Boat manufacturing development and design evolves

Since the economic downtown, the boating industry has transformed and, along with it, so has the boatbuilding process. Manufacturers are working to provide high-quality products that are affordable, meet the needs of consumers, attract existing and new audiences, all while maintaining safety and regulatory compliance and keeping their own costs down. It’s a lot to juggle.

However, this sea change has allowed manufacturers to get creative and build products that breathe energy into the industry, hopefully keeping boat sales on an upward trajectory. This creativity has led to a small insurgence of what could be considered “crossover” products, softening the lines between segments.

“Manufacturers are always looking at different ways to get customers. If you have all of the boats built the same – a hull, a steering wheel, an engine – they all start to look the same after a while,” said Attila Gyurko, president of WaveToys. “So you’ve got to be unique, you’ve got to have some niche that nobody else has, and if you can serve more than one market … you’re going to have a bigger appetite for your boats.”

Crossover vehicles have become popular in the automotive industry, so it is unsurprising to see this trend trickle down to the boating industry, as trends often do.

Boats like the Marker One represent a shift to “crossover” vessels.
Boats like the Marker One represent a shift to “crossover” vessels.

Products like the Marker One from Cobalt, a fiberglass-molded pontoon, exemplify the introduction of crossover design in the boating industry. Addressing consumers’ needs in one product is important when affordability is a huge barrier for many who want to enter the recreation. However, manufacturers also have to balance that with building a product that does what it is intended to do well.

“The more a customer sees that something he’s going to invest a lot of money in that can do a multitude of things – whether it’s for his family, whether it’s water sports, fishing,” the better, said Sean Callan, naval architect at Cobalt Boats. “We want the ability for a product to cover as many bases as a customer would want to use a boat for, right up until you go too far and you almost don’t do any of those things well. … We have to be really careful to not cross that line where we don’t execute super well on all of those [features].”

That balance has led to an increase in the number of models manufacturers are producing. Those numbers have risen since the recession and continue to grow.

“We see the proliferation of the types of boats [and] the number of different models. We’re approaching 30 unique boat models, when 10 years ago it was about 14 different unique models,” said Callan.

The FourWinns HD series is another among the many examples of crossover products, as it combines elements of a bowrider and a deck boat to fit the needs of customers.

“We want to make sure the boats we design can be served for multiple purposes. We have a lot of options to turn a deck boat into a fishing boat, a fishing boat into a ski boat, and that’s definitely a trend,” said Christophe Lavigne, vice president, engineering at Rec Boat Holdings, LLC, “and we have some success with that. It gives more versatility to the customer. Sometimes we effectively create hybrid boats that may be difficult to classify in the future.”

One segment that has seen success in capitalizing on the crossover mentality is pontoons. These vessels are no longer the sluggish platforms of our grandfathers’ day, thanks to new technologies like triple tubes and the addition of larger horsepower outboards. Because of that, many customers who once owned a fiberglass boat and an older pontoon are now moving into a new pontoon to serve both purposes.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of crossover customers over the last five years. I think it dates back to the old mentality of when people thought they needed a speed boat and a [PWC] and a fishing boat and a pontoon. You had to have everything. But as we’ve evolved and as we’ve added our center tubes, and overall the industry has changed,” said Dave Grovender, product development manager at Premier Marine, Inc. “I can buy this pontoon boat that does everything I need it to do that a runabout boat will do, and it’ll go just as fast and it’s nimble in the corners and handling. The maneuverability is very similar.”

Premier’s Encounter, which was among the products that helped Premier receive 26 patents in its 2016 model year, could certainly be considered a crossover model. The 31-foot pontoon has a fiberglass cuddy cabin built into the center PTX tube of the pontoon and was built to play in the saltwater market. The idea was to use the tube as a space for a changing room or head and eventually became the cuddy cabin.

WaveToys is selling boats individually direct from the factory, but will be looking to sign on dealers soon.
WaveToys is selling boats individually direct from the factory, but will be looking to sign on dealers soon.

“As we were designing the tube, it turned out to be a 42-inch [wide] PTX. At that point, we also started looking at other things we could do with this tube,” said John Deurr, product development manager at Premier Marine, Inc., pointing to the 12-foot wide, triple-engine Dodici, “That was also a result of starting with this 42-inch PTX. So it kind of just fed upon each other.”

When looking for new ideas on innovative pontoon design, Premier Marine looks to trends in megayachts segment and conceptualizes how those trends can be brought to a pontoon.

“You see things in the superyachts that usually don’t trickle down into the 30, 40, 50-foot recreational boat size, so we try to emulate that a little bit,” said Deurr. “Many of the dreams that we’ve had as an engineering group have been very successful and they have set trends for the industry.”

Recognizing opportunities

Building crossover products is only possible when manufacturers are able to recognize an opportunity in the market. Cobalt certainly saw the quick recovery of the pontoon segment post-recession but wanted to be sure they built a product that was still true to its brand.

“We said we’re not going to do a traditional plywood floor bolted to the aluminum pontoons, and then build the top sides on top of it,” said Callan.

