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When the ship building industry of Great Britain started to decline 30 years ago, vast ship
yards employing 1000s of people of all trades were facing stiff competition from the Far
East and losing traditional UK contracts that were once the main stay of the industry. Around
the same time, two brothers, Robert and John Braithwaite set out to design and build
performance boats in the new pleasure boat market. Today their company designs and
manufactures some of the most desirable and luxurious performance boats in the world.
The Sunseeker International shipyards based in Poole, Dorset is one of the largest employers
in the area with over two thousand highly skilled staff providing almost the entire boat building
capacity from design, engineering, manufacture and marketing in one company. However,
this is where the comparisons with the past finish as this company has an export rate of
98%, with a worldwide market to help them override the instabilities of globalisation and
From the moment they decided they could make faster and better boats themselves than
other manufacturers at the time, the Braithwaite brothers have striven for perfection and
success - two difficult attributes to manage side by side, but they recognised the role design
can play in achieving them and invested heavily in this strategy. This brought them to the
forefront of the market where they remain with an impressive range of innovative and leading
Sunseeker is the world’s largest privately owned boat builder with an annual turnover in
excess of £220million. John Braithwaite, one half of the partnership (his brother Robert is
the managing director) is responsible for all aspects of the design, development and
production of their boats. Their personal passion for the products and close control of the
business fuels their high re-investment into R&D (6% of turnover). With design clearly
represented at the highest level of the business, John Braithwaite comments on the advantage
this brings to the products;
“You have a total overview of what you are actually creating so that all aspects of what is
being done you can make sure it is totally integrated design rather than a design by
committee.” - John Braithwaite, Technical Director, Sunseeker International
His drive for design, innovation and continual development is supported by all members of
the board:“If you are not producing new designs you are not making profit” - Peter Hayes,
Financial Director, Sunseeker International
Design by Evolution
Design in Sunseeker is more of a culture than a corporate strategy, but it is their approach
to design that makes their drive for quality and innovation a success. John Braithwaite and
his design management team are exponents of conservative design; with constant innovation.
In practice this means that every boat is an improvement on the last one. Whether it is
building the same model or designing a new model, by making lots of gradual improvements
Sunseeker can maintain their lead without compromising on quality and performance, and
because they are designing a lot of new boats their designs are constantly taking small
steps on the evolution of design.
europe page 2 | 4
Contrary to popular belief the conservative
approach to design always takes far longer to
reach a correct working solution than something
that is gimmicky or quirky. It requires a controlled
use of design and knowledge. For example, if
the solution is not quite right it has to revisited
until it is. Ultimately simple solutions work more
effectively in the harsh, demanding and
unforgiving environments in which their boats
operate(1). This applies to styling as well as
engineering where it is constantly evolving over
a vast range of products, taking good practice
from big boats to small boats.
This approach to design is not confined to the 25-strong design team but works at all levels
of the business. In doctrine in every employee involved with the design, engineering,
manufacture and fitting of the boats is a mindset which is uncharacteristic of British
manufacturing. Instead of completing a task satisfactorily they are encouraged to step back
and ask ‘how can this be done better? All changes and modifications are then documented
and fed back into the design database for future models, therefore improving the design of
the product in every aspect. When a company has to maintain the highest levels of quality
across a wide range of design and engineering disciplines then adopting a cultural mindset
is a positive way of doing it. This mindset does not have to be reinforced or documented
in a policy review as it empowers staff with the authority to decide for themselves how best
to do their job and gives them job satisfaction as well as contributing to the evolution of the
europe page 3 | 4
Problem solving as design
Another aspect of design evolution at
Sunseeker is their ability to solve
problems. When a new model is released
a lot of the unforeseen problems are
recognised at the production line stage.
This is not uncommon in all
manufacturing industries, but it is
Sunseeker’s fast-track approach that
prevents problems from slowing down production and compromising quality. Once a problem
is recognised, a small team with the relevant qualifications is assembled to address the
problem and agree on an immediate course of action. If it cannot be solved on the spot then
it is brought directly to the relevant person in the design office to revise it and commission
new instructions immediately. As with all changes, the solution is then documented and
recorded on the design database for the next boat. This fast-track approach breaks through
a long chain of communication and gives the production line the immediate answers it needs.
Problem solving is seen as a vital part of the development process and this open communication
and teamwork can only work if it is devoid of a blame culture. This is not a failure of the
design process but recognition of the shortfalls of a constantly changing product where no
two boats are the same.
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Design evolution at Sunseeker takes on several forms: conservative design, technology
transfer, the cultural mindset – “How can I make this better?” and problem solving. As these
activities are happening all the time across a wide range of boats it is difficult to recognise
it as a ‘leap forward’ in new boat design until one compares today’s boats with those made
four years earlier, that significant development can be seen. For example, when Sunseeker
made their first 80ft (24.4mtrs) boat in 1999 it took 55,000 man hours to build, now it takes
17,000 man hours.
It is steady evolution and attention to quality, performance and fault free sea craft which
gives Sunseeker customers the confidence to put down deposits on a 3-5 year waiting list,
in some cases without seeing the plans. Because they know the way Sunseeker has evolved
they know what they are going to get will be right. In many cases this loyalty has lasted 20-
30 years with some customers growing themselves with the product range available.
Sunseeker is regarded as industry pioneers for their work in computational fluid dynamics,
cutting edge styling and materials research. Their extensive knowledge of GRP, and
confidence in their processes allow them to expand into larger boats and question the known
constraints of Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP). Over a certain length boats are classified
as ships and have to conform to Marine and Coastguard Agency (MCA) regulations for
construction and testing. However, these regulations are written for steel and aluminium
hull ships and not for GRP. Compliance to them as they were would mean poor performance
and craft instability. Sunseeker realised this was a major hurdle in their development and
sought to work openly with the MCA and other authorities to revise the regulations and draw
out the arguments to get to the correct engineering solution. They supported their evidence
with GRP expert analysis from Universities, suppliers and test houses to arrive at the first
classified GRP ship. They could have resorted to steel and aluminium hulls but they knew
GRP could be used in larger ships and the material offered many advantages and qualities
over traditional methods.
The first ship Sunseeker built with the new GRP
regulations was the 105 (31.9mtrs) in 2000. It
heralded the beginning of a new age of Super-
yachts for the market and challenged established
super-yacht manufacturers all over the world.
It was the learning product for Sunseeker before
they moved onto larger ships. The Jewel in the
crown for Sunseeker is their recently completed
Sunseeker 37M Tri deck yacht.
Designed, built and equipped to the highest
standards, the 37M Yacht has Sunseeker’s proven deep ‘V’ hulls, which offer good sea
keeping qualities, and allow for good cruising ranges. The 37M Yacht also has all the features
expected on a luxury ocean-going vessel, such as the latest navigation equipment using
state of the art technology. Built to the most stringent criteria, computerised engine
management systems provide constant fine tuning, which improves efficiency and performance.