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Part of the Yamaha Motor Group, Inha Works has a renowned presence in the Nordic marine market. We talk future investment and keeping business afloat with Vice President of Operations, Tomi Juhola
Writer: Phoebe Harper / Project Manager: Ryan Gray
The European recreational boating industry is big business.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry has proved its resiliency, thanks to the leisure boom for staycations and populations delegating funds to home improvements, boats included. As a result, many boat manufacturers are enjoying unprecedented customer demand and record sales.
With a market-leading position across the Nordics and the wider European landscape, Inha Works (Inha) stands as part of the iconic Yamaha Motor Group (Yamaha).
Originally acquired by Yamaha in 2016, Inha onboarded the Yamarin and Cross brands alongside the classic Buster brand in 2017, effectively positioning the company as a strong leader in the Nordic marine market.
“We produce aluminium boats, alu-hybrid boats, and full glass fibre boats,” introduces Tomi Juhola, Vice President of Operations.
From its manufacturing base in the Finnish town of Ähtäri, Inha counts over 180 employees. While half of Inha’s manufacturing works are undertaken here at the company’s flagship factory, the other half is sourced to sub-contractor operations at Fenix Marine in Valkeakoski (Finland), and Ślepsk Shipyard in Poland.
“Our client base is mostly throughout the Nordics, but we sell across Europe. Now, as our main markets are demanding more, we basically find ourselves limited by our capacity.
“It’s a happy problem that we are facing right now,” Juhola shares confidently.
A LEGACY OF MANUFACTURING PROWESS
Bolstered by an esteemed legacy and rich brand heritage, this year Inha commemorated its 181st year in operation. Meanwhile in the same year, Buster celebrated its 45th anniversary. Buster’s roots go a bit further to 1955 and the first Kello aluminium boats.
Although metal has been worked on the site of Inha’s factory for over two centuries, its origins were far from the boats it excels at today. Indeed, when the company was originally granted permission by the local governor to manufacture iron on the banks of the Inhanjoki River, a steel foundry, horseshoe workshop and bolt and rivet workshop ensued.
“The original manufacturing done here involved totally different kinds of goods – we were working with iron, making horseshoes, rail fasteners and that sort of thing. This historic factor still gives the company a kind of atmosphere,” he tells us.
Boat manufacturing didn’t commence here in earnest until the 20th century, following the introduction of aluminium into boat production in 1955. Fast forward to today, and the historic black iron mill dating to the original foundry village of Ähtäri now stands as the equipment hall for the largest models of Buster boats – the very latest in aluminium boat manufacturing.
In the same way that Inha’s industrial activity never started with boats, Juhola too charted a course into the industry from totally different waters.
“My background is not traditional in a manufacturing sense,” he shares. “My experience is in software development, with a Masters of Science in Tech and Software Engineering.”
In addition to this, Juhola brings to the company a strong financial background in consulting before a longing to put his name to something real led him to the pursuit of creating something tangible.
“I wondered into boating by chance, and for some reason or another I’m still here!” he quips.
Inha is preceded by a strong brand recognition and a reputation that lends the company a competitive advantage as a manufacturer of renowned and celebrated products.
“The brands that we have are very well-known throughout the Nordics – this brand awareness is a strong plus for us,” shares Juhola. Indeed, in the Nordics, the Buster name is instantly synonymous with aluminium boats.
Although all three brands are united under the Inha Works name, each brings a unique difference to the company, with varying strengths and specialities that create a diverse portfolio.
“There is significant scale to what we produce. The boats start from three metres to up to 10 metres long, while in terms of horsepower (HP) ranges from two HP for the Buster Mini, to 600 HP for the Buster Phantom,” he outlines.
Nevertheless, Juhola, and by extension Inha, are fully cognisant of the need to keep pace with a demanding and ever-evolving market where innovation is expected.
“You can’t rest on your laurels and expect the brand heritage to do all the work. On the contrary, we always have to be on the front edge as we are the top dog in aluminium boats which also brings a lot of pressure.”
In a highly receptive market, there is no shortage of brand enthusiasts for the company to refer to for feedback, which is constantly used as a means to propel improvement.
“From a marketing point of view, we try to be in contact as much as possible with both our dealers and our end users, to get their feedback and see what they want and what we can do differently.
“This is something we try to be active in. Luckily, boats are a hobby people are interested in and passionate about so it’s quite easy to get feedback from end users.”
The technological strengths witnessed by Juhola’s own career path are reflected in the innovation incorporated by the factory and the company today, harnessing a high degree of technology throughout the manufacturing process. This is most evident in the project development stage of new models.
“For the productive element, we use a lot of simulation and calculation based on 3-D models,” Juhola explains.
“When we get a step further into the project, we usually try to create a virtual reality model of the boat so that we can get a tangible feeling of how it will be.”
Whilst IoT and connectivity has grown as a trend over the past few years, at Inha this is nothing new. Indeed, the company has been connected and leveraging these technologies since 2016 with the majority of its vessels boasting connected infotainment systems as a standard equipment.
“This is an interesting nuance for us, that we perhaps don’t utilise fully,” he muses. “However, it gives us a lot of potential – for instance the possibility to control and manage new boats entirely remotely. This also adds significant value on the customer side.”
A major focus for Inha looking ahead is the renewal of its existing operations, fuelled by significant investment.
“For the last couple of years, we have been trying to systematically renew the factory equipment with investment in robots, welding robots, and an automated panel bender which does a lot of things that the manual workforce can’t do,” Juhola explains.
In addition to this, Inha has its sights set on new welding machines that will gather critical data from the actual work required. This will measure the extremely labour-intensive task of building aluminium boats, which is mostly done manually. Such data will be used to identify any problems, and areas for further improvement.
With the overriding aim of increasing the throughput of its Finland factory, Juhola highlights the company’s upcoming €1.5 million investment into a cutting-edge fibre laser.
“This is an extremely rare thing in Europe – for whatever reason most of these large lasers are in Finland. This will enable us to undertake a lot more work in-house.
“As we get new toys like this in, we are also looking into our current production layout with the intention of renewing it completely. This is to maximise the throughput from that new machinery.
“Over the next two years, these will be our two main points of focus,” he tells us.
In the face of such exciting developments, Inha continues to float the fine line between significant investment whilst safeguarding profitability.
“In everything that we do, we need to have the numbers behind it, to ensure that we remain profitable and can continue to deliver on our improvements.”
Aside from the outlined renewal, these improvements concern the hull production of Buster and Cross boats, and the forecasted production increase of glass fibre vessels.
“I would hope that in a year or two we will have a clear new direction for this. We are working on this now with plenty of investment to come,” Juhola concludes.
Bolstered by an extensive portfolio and a concrete brand reputation, Inha will continue to chart a promising future in European waters for centuries to come.