Standing up for the boater

Attwood Marine has been taking a stand so its customers can have a seat.

The company’s research revealed that one of its customers’ biggest unmet needs was a dry place to sit. Boat seats traditionally haven’t allowed for much ventilation (translation: sweat) and they’ve absorbed moisture, resulting in a somewhat soggy experience.

To solve this problem, the marine parts and accessories manufacturer took advantage of its 2003 acquisition by Brunswick Corp., using its parent company’s resources and processes to bring a completely new product — the VisionAir — to market.

“Our executive management team at Brunswick is very visionary,” explained Jason Begin, director of product design. “We have a management structure that is designed around providing resources to be innovative.”

Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean starting from scratch. In fact, it often means using an old concept in a new way. The VisionAir uses the same technology employed by Herman Miller’s Aeron office chair, which set a new standard for comfort when it was launched more than 10 years ago. And it seems likely to have an even bigger impact in the marine market where users are exposed to the elements and often experience a bumpy ride.

Attwood’s first step in meeting this need was to find the right technology, which is where the Aeron chair’s Elastomeric Mesh came in. ITW Dahti Technologies, which produced it for Herman Miller, agreed to work with Attwood to adapt the technology to the marine environment.

One of the biggest challenges was creating a visual appearance to match a traditional boat’s interior. Elastomeric Mesh is very thin and can’t be stapled or sewn. But Attwood felt it was important to create an upholsterable seat with a volumetric appearance, the shape of which could be customized. The company also had to find a textile that could endure harsh marine conditions, would be comfortable against the skin and would absorb shock. And let’s not forget that much-needed ventilation.

Sixteen months after the project began, the Attwood team delivered the VisionAir seat, which it presented for the first time at the International BoatBuilders Exhibition and Conference. It promptly won an Innovation Award from the National Marine Manufacturers Association and Boating Writers International.

While Attwood is currently focused on the OEM market, the customer loyalty generated by the Aeron office chair may ultimately drive aftermarket sales of the VisionAir seat.

Hearing voices
Prior to being acquired, Attwood was no slouch when it came to product design.

In fact, Brunswick cited the company’s “design and engineering capabilities” as a reason for acquiring it in the first place. And Begin says Attwood has always paid attention to customer wants and needs.

But Brunswick’s High Performance Product Development brings these two pieces together in a seamless and ongoing process. As part of its Voice of the Customer (VOC) component, customer data is obtained from a variety of sources and scrubbed to reveal the most meaningful and useful messages.

This data is sourced internally from customer service calls, salespeople’s conversations with customers and OEM feedback, for example, as well as externally from one-on-one interviews with boat owners and third party customer satisfaction surveys. This multi-layered method of determining what consumers truly want keeps Attwood from making the mistakes many product developers are prone to.

“A lot of product development people think they’re doing a good job of listening to their customers,” explains Begin. “But they tend to get too close to [their work] and think they have a good idea of what consumers want.”

The customer messages collected through VOC research are used as fodder for new product ideas, which are researched, tested and ultimately result in new products that fulfill customers’ desires. Before bringing the VisionAir to market, Attwood actually tested its new seat on real customers, the response from whom was “overwhelmingly positive.”

While Attwood won’t put its expectations for the VisionAir seat into sales or market share numbers, the company expects big things. And although it admits the seat is “high-end” — afterall, each seat can be tuned to fit a specific customer’s ergonomic needs — it predicts to be signing contracts with manufacturers from one end of the spectrum to the other, from runabouts to megayachts.

“It seems our industry is ready to explore new options, and the functionality and flexibility of the VisionAir seat answer some long-standing issues,” sums up Attwood COO Dirk Hyde.

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