In­side Sea­keeper

Power & Motor Yacht - - IN THIS ISSUE -

Ever won­der how a Sea­keeper works? Or how it’s made? Take a peek into the man­u­fac­tur­ing process.

Just 30 miles out­side Amish coun­try lies the quiet, blue-col­lar town of Mohn­ton, Penn­syl­va­nia, pop­u­la­tion 3,000. Sur­rounded by ex­pan­sive fields and farms, Mohn­ton looks like many other post-re­ces­sion man­u­fac­tur­ing towns. Peel­ing paint hangs from the sides of homes, some with long planks of wood propped be­tween the side­walk and roof, strain­ing to keep the tired frames in place.

I drive past the town’s Main Street traf­fic light and park the car at a bank. Google Maps prom­ises me that I’ve ar­rived at my des­ti­na­tion, but it can’t be right. It’s hard to be­lieve a bur­geon­ing tech­nol­ogy com­pany is lo­cated in such a small town. I check my phone again. Waze con­firms that Sea­keeper is lo­cated in the turnof-the-cen­tury, red brick build­ing across the street. I walk over to the build­ing; a palm-sized Sea­keeper sticker on the front door is the only in­di­ca­tion that I’m at the right place.

Sea­keeper’s newly minted Pres­i­dent and CEO An­drew Sem­pre­vivo is there to great me and act as of­fi­cial tour guide of the sel­dom-seen fac­tory. We don safety glasses—a for­mal­ity, mostly, since the fa­cil­ity is kept metic­u­lously clean—and ven­ture off.

Sem­pre­vivo is a fair shade younger than most of the com­pany’s 100 em­ploy­ees, but he walks down a hall lined with gyro en­clo­sure halves with an air of con­fi­dence. When he joined the com­pany in a sales role in 2008, he was the eighth full-time em­ployee at Sea­keeper, the man­u­fac­turer of roll-can­cel­ing gy­ros. He would go on to hold an ar­ray of sales po­si­tions be­fore be­com­ing the COO in 2017. He was named pres­i­dent and CEO in April af­ter a ma­jor­ity stake in the com­pany was ac­quired by tech­nol­ogy in­vestor Madi­son In­dus­tries.

He greets al­most ev­ery em­ployee by name as we me­an­der through the former tex­tile mill. We stop to ad­mire a fly­wheel for the com­pany’s new­est (and small­est) of­fer­ing, the Sea­keeper 2. One

of the few pieces not man­u­fac­tured in-house, the forged steel fly­wheel comes from Texas and weighs a mod­est 200 pounds. The to­tal weight for a Sea­keeper 2 is 415 pounds, which seems light for some­thing that will coun­ter­act the ocean on boats over 27 feet.

The rea­son for that, Sem­per­vivo ex­plains, is the vac­uum that’s cre­ated in­side the com­pany’s fa­mous white spheres. “You have a fly­wheel spin­ning at a very high speed [in­side the sphere]. We do that in a vac­uum, which al­lows us to keep size, power [re­quire­ments] and weight down. And the na­ture of a gyro is as the gim­bal ro­tates, or in our case the boat rolls, the gyro moves fore and aft and ex­erts en­ergy to right the boat.”

The sim­plest way to think about it, Sem­pre­vivo says, is to imag­ine you’re hold­ing a rod in front of you with your arms ex­tended and there’s a bike wheel in the mid­dle. You can eas­ily tilt the rod from side-to-side when the wheel is stationary. But when the wheel is spin­ning, you’ll feel re­sis­tance in your arms when you try to tilt it. To un­der­stand how Sea­keeper works, take that prin­ci­ple and ex­pand it to a much big­ger—and more in­tri­cate—scale.

There are com­pli­cated as­pects of build­ing a gyro sta­blizer, of course. At this point, I’m try­ing to fig­ure out how heat is dis­si­pated in­side a Sea­keeper. What lit­tle of the process I’m shown re­quires a pair of bor­ing machines that make pre­cise cuts down to 1/1,000th of an inch. A sign above an anx­ious-look­ing ma­chin­ist man­ning one of them reads: “Don’t be scared. Be pet­ri­fied.” “The tol­er­ances are like a hu­man hair long ways,” says the ma­chin­ist. “Cut that in half, and then cut that in half. And then do that 40 times. That’s how small these num­bers are.”

Per­haps the sec­ond scari­est place in the fac­tory is the area where each Sea­keeper is tor­ture-tested be­fore be­ing shipped out. There is a hot and cold room where the units are run in ex­treme, well, you guessed it, heat and cold. This en­sures the units will op­er­ate smoothly in lo­cales around the world. Then they’re at­tached to a test bed where each unit is pow­ered up and rocked back and forth for a few hours.

“This is where we pro­gram our drives for cer­tain model [gy­ros],” one tester shouts over the sound of nearly a dozen units be­ing rocked and shaken. Each model needs to meet strict re­quire­ments for spool up and wind down times. “Af­ter that we’ll put it through an­other wave pro­gram where we lock the gyro in place. That pro­gram is a lit­tle more ex­ces­sive. We need to make sure the brake sys­tem is op­er­at­ing cor­rectly.”

That level of test­ing is just for proven models. When launch­ing a new model like the Sea­keeper 2, they’ll run it on a sim­u­la­tor con­tin­u­ously for a year be­fore putting it on a demo boat for real-world test­ing.

See­ing the pound­ing these units take out­side of a hull makes me think of main­te­nance in a whole new light. Surely, I ask Sem­pre­vivo, reg­u­lar inspection of a unit is a must if you reg­u­larly run in rough seas? He shakes his head.

