Feb 23,2007 00:00
Bruce V. Bigelow
Sometimes a career can swerve in unexpected directions.
When Bill Burns was studying mechanical engineering at the
But what began in 1990 as an "interim" job with Alberto Calderon, a
MARITIME ENGINEERING - M Ship Co. co-founder and Executive Director Bill Burns on a glassy UNORTHODOX DESIGN - The bottom of the boat has tunnels that channel the bow wave, generating both hydrodynamic and aerodynamic lift. CNS Photo by Howard Lipin.
MARITIME ENGINEERING - M Ship Co. co-founder and Executive Director Bill Burns on a glassy
UNORTHODOX DESIGN - The bottom of the boat has tunnels that channel the bow wave, generating both hydrodynamic and aerodynamic lift. CNS Photo by Howard Lipin.
M Ship Co.'s breakthrough lies below the waterline, where its hull design has tunnels that channel the bow wave in a way that generates lifting pressure, which enables a powerboat to move faster.
CBTF pioneered a similar advance in sailboat design by replacing the conventional fixed keel with movable ballast and a more agile fore-and-aft rudder design.
With the same core group of principals at both firms, CBTF and M Ship Co. operate like some studio rock bands that hire specialized session musicians to play key parts in special projects.
"Working with Bill is always a collaboration," said Douglas D. Holthaus, a
Out of the box was also the phrase that
"That's mainly what he's known for," said Peterson, a renowned designer of
At CBTF and M Ship Co., Burns has worked closely with Charles W. "Chuck" Robinson, an unusually versatile entrepreneur who made a fortune in mining and shipping before serving as a deputy secretary of state in the Ford administration.
Robinson, who later worked on Wall Street and in
"Bill is very valuable and absolutely essential," said Robinson, the chief executive of both firms. "His experience is in developing designs and supervising construction, and in the engineering end."
Neither firm has shown a profit, but Robinson said that M Ship Co. represents "a better opportunity to make a profit." Under Pentagon contracts, M Ship Co. developed an innovative hull design, which has potential for use in markets for commercial and recreational powerboats as well as military applications.
The firm's hallmark "M-hull" name was derived from a cross-section view of their innovative hull design. The center of the M is the boat's central displacement section. Running alongside on each side are tunnels that extend from the bow to the stern. Air churned from the bow wave is forced through the tunnels under increasing pressure, which generates a cushion of air against the hull bottom that acts like that on an air hockey table.
M Ship Co. secured $6 million to build an 88-foot coastal warship prototype through Robinson's personal contacts in the government.
Called Stiletto, the boat built at the Knight & Carver boatyard in
A key innovation that Burns spearheaded was adapting "a virtual shipyard" approach to construction of the Stiletto, Robinson said. By using computer-based 3-D modeling and outsourcing various tasks to different boatyards, Burns said construction of the all-composite vessel took less than a year instead of the 18 to 24 months required for similar boats.
Yet Robinson, 87, says M Ship Co. needs to secure its future by finding a big partner with the necessary capital, management experience and government contacts to build the business.
While M Ship Co. has only 12 employees, Burns said, "What we offer is a culture - almost like a Skunk Works - for a larger company."
Burns grew up in
"We'd leave in the morning and be gone all day," he recalled.
Burns attended a private high school, where he was on the sailing team, and he was good at science and design.
"I didn't think I could make much of a living in design," Burns said. "So I went to engineering school," which is how he arrived in
Burns said he expected to leave
"I thought I'll do it for a couple of years, and then I'll get a real job," Burns said. "I thought I was taking a risky path forward, but it turned out to be a lot more solid than it was for classmates in mechanical engineering who went to work in the automotive industry."
At the time, Calderon was working with Robinson on an idea that combined the agility of the thin hydrofoils used in his fore-and-after rudder design with a "canting ballast." The canting ballast replaced the heavy fixed keel used on conventional sailboats with a weighted bulb mounted at the end of a thin fin. The fin can be tilted, or canted, from one side of the sailboat's bottom to the other.
Because the ballast can be shifted from side to side, it only has to weigh about half as much as the keel needed by a comparable conventional sailboat for the "righting moment." The term refers to the angular force, or torque, that opposes the force of the wind and keeps a heeling sailboat from simply blowing over.
The idea of a "canting ballast twin foil," or CBTF, represented a radical leap in offshore racing design, which was developed by Calderon, Robinson, Burns, Matthew B. Brown and Peter Isler. The technology also led Robinson to start the firm now known as CBTF, which operates mostly as a licenser of CBTF technology.
Reducing the weight can dramatically improve the performance of sailboats used in offshore racing, although it has taken nearly 15 years for the sailing community's rule makers to permit CBTF designs.
"We were able to take the equivalent weight of a small car out of the boat," Burns said.
Two of the three top finishers of the 2006 Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race were CBTF designs. The winner, Wild Oats XI, was created by Reichel-Pugh, a naval architecture firm that has licensed the technology.
"Reichel-Pugh has refined the design further and worked with CBTF longer than anyone else," Burns said.
For Burns, the process that led to the culmination of the CBTF design became as important as the design itself.
He vividly remembers how the team mounted different foils on the hood of a copper-colored
"It was that observation and field experimentation that allowed us to see new things and move to new ideas more quickly," Burns recalled.
At M Ship Co., he has adopted such guerrilla testing methods instead of more elaborate laboratory tests that require long water tanks or wind tunnels and can be much more costly and time-consuming.
Development of the M hull began after city officials in
Robinson, who maintains a residence in
While the M hull design was originally created to reduce boat wakes, Burns said his team found the hull also was remarkably stable and efficient at high speed. They soon developed water taxis, ferries and a recreation sport fishing boat utilizing the design.
A crucial breakthrough came in 2003, when Robinson secured support for a military prototype from the late Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski, who was head of the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation.
"The Navy looked at our design and said it wouldn't work," Burns recalled. "But the Office of Force Transformation was willing to take a risk with us."
To demonstrate the validity of their design, Burns said team members used a pontoon party boat to tow various M hull designs through
"It's that observation and experimentation where you really find the breakthroughs," Burns said. "If it's just based on science or computer modeling, you can miss out on all these opportunities."