AMES, Iowa — The world of industrial design is full of possibilities. A world where fresh perspectives and a blank slate are the best tools a designer can have. What began for six Iowa State University students as an exercise in boat design became an opportunity for collaboration and innovation.

Industrial design can encompass products and services as diverse as shoes and chairs, medical technology and public transportation systems, and user interface/user experience design. When Nathan Miklo, a senior in industrial design from Okoboji, Iowa, interned at MasterCraft Boat Company last summer, it opened a door to industrial design he’d never considered before.

At the end of his internship, Miklo and several industrial design classmates were offered an opportunity to collaborate with Crest Marine LLC, a boat manufacturing company owned by MasterCraft Boat Holdings.

“I was given a brief overview before I left, but we didn’t have a full understanding of the project until we got in contact with Tracy [McKinney], the engineering manager at Crest,” Miklo said.

He and fellow seniors Joshua Becker, Algonquin, Illinois; Samuel Christianson, Mason City, Iowa; Charlie Erdman, Barrington, Illinois; Benjamin Satterlee, Rockford, Illinois; and Nathan Timmons, Lees Summit, Missouri, were asked to help redesign its flagship pontoon model for Crest Marine’s 2021 model year change, as part of a sponsored independent study advised by Matthew Obbink, assistant teaching professor of industrial design.

Crest Marine has been a pontoon manufacturer and retailer since 1957, with its headquarters and manufacturing campus located in Owosso, Michigan. The company sought new ideas to incorporate into the latest Savannah model, its best-selling ultra-luxury model for the past seven years. McKinney tasked the Iowa State student team with developing these ideas and creating a complete digital rendering of what the redesign should look like.

Redefining ‘ultra luxury’

This was the second time the students worked together as a team, but their first time working on a sponsored project like this.

From a prior independent study with Obbink, completed as juniors in the program last year — a single-gear bicycle with a hand-shaped wood frame, custom CNC-machined dropouts and a carbon fiber belt drive that recently won first place in the 2019 INDUSTART International Industrial Design Awards transportation design (student) category — they developed their ability to not only work with any material, but also to create working prototypes through engineering, Miklo said.

They were confident they could make a great product, but as they had never worked on boat design before and had no experience with luxury pontoons, they had to find somewhere to start.

To better understand what they would be designing, they toured the Crest Marine facility in Michigan and saw how pontoons are made, looked at previous models, met with Crest Marine’s design and sales teams to discuss the company’s main objectives, and shared some of their initial ideas to get feedback.

What started as a lack of knowledge turned out to be an advantage. Crest Marine wanted the students to redefine what “ultra-luxury” was. With no preconceptions or bias, the students were better able to explore new and different ideas.

“We needed to know what consumers look for in the experience of pontooning. It was a slow start, because it’s a new field of design for all of us, but once we started applying our regular design process we began to figure it out,” said Becker.

“We realized, from a student’s point of view, who had never owned anything like this before, that there seemed to be no real distinction as to what made a boat ‘luxury’ other than the expense of the materials used,” Miklo said. “We decided we wanted to make the distinction obvious — that these were a step up from just an average pontoon.”

Insights and inspiration

Because Crest Marine gave them specific parameters to meet and direction for the design, the project was different from their normal ideation and design process. They also had to learn to allocate tasks and skills to reach certain goals, Erdman said. They had six different viewpoints as a team, as well as a company critiquing them, so moving forward with ideas without taking feedback personally was challenging.

“This is our first sponsored project. With the privilege of working for a company, there are also new challenges, such as different deadlines, expectations and culture,” Erdman said. “But having these restrictions also made us think more deeply and critically about our decisions and actions.”

The students were able to use skills learned in the advanced computer-aided industrial design course, taught by assistant professor Pete Evans, to create the final 3D design renderings for Crest Marine using SolidWorks, KeyShot, Rhino and Maya software.

From Crest Marine’s perspective, McKinney said one goal of the collaboration was to gain new insights and inspiration for models to come, and the Iowa State team presented ideas that are practical as well as forward-thinking.

“There’s new life in the designs; it’s a jump start to the system. That requires the fresh perspective of someone not involved in the marine industry to see those different things and try to change them,” said Tyler Powers, Crest Marine’s head designer.

“They are all extremely good listeners. They put a lot of thought into the use of the boat, and the overall design they’ve come up with is really cool. There’s manufacturability in the design,” McKinney said.

McKinney and Powers were particularly impressed by the group’s ideas for luxurious fabrics and modular moving furniture and their innovative gate and entrance designs. McKinney called it “a streamlined experience from normal pontoon styling.”

Mutual benefit

The student team couldn’t share precise details and design of the boat due to a nondisclosure agreement with the company, but that is often the case with sponsored projects like this, Obbink said. They’re beneficial experiences for both the sponsors and the students, he said.

“The students get to work with different companies and study something they wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to with the regular Iowa State curriculum, and the companies get talented students working with them on a specific task or problem,” Obbink said.


Nathan Miklo, Industrial Design senior, nmiklo@iastate.edu
Matthew Obbink, Industrial Design, (515) 294-4665, obbinker@iastate.edu
Tracy McKinney, Crest Marine, (989) 729-3761, tracy.mckinney@crestpontoonboats.com
Hailey Allen, Design Communications, hallen15@iastate.edu
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289, hsauer@iastate.edu