The Case for Stock Boats

Chris Allard

Could you imagine designing your own car or truck or airplane, and then trying to build it? Unless you’re Elon Musk, you most likely couldn’t.

Today’s consumers don’t want to solve their own problems, they want turnkey solutions, and they want them now. In what industry—other than maritime—do you see customers designing their own products, putting them out for bid, and then dealing with time and cost overruns? Yet, in the maritime world most acquisitions are long, drawn-out processes, often a frustrating exercise in specification development: design the vessel, bid the design, redesign, build, make more changes while building, and then . . . wait. And so, the industry and our customers remain caught in this never-ending cycle. There are few other businesses where such a practice would be acceptable, yet it’s the norm the maritime world.

Yes, the nature of the public bid process is partially to blame, but that’s only one driver. After all, it’s common to see governments buying proven solutions in other sectors. Trucks, aircraft and heavy equipment are bought largely “right off the lot”, with little lead time, low risk and immediate return on capital. So why not boats?

Collectively as an industry we have been unable to build fully developed products, ready to serve our customers’ needs and kept in stock for prompt delivery. It’s not our customers’ fault. It’s not solely the fault of the public bid. Much of the fault is ours, and as a result, shipbuilding remains a cottage industry where small, undercapitalized players have no choice but to continue the cycle.

Along with other builders, Metal Shark shares this responsibility. Instead of building product to suit, we should be building product that suits. Suits their mission, their need and their job. As individual builders and as an industry, we can do better. How do we do this? By researching and knowing our potential customers’ needs before they ever give us an order.

Driven by this belief, four years ago Metal Shark launched its Stock Boats program and began marketing and executing a different strategy. This program was equal part reality and creativity. We started to build core models into our inventory, whether in the form of completed boats, partially completed hulls, or advance-building units on our most active production lines. As we implemented the system, we became more creative and flexible. We began to say “yes” more often, providing clients with turnkey solutions in 90 days or less.

It worked. We allocated a 38-foot U.S. Coast Guard production slot to a pilot group in order to answer their immediate security need. We took the client from order to on-water in 60 days, added the original USCG order back into the schedule, and delivered it on time. Within 90 days of another order, we did the same thing with two 45-foot river service boats delivered to Belle Chasse Marine. These were not small outboard powered boats, but fully-featured inboard diesel waterjet platforms. We even delivered an unmanned 29-foot Defiant to the USCG within 90 days of order. Think about that: an autonomous USV delivered to the USCG within 90 days!

Thanks to our Stock Boats program we have delivered dozens of other small patrol-style boats to overseas clients, commercial operators or domestic first-responders. Sometimes, as expected, the urgency was driven by expiring money or some unforeseen need. What we didn’t expect was clients who approach us with no apparent pressing need; clients who just want the ease, the low risk, and even the immediate gratification of buying something ready. Ready for whatever they need to do. Now.

The stock boat program has not yet revolutionized our business. Very large and extremely complex vessels by their nature may not readily lend themselves to this approach. The majority of our boats still remain custom ordered, designed and built. Yet, we have seen the success of this program, we believe in it, and we know it’s the way of the future. The reason we’re so committed to this approach isn’t simply because it has helped us sell additional boats. We believe in it due to an unintended but profound result that we have encountered along the way: immediate customer satisfaction. Products are delivered faster, contracting and payment processes are reduced, and most importantly, the products do the jobs for which they were intended. In today’s world, purchasers of all types are most satisfied if they get what they want and don’t have to wait for it.

And so, we continue to invest in modular design and the standardization of our product offerings, to reduce lead times, to design additional flexibility into standardized platforms, and to further build our Stock Boats program. We believe further investment is needed to bring standardized, stock offerings into other markets. Passenger vessels. Offshore patrol craft. Unmanned platforms. We believe the world is ready.

In order for American manufacturers to remain competitive, more volume is required. We are unable to compete on the world market without technology and a consistent, repeatable high rate of production. Our labor rates are (thankfully) too high, which means Americans make a good living doing what we do. To continue to compensate our people while competing with the rest of the world, we need a merciless focus on technology, automation and repetition. It is not our clients’ responsibility to get us there; we as an industry need to do it ourselves. We believe that reducing lead times and truly making boat and small ship buying an off-the-shelf experience is key to this vision.

Marine News Magazine, page 22,  Sep 2021

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Marine News is the premier magazine of the North American Inland, coastal and Offshore workboat markets.