophisticated. That’s not true. Mastercam Version 9 does everything we want. Some people say no software could do all that we demand. I say the proof is the pudding. What we chose is the best.”

And VERICUT has saved Ellstom a lot of time on the machine. ‘Before investing in VERICUT,” says Greg, ‘a new propeller part would take about a week on the machine. We’d run the machine at around 10% and watch carefully to be sure there were no incorrect moves. With VERICUT we can see the piece and how it will be cut, a big benefit in 5-axis machining. After running it through VERICUT we just load and go and it’s off the machine in a day. It also offers high-end part measurement tools and the ability to simulate the entire machine which helps us avoid problems like overtravel or interferences with the table or fixtures.”

Their latest innovation is an improved propeller strut. ‘When you blow a propeller, that’s usually the end of the strut too. Our new strut has survived four propeller breaks. It has less drag and it’s more efficient,” says Erick. Now Ellstrom is building the same strut for six other hydroplane boat teams — his own competitors. ‘If they beat us and they have the same equipment, we’re not good enough.” And Erick and his employees will never settle for that.