Steering and Controls Segment Continues to Embrace Technology

From the potential offered by cutting-edge propulsion systems to the reality of leveraging today’s hefty four-stroke outboards, technology continues to offer the solution to today’s players in the steering and controls market.
Perhaps the biggest influence on this segment of the marine industry continues to come from engine manufacturers, who are pushing new technology toward the consumer at a rapid pace. Volvo Penta’s IPS system, as well as MerCruiser’s new Zeus propulsion technology, have yet to capture a mainstream audience, but they are front and center on the radar for those in the controls and steering business.
“As you look forward, I think new propulsion methods such as those could start to represent new trends,” suggests Uflex General Manager Bill Michel. “It’s so fresh that we have yet to feel the effects of consumer acceptance. But I do believe that they are likely to have a significant impact in the future.”
According to Michel, new technology driven by the engine manufacturers has a direct effect on the aftermarket, as customers go looking for alternatives or hybrids to achieve similar results. “For a company like ours, it forces you to think outside the box in terms of what traditional control and steering systems have been,” continues Michel. “Some way of getting a consumer’s boat to perform easier than it has traditionally performed. Whether you do that by way of bow thrusters and engines or control systems or steering systems, it all depends.
“I think it just opens the consumer’s mind to new innovative products. Whereas before maybe the consumer was less interested and satisfied with very traditional, conventional control and steering systems, they’re going to be much more open minded about new methods, new technology, new materials in the future. I think that’s very significant for us in this business. Opening the consumer’s mind to new technology makes our job a lot easier than it would be if we were simply trying to ‘pioneer’ a new technology.”
As to exactly what new technology Uflex might have around the corner, Michel was tight-lipped. “I can tell you that our investment in new product development is profound and exciting, very exciting.”
Manufacturers have no alternative but to attempt to stay ahead of the technological curve. “We have no choice but to go that way,” says Kobelt’s Mark Frenette. “Because of the engine and transmission manufacturers, we have no choice but to follow the trend, which is of course higher tech, more automated.”
Frenette says that Kobelt is still in the process of growing the OEM side of the business it indicated as a goal last year. Kobelt plans to unveil a number of new products aimed primarily at the recreational boating market within 3-6 months that it hopes will complement its primarily aftermarket slant.
“Starting in 2008, I think you’ll see some growth in the pleasure boat market from us,” says Frenette. “That should be a big market for us next year.”
As to what trends in the market those products may address, Frenette suggests that tight dashboard real estate, as well as the desire for backup systems, are areas that need attention. Also of concern as controls grow more high tech is ease of use. “We need to make everything more user-friendly,” he cautions. “People want to program their own boat, not hire a technician.”
Technology is even influencing traditional controls, particularly in the outboard market. Power-assist systems are gaining traction; in the future, all electronic controls may be the norm. In the meantime, even basic hydraulics are being reworked to handle the load.
“As outboards grow bigger, the demand placed on steering systems is increasing all the time,” notes Terry Craftchick of Marol Marine, a longtime Japanese manufacturer that plans to increase its presence in the North American marine industry, both as an OEM and aftermarket supplier. “Marol has stepped up to the plate to build systems to meet the larger engines on the outboard motor side of the market. Instead of reworking old designs and old cylinders, Marol has built an entirely new cylinder. With our newest cylinder, we can steer up to 600hp with counter-rotating props.”
Currently, Marol is only offering its premium manual hydraulic steering systems in the North American market. In time, Craftchick says customers will see the company’s expansive line of product, including power-assist and complete electronic engine control systems. In Japan, Marol has built systems for vessels as large as 600 feet.
“We’ve met our expectations for ‘07,” says Craftchick. “We want a larger piece of the market going into ‘08. We have sales representation now in 14 states in the southeast, are supplying some OEMs and have major distributors now handling our product.
“The engines are getting bigger, the boats are getting faster and people want comfort and reliability now. That’s the niche market that Marol is going into. We’re raising the bar, we’re setting a higher standard.”
But while basic systems may always have a place in the market, they appear to be a shrinking piece of the pie.
“What we have seen over the last few years is that more technology has entered the market via the engine manufacturers and the boat builders,” says Tom Douglass of Teleflex Marine, an industry leader in steering and controls. “Standard shift and throttle controls and cables are being replaced by electronics and actuators.
“The standard products will be around for many years, but at a much smaller rate. Steering systems are still mechanical or hydraulic for the most part, but there are some very sophisticated steering and control systems required to operate some of the newly introduced power trains from Mercury and Volvo Penta. Right now these are bigger boat products, but may work their way down to smaller applications in the next few years. The cost will be the driver. Teleflex Marine has products in development as well, some of which will change the steering comfort of boats. As the horsepower of engines continues to grow, so does the need for taming the horsepower at the dashboard.”
The inevitable transition won’t always be easy. “With the coming of higher technology, comes the expectation of ‘better,’” continues Douglass. “The current dynamics require higher quality, service and dependability. In order to be a supplier to a boat builder now, you must be prepared to share in the responsibility of customer satisfaction. Without satisfied customers, we all lose. If you think it is tough today, it will get tougher tomorrow as we are all trying to grow boating. New technology is cutting its teeth right now. It will be expected that new technology means more value to the consumer. What is ‘value?’ It means different things to different people. But, service and quality is expected by everyone.
“NMMA’s ‘Grow Boating’ program is getting the word out to the North American population that boating is fun. This initiative also has many dealers signed up to see how they can continuously improve the experience for the consumer. Good products have to contribute to that improved experience.”
The market also is in flux. New boat sales are struggling at the retail level in North America, yet export demands are growing.
The outlook, however, remains optimistic. Says Uflex’s Michel: “When you look at the current economic environment, when you look at the new technology that’s available to our industry that we’re starting to see the costs drop on because volume is starting to play a role, I think it’s a very exciting time. Any time you have this many different market dynamics converging at the same time, I think it creates opportunity.
“And as far as I’m concerned, when you have opportunity it becomes exciting.”

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