“You should get be­tween 6,000 to 10,000 hours of life from your

unit,” he ex­plains. “At that point own­ers have two op­tions. They can re­place the en­tire sphere, and we have an ex­change pro­gram that re­moves 25 per­cent of the up­front cost. Then you’d have a fresh set of bear­ings, mo­tors and sen­sors. Or what a lot of peo­ple are opt­ing to do is re­place the en­tire unit. Then we’ll take the unit back, re­man­u­fac­ture it and sell it as a re­fit.”

The com­pany rec­om­mends you change the zincs ev­ery three to six months and that you flush the gly­col from the gly­col cool­ing loop and change the hy­draulic fluid ev­ery 1,000 hours. De­pend­ing on where the unit is lo­cated on board, both chores can be han­dled by savvy owner-op­er­a­tors or cap­tains. And ev­ery 2,000 hours you’ll want to change the bush­ings for the brakes, Sem­pre­vivo says. “We have about one hun­dred and thirty deal­ers and about twenty di­rect ser­vice techs. For the brakes you would need a dealer or a ser­vice tech be­cause you have to purge them.”

At the con­clu­sion of our tour we pile into Sem­pre­vivo’s pickup truck and head across town to grab lunch. We pass at least four churches and not much else be­fore set­tling into the kind of pub where you’re com­pelled to or­der a Bud­weiser and burger and noth­ing else.

I’m forced to con­tem­plate the ques­tion that I had when I first pulled into town. Why Mohn­ton?

“It wasn’t by de­sign,” Sea­keeper Co­founder Shep McKen­ney tells me on the phone a few days later. “We couldn’t find a ma­chine shop that would take our project on un­til the Joma Ma­chine Com­pany agreed to build a pro­to­type. We re­ally liked the peo­ple [in Mohn­ton].”

At the time Sea­keeper tapped them for a pro­to­type, Joma was creat­ing pre­ci­sion machines for the aero­space in­dus­try. The com­pany would go on to build units for Sea­keeper un­til 2010, when it fi­nally re­al­ized it could no longer keep up with de­mand. That’s when Sea­keeper of­fi­cially ac­quired Joma and with it a rich man­u­fac­tur­ing her­itage. “The mid-At­lantic used to be an in­tense man­u­fac­tur­ing area,” says McKen­ney. “Dur­ing World War II when they had to gear up to make the heavy equip­ment for the mil­i­tary, that was a con­cen­trated area of pro­duc­tion. The tra­di­tion of ma­chine tools was cen­tered there.”

Since then, much of the man­u­fac­tur­ing in Mohn­ton and greater Penn­syl­va­nia has dwin­dled. Ac­cord­ing to Sem­pre­vivo, Sea­keeper is one of the rare man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pa­nies in the state that is grow­ing. “We’re an ex­am­ple of how you get past legacy prod­ucts and pro­vide last­ing em­ploy­ment,” says McKen­ney.

Grow­ing—that’s what Sem­pre­vivo and the Sea­keeper team are fo­cused on. The com­pany re­cently ex­panded, adding 12 new pro­duc­tion lines to keep up with de­mand. The fa­cil­ity is now ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing about 6,000 units per year. Not one to pat him­self on the back, the new CEO has am­bi­tions to dou­ble the foot­print of the com­pany plant to 200,000 square feet by 2020 and 600,000 square feet by 2025. He hopes to in­crease the work­force ten­fold by 2028. “What is go­ing to be the big­gest chal­lenge in grow­ing to that size, be­sides re­mem­ber­ing ev­ery­one’s names?” I ask.

“Hir­ing qual­ity work­ers with a no-job-is-too small at­ti­tude,” says Sem­pre­vivo. “That’s why we’ve been suc­cess­ful so far. If one month we have a lot of or­ders we’ll have our en­gi­neer­ing team in pack out, touch­ing up paint and putting units in crates. Every­body chips in and does what­ever is needed.”

By all ac­counts, Sea­keeper seems to be at a tip­ping point. It be­gan with just a few guys work­ing out of a house; to­day it’s a cor­po­rate gi­ant in the field of at-sea sta­bi­liza­tion. The com­pany’s growth seems to be sky­rock­et­ing. At press time, Scout and Ber­tram an­nounced they would be of­fer­ing Sea­Keep­ers as stan­dard equip­ment on all new models. More and more, the words “Sea­keeper Stan­dard” are ap­pear­ing on new model spec sheets.

“Our goal from the start was to build some­thing so ef­fec­tive it would change boat­ing for­ever,” says McKen­ney. “I think in some pe­riod of time, ev­ery boat 20 feet and larger will have one. I think when peo­ple get on a boat with­out one, it’ll start rolling and they will won­der what’s wrong. I think it’ll be like 4-cy­cle out­boards or GPS.”

Sem­pre­vivo agrees with that as­sess­ment and seems fo­cused on mak­ing that re­al­ity come to life. “I truly be­lieve that if peo­ple get aboard an en­try-level boat for the first time and there’s no roll, then more peo­ple will en­joy and stay in boat­ing. You gotta be­lieve in what you’re do­ing. This is some­thing that’s creat­ing a whole new in­dus­try. One day, peo­ple will look back and say ‘ re­mem­ber when boats used to roll?’ We’ll know we were a part of that.”

“Our goal from the start was to build some­thing so ef­fec­tive it would change boat­ing for­ever.”

Think a Sea­keeper is just a fly­wheel spin­ning in a cas­ing? Think again. This Sea­keeper 9 is com­prised of more than 300 pieces.

Sem­pre­vivo walks the shop floor where he’s on a first-name ba­sis with the 100-plus em­ploy­ees; Sea­keeper’s se­cret weapon is a loyal work­force (right).

Fly­wheels are among the few com­po­nents not man­u­fac­tured in Mohn­ton.

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