A visit to Hybrid Composite is like dropping into a James Bond movie set
In front of me are gadgets, lots of them. Long cylindrical rods big enough for a clandestine torpedo. Mysterious snorkel shaped tubes surely meant for underwater sleuthing.
I see them all and understand nothing.
Seated around me are three masked men, their eyes flickering above the custom engineering on display. The senior figure doing most of the talking is Hybrid Composite managing director Cristiano Regeni, although he could just as well be the erudite Q of the James Bond movies who must brief clueless 007 about his latest spy paraphernalia. Cristiano is similarly enthusiastic about the high-tech gizmos he is now showing me on a wall-mounted screen. “If you don’t dare, you don’t go anywhere,” he says with a wry smile.
Very secret service.
However this is not Mi5 and I am not on a covert mission to save the Free World. The research and development in see before me is all in the service of the maritime economy, all custom and semi-custom innovation destined for high-end yachts or superyachts. And the yard I am visiting is a vital component of Cape Town’s boatbuilding landscape, producing composite parts on a par with the best in the world. The battle here is not against super villains but against competitors in the global boating market, a battle fought with scarce skills and dogged determination.
Hybrid Composites is on the frontline in this battle, with Cristiano the commander-in-chief.
Founded in 2010 the company started as a spin-off from Southern Wind Shipyard, but now supplies to a range of shipyards and, more recently, to clients outside of the maritime sector. The link with SWS is evident in the Hybrid office which showcases SWS vessels on the wall. Another notable client is Baltic Yachts in Finland, with whom Hybrid have collaborated on several projects.
From relatively humble beginnings Hybrid has now diversified and has its own 3D printers, CNC machine, spray booth, vacuum-forming equipment, and specialist staff, including Vincent de Muynk and Kent Jansen who nod approvingly as Cristiano talks me through his slide show. “We are focussed on a philosophy of constantly improving, and doing the things that we like,” says Cristiano. “We aim to be unconventionally better,” he adds.
That the team enjoy what they do is immediately apparent when Cristiano zooms in to some of their most recent creations, including a self-levelling foot flap and a wooden-clad hatch that fits so neatly into a yacht deck that it almost disappears. The foot flap in particular combines ingenuity with practicality, having a built-in stop mechanism to prevent freak accidents. A similar attention to detail is common to all their creations and is clearly a source of much in-house pride, often repeated as a kind of mantra. The idea is to provide a level of specialised workmanship that is hard to find in the high-volume assembly lines of large boatbuilding yards.
In other words Hybrid aims to do a few things better, rather than a lot of things the same.
“We are taking care of all the detail and a lot of things that are not the yard’s core focus,” explains Cristiano with a wave of his hand. Behind their masks the others smile.
Custom or semi-custom fittings are not easily done in-house, and when they are they can distract from a yard’s key focus. Availability of component parts is another issue, particularly in the time of Covid. The Hybrid team converts their singular focus on a specific project or brief into an innovative design or highly-efficient build.
One component of their success is to strive for maximum simplicity and efficiency in their work: “Simplify, simplify, simplify — keep it simple,” confirms Cristiano, pointing to a piece of boating apparatus that looks as if it should fit into a space shuttle. Or maybe it does. “Elon Musk said one less part is one less part to fix,” Kent adds.
We all nod agreement.
My presentation continues and I am shown a hatch that doubles as an emergency stepladder, with an ingenious in-built tension-step function. Yacht in trouble? Simply yank down the stepladder and zip through the custom-hatch that opens to a full 90 degree angle. Trouble opening the hatch? Why bother with pesky latches when you can operate it with the push of a button.
And so it goes across a broad spectrum of engineering projects, from winches to aluminium alloy dog handles.
A visit to their website confirms the wide array of services on offer: “Aside from custom sized deck hatches and lockers, previous custom projects have included creation of vacuum forming tooling for the packaging industry and development work for the windsurfing industry,” says the site. “Short series projects include the re-design of a salt-water filter for epoxy RTM-light construction and successful one-shot infusion of the full product, before developing further sizes.” .
As much as they are evangelical about their products, Cristiano and his team are mindful of the challenges that lie ahead. South Africa still needs to prove it can grow the industry fast enough to build up the necessary skills base to compete with the best in the world. Their yard may be bustling, but the fact that they are seek to diversify beyond the maritime sector illustrates the limited local demand. It also explains why they currently export about half their product. They must also contend with the usual logistical headaches common to most top-end suppliers and producers. Explains Kent: “The down side of being on the tip of Africa is getting materials here. That is why we started to import our own raw materials and components. Local suppliers and distributors are often held up and just don’t have the immediate availability quantities we need,” he said.
Cristiano concurs: “We would like to be a little bit outside of marine industry, because it is so much of a roller coaster situation.”
As we walk through the Hybrid yard Vincent directs my gaze to piles of raw material waiting to be used. We pass hatches in various stages of production, including a new design in development. Inventory lists and production schedules adorn the walls, along with the usual health and safety notifications. Everything is immaculate – as it should be, insists Vincent, if one wishes to maintain the culture of excellence needed to mix it with the best.
To this end the Hybrid team keeps a close eye on their competitors, hoping to stay one step ahead of the game. I expect their competitors are keeping a close eye on them, too.
With hindsight I realise there is link between Hybrid Composite and 007: whether in the service of marine manufacturing or Her Majesty the Queen, you’re only as good as your gizmos.
James Bond didn’t survive 24 Bond movies by escaping through a sub-standard flush deck hatch.
To realise its global market aspirations South Africa needs the right guys behind the scenes to get the job done.