The Power of Convergence

On Aug. 17, 1987, New Agers around the world celebrated what was supposed to be the ushering in of a new era. According to their interpretations of the Maya calendar and European and Asian astrology, a “harmonic convergence” of cosmic forces on or around this date would result in a major energy shift that would at long last bring universal peace and cooperation.

Well, we all know how that turned out. But don’t dismiss the concept as the loony optimism of a few space cadets. As it happens, there is a harmonic convergence in the works. It just started a little later and is on a more temporal plane than previously predicted — it’s the convergence within marine electronics over the past few years of integrated technologies and consumer demand.

Nobody’s claiming this particular convergence will bring world peace, but it most decidedly is bringing about huge opportunities for manufacturers.

Consider Humminbird’s new era. In the past two years, the brand has morphed from big box staple to must-have premium equipment for serious anglers everywhere, thanks to its new owner’s vision and willingness to invest in the technology.

At the same time, manufacturers like Mercury Marine and Skeeter Boats among other are leveraging integrated electronics to offer safety and lifestyle features never before seen in the industry.

Speculation differs as to how this energy shift will culminate. Some draw on the metaphor of the automobile believing that eventually everything will be embedded in the dashboard. Others cite the popularity of the various plug-and-play applications for personal computers and see no reason why marine electronics should be any different.

Only time will tell if one trend outpaces the other. In the meantime, the forces now at work in marine electronics are making boating even safer, easier and more fun.

Unleashing innovation
“I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” says Tom Burkard, general manager of control and rigging systems, Mercury Marine, Fond du Lac, Wis.

The first marine manufacturer to use control area network (CAN) technology to create a digital backbone to link boating electronics, Mercury helped birth the expectation among boaters that they would one day have the same technological conveniences on the water as they have on the road.

The innovations since the introduction of the company’s SmartCraft product line in the late 1990s have only nurtured that expectation, particularly when manufacturers offer new capabilities such as Mercury’s Shadow Mode and SmartTow.

Introduced this summer, SmartTow allows boaters to run what Mercury calls “launch profiles” with rpm set points for tow sports like wake boarding and tubing, using the SmartCraft Digital Throttle and Shift System platform. The profile holds the engine steady throughout turns and maneuvers providing a better ride for those being towed and less work for the captain.
Mercury’s Shadow Technology also breaks ground by allowing boaters to control up to four engines with just two levers.

“In the past with SmartCraft, we’ve replicated existing feature sets that were out there in the industry and given them to the boater in a digital platform,” Burkard says. “But with applications like Shadow Mode and SmartTow, it is all about providing new features and functionality.”

Skeeter Boats is another manufacturer breaking new ground with its i-Class series and its digital multifunctional system, which controls every onboard system including the new-to-the-industry i-Force keyless locks that are activated from a driver’s side keypad and used to lock and unlock all storage compartment doors.

“The average bass fisherman who spends $45,000 for a boat can have $3,000 to $4,000 just in tackle,” says Jeff Stone, senior vice president and general manager, Skeeter Boats, Kilgore, Texas. “This system lets you lock all of the boxes on the boat and set an alarm just as you would on your vehicle.”

While ease of operation and lifestyle enhancements drive many of the new electronic products, safety on the water hasn’t diminished in importance. It’s just become more sophisticated. Raymarine’s Sirius real-time weather service and LifeTag products, for example, have both been big sellers this season.

LifeTag is a personal wireless man overboard system, which sounds an alarm when a crew member falls overboard. It includes the LifeTag base station and tags for up to 16 crew members.

On-demand access to weather forecast information from Sirius Satellite Radio is one of the latest features of Raymarine’s E-Series high-performance multifunction navigation displays. The E-Series is the epitome — so far — of the convergence of multiple functions on a single display. Fish finder, radar, chartplotter, video screen, satellite TV, Sirius radio … it’s all on one screen.

“Five years ago, if you wanted radar, you bought radar; if you wanted a fish finder, you bought a fish finder,” says Terry Carlson, president, Raymarine, Merrimack, N.H. “But with the convergence of technology, we now have the ability to take one display and make it be virtually anything you want on the boat.”

Innovation costs money, so it isn’t surprising that most of the advances in marine electronics target the high-end boats. But small boats haven’t been ignored by electronics manufacturers. Cobra Electronics, for one, considers small boat owners its core customers. Since entering the marine industry a few years ago, it has been leveraging its experience in the automobile industry for boats 32 feet and under.

