Ah, the joys of boat ownership. Whether the boater is cruising around a local lake, pulling skiers behind the craft or taking a multi-day ocean voyage, how the boat steers comprises an important part of the experience. The stereo system could be primo, the drinks frosty and the companionship fine, but unless the boater feels he has control of the craft, something will be lacking.
Although steering and control systems probably aren’t foremost on a boater’s mind at the time of purchase, this vital part of the boat will definitely impact the performance of the craft and its perception in the eyes of the owner.
That’s why OEMs pay close attention to the steering and control systems on the boats they build, and suppliers spend considerable time and R&D money to build next-generation steering systems that will enhance the pleasure an owner experiences while on the water.
Like driving an automobile
“Boaters have come to expect the same level of comfort and performance in boats as they get with automobiles today,” says Yvan Cote, vice president of product management for Teleflex Marine, Sarasota, Fla. “Today’s marine steering systems and controls are improving the driving experience, making boating more pleasurable and accessible to people of all ages and levels of experience.”
Teleflex Marine has unveiled new technologies like its SeaStar Power Assist to provide boaters with “finger-tip like” steering that makes controlling the craft easier.
OEMs are concentrating more on the ease of steering and controls due to a number of factors, including boat design, consumer experience, new technology and focus on JD Power ratings on end-user experience, notes Bill Michel, vice president and general manager at Uflex USA Inc., based in Sarasota, Fla. Boat builders have more options when choosing a steering and control system, and Uflex offers a variety of steering systems to cover any application, he adds.
“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution,” Michel says. “From mechanical steering systems with a planetary gear design to our heavy duty ‘ultra efficient’ hydraulic steering systems and a highly knowledgeable sales team, we can help any builder dial in their line, boat model by boat model.”
The industry is faced not so much by challenges but by opportunities to improve technology to the benefit of OEMs and consumers. Uflex employs a team of engineers with backgrounds in the automotive, electronic and industrial fields who collaborate with application specialists to develop new technologies and improve on existing ones.
Higher costs bring changes
Increased commodity costs for materials like copper have forced boat builders to eschew heavy cabling systems for digital controls such as the MiniBus from Cole Hersee Co., says Todd Raabe, marine sales manager for the Boston-based company. Because MiniBus can be reprogrammed, the OEM will never be left with costly inventory of obsolete harnesses when the boat model changes. A digital application also can reduce design engineering and installation time, important considerations as the boat-building industry faces layoffs in the midst of declining sales, Raabe notes.
Digital control technology can be an important revenue stream to dealers and marinas, Raabe says. When the boater adds another motorized unit such as a blower, extra lighting, thrusters or windlass, the marina can hook the unit to an existing MiniBus system. “Programming is accomplished quickly at the marina, and the added electrical unit can be wired into the control system with a simplicity that’s similar to adding another phone jack to your home phone,” Raabe says.
To combat rising prices, Uflex sources globally and optimizes its manufacturing processes. Michel says the company has seen a growing trend of builders with a greater interest in Uflex’s planetary gear designed rotary steering systems as an alternative to hydraulic steering, saving a boat builder as much as $400 a boat.
“In many of those cases hydraulic steering is a nice option, but the Uflex mechanical system gives the customer the value they are looking for,” Michel says.
The trend toward more-powerful engines is coupled with stronger requirements for electronics. “Technical challenges create great opportunities for us,” Cote says. “Newer engines demand steering and controls systems that are closely integrated with engine technology. As an example, the smooth shift and throttle with TFXtreme cable and electronic controls with multiple stations that provide engine synchronization for all engines.”
A few years ago, Teleflex invested in an Electronics Development Center where industry experts work with customers to create new products and innovations. The center’s goal, Cote says, is to put the best resources together to bring new products to market faster, more efficiently and more cost-effectively, keeping its customers ahead of the game.
Uflex also believes in bringing out new products, but it continually looks to improve its existing products. The company is launching a new series of electronic controls, but it is updating the styling and functionality of its mechanical controls. The goal is to give value-conscious customers the look and feel of electronics, but at the lower cost that mechanical controls bring.
Keeping up with competitors
Technology certainly is a key driver of the steering and control systems segment of the marine industry, but the tighter market has forced companies to become more efficient in procurement and processes to increase quality while not driving up prices.
Cole Hersee has been designing and manufacturing switches for 85 years, but the company does not rest on its laurels. “What we learn in other automotive industries (be it mining, agriculture, transit or trucking) we apply to the marine industry,” says Raabe. “We are focused on this sector, and we stand behind what we sell. Our engineers partner with OEM engineers to create switching solutions and to design innovations right from the ‘white paper’ design stage.”
The company’s long standing in the marketplace also means that it has name recognition among dealers and boaters. “We are a brand leader in the focused area of switching and power management, and we have a well-earned reputation for quality,” Raabe says.
Teleflex also enjoys a well-deserved reputation in the market through its dual focus on innovation and technology, but Cote believes that customer service often can be overlooked. “We understand that even the best brands and technology require a commitment to customer service,” Cote says. “We are focused on innovation and technology and offer a full package of reliable leading-edge solutions for steering, shift and throttle, instrumentation and engine parts designed to enhance boat performance and ultimately deliver the best boating experience.”
Michel from Uflex believes his company stands out by being different from competitors. “It is not for the sake of being different,” Michel says, “but for the purpose of giving customers a product that performs better, a service that exceeds their expectation or a new technology that changes their experience. We have found that the customers that decide to try our product generally notice a real difference in the product or service, validating their choice.”