When Cobra expanded into chartplotters in 2006 with two portable GPS units — the MC 600Ci and MC 600CS — it didn’t stint on features. Integrated cartography from Seamap, for instance, includes a current database that manifests on the screen as arrows that show the direction of the current and change color as the speed of the current changes.

“Cobra will continue to develop features like these that are driven by the quality of the cartography and integrated into the chartplotter,” says Bill Boudreau, marine product manager, Cobra, Chicago. “There will also be more and more innovation on the compatibility of our VHF radios and the chartplotters, which for the most part are the two pieces of safety equipment on a smaller boat.”

Eventually, innovations already found in high-end boats will cascade down, some sooner than others.

“We are growing so fast in the SmartCraft realm,” explains Burkard, “that it is helping us provide new opportunities to the runabout market and even more so to the sportboat market where there is more volume. So SmartCraft started as more of a big boat strategy and is now moving down very quickly to smaller boats.”

Sharing the boat
One of the ways integrated technologies are being brought to smaller boats is via the National Marine Electronics Association 2000 data protocol, which allows basic communication among multiple electronic devices on the boat. What has been a trickle of NMEA 2000-certified products is beginning to pick up steam.

“There are a number of products out there but we are still in the early adopter stage,” says Steve Spitzer, technical director, NMEA, Severna Park, M.D.

LowranceNET, a nonproprietary networking system based on NMEA 2000, is already standard equipment on the i-Class, giving owners easy plug-and-play capability of aftermarket NMEA 2000 certified purchases as they become available.

While Spitzer predicts that NMEA 2000 will be ubiquitous within five years, its mission of simplifying boating wiring and making products compatible has not been fulfilled as quickly as some suggested, in part due to costs. Kelly Grindle, vice president of the marine electronics group of Johnson Outdoors, isn’t alone in believing that NMEA 2000 isn’t quite there in terms of getting customer value for the cost of development.

“My feeling today is that we are not missing out on anything by not having NMEA 2000 compatible units because none of the boat manufacturers that we deal with are utilizing it,” he says. “But they will, and we will be there at the right time.”

That said, there is general agreement of its importance.

“It is good for all of us, no matter what systems are on the boat, if they work together,” says Carlson. “I think that it actually hurts us cost-wise in user satisfaction if they don’t. If someone buys a piece of equipment and there isn’t a common protocol, you can spend hours and hundreds of dollars trying to help them figure out how to get around that. Better we all work together to make it work in the first place.”

Integration within brands and between partners continues, of course, even as NMEA 2000 moves forward.

Humminbird’s SystemLink, for example, which allows linkages of multiple Humminbird devices, will be enhanced next year with DownLink, a new product that will connect the Humminbird fishing system display included in the Humminbird 700 series and 900 series with a Mag 20 Cannon downrigger.

Such innovation demands a commitment to research and development, as is obvious in Humminbird’s transformation.

“When we purchased it in 2004, Humminbird had great people, great technology and a pipeline of products,” Grindle says, “but the previous owner had done a lot of cost cutting, which held them back quite a bit. What we’ve done is to simply take the handcuffs off people and invest in the brand.”

Some speculate that the need for heavy investment in R&D will lead to a decrease in the number of players.

“I think there will be more consolidation … there are certain benefits of scale — the larger your business, the more you can apply to R&D,” Grindle said.

“It is very expensive to develop new products for a smaller volume industry like ours,” Carlson says, “so that is always a good protector against new entrants. The odds are we will see more consolidation within it because there are so many fragmented players.”

NMEA’s Spitzer has another view.

“I know that there are a lot of small companies out there developing products for NMEA 2000 … it could serve an incubation for new companies and growing the marine industry as a whole,” he says.
The push for integrated technologies is already resulting in more alliances, such as Furuno’s alliance with MaxSea International.

“This alliance was a new thing for Furuno,” says Jeff Kauzlaric, advertising and communications manager, Furuno USA, Camas, Wash. “We have always done the development on our own. But in certain circumstances, it makes sense to align yourself with another company.”

In this case, Furuno wanted software for its NavNet line of navigation equipment and MaxSea wanted a bigger presence in the United States.

“It was advantageous for MaxSea because they now have large U.S. distribution through our dealer network, and it gave us a new product line,” Kauzlaric says.

However manufacturers make it happen, there is little doubt that the various convergences will continue. That payoff is simply too big for it to be otherwise.

And that won’t be anything but good for boaters.

“Shadow Mode and SmartTow couldn’t be done in a mechanical world where you are limited by physics,” said Mercury’s Burkard. “We’re now limited only by the ability of an idea to be turned into software.”

Perhaps those New Agers weren’t that far off.

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