Recognizing these opportunities also helps bring innovation in design to the market, as the fiberglass pontoon did, and opens opportunities for manufacturers.

“If you consider the back end of the boat that has a molded-in swim platform with the automatic ladder that comes down, and that swim platform being right at the water line, as an example of the DNA that’s in every other boat; if we had gone at the platform in the exact same way many [manufacturers] do today, we couldn’t have brought what we feel is a very important feature into the Marker One,” said Callan.

Gyurko recognized an opportunity for a “hybrid” boat of sorts in the industry by combining a PWC with a jet boat, creating the WaveBoat. He saw interest in the market to address both needs at an affordable price point.

“Looking at the financial aspect of all this, if you take a brand new, top-of-the-line [PWC] for, say, $12,000; you take one of our boats for $13,000, for $25,000 you’ve got yourself a state-of-the-art jet boat that serves both needs,” said Gyurko. “There is no complete jet boat out there … in that price range, and they only serve a single purpose.”

The WaveBoat’s compatibility rails can change as a customer trades up in PWC. Gyurko said the over 5 million PWC owners who do not own a boat can’t afford to have both, but the WaveBoat allows them to easily enter into boating while staying in the “water toy” segment at the same time.

“They would go to a boat later on in life if the kids are grown up, they just want to go boating [and] hang out and party with friends. But when they go into something like the WaveBoat, it’s something they can stay with. It’s got both worlds,” said Gyurko.

The evolution of aesthetics

Aesthetics have also become a more integral part of the boatbuilding process over the years in boat design, as the styling of a boat is not just about how nice the boat is on the eyes.

Technological advancements in engines and electronics have driven boat design, particularly through the popularity of water sports.
Technological advancements in engines and electronics have driven boat design, particularly through the popularity of water sports.

“The choice of the materials that we use, whether that adds to the robustness of the product, is a big deal so that our boats – they’re already known for high-quality – we can, in an authentic way, be able to show a dealer or customer how new materials we’re using further enhance that products quality [and] longevity that we expect of our boats,” said Callan.

The marine industry continues to take cues from the automotive industry, clothing industry, the outdoor industry and more. Rec Boat Holdings conducts trends studies every year to see how the company can incorporate ideas from other markets into its boats.

Aesthetics have become more prominent for the pontoon segment over the years, which certainly has not always been the case. Looking at the history of pontoon boat manufacturing, it’s not hard to notice aesthetics playing a bigger role over time.

“The change in the aesthetics and styling designs of the rails, furniture and the helms. Everything has gone through a revolution and advanced. If you go back and look through brochures,” said Grovender, “industry-wide, particularly in the pontoon boat segment, there has been a lot of advancement in just the little design cues. Everybody’s trying to up everybody and take it to the next level.”

Premier is working on a new console for the 2017 model lineup, and the company put extra emphasis on aesthetics, styling and design for this product, possibly more so than the company has ever done on a helm, according to Grovender.

The addition of fiberglass components or hulls to pontoons has become a huge trend in pontoon manufacturing over the past three years, which shows a particular emphasis toward aesthetics in this segment.

“It’s done because of styling. There is so much more you can do with fiberglass as far as styling – all the things that you can do that you can’t build on an aluminum tubing,” said Deurr. “It has to still contain the people safely, it has to withstand the waves and everything else, but the styling is very important and that’s I think why this trend toward all the fiberglass [siding is popular]. Some of them you don’t even recognize as pontoon boats anymore. They’re getting very out there.”

Some of the “out there” aesthetics have come from innovations like adding bars to pontoons, which Premier first did with the Grand Entertainer. At the time, there were no bars of that size or magnitude on a pontoon layout.

“We were actually criticized for that in the beginning and questioned on it, because we utilized so much of the layout for this galley/bar area and we reduced the amount of seating, which isn’t the traditional way of building a pontoon,” said Grovender. “But now over the course of the last few years, if you notice, there’s a lot more galley/bar seating in pontoons.”

Evolution of the boat buyer

The consumers themselves have also driven how manufacturers evolve their design process. Boat builders have recognized that the customers they are speaking to today are not entirely the same as it used to be.

In some respect, they are exactly the same – just older. But as those customers age, their boating needs change. Customers want comfortable boats that are easy to board.

“You don’t want anymore to have people jump over seats, for example, because it’s more difficult. You have to go in and out in an easier way,” said Lavigne.

This customer is not as price sensitive, wants a boat that will perform well and has “’exactly everything I’ve worked for all my career to have,’” said Dorton.

But the younger customers are out there too. Manufacturers are working more aggressively to, with the design of boats, attract the kids of Baby Boomers, and even sometimes the grandkids. While they are not currently capable of acquiring their own boats, because of the price, they have a huge influence on their parents in the buying process.

“What we are trying to do in the design of the boat is to adapt to their needs or to seduce a member of their family that are more influential than they were ten years ago,” said Lavigne. “They don’t buy the boats, but they make their parents buy the boats or their grandparents buy the boats.”

HeyDay Inboards has developed its WT-1 wakeboard boat to specifically attract Millennial buyers who are unable to afford most boats, as this age group is the future of boating.

The HeyDay WT-1 was built using a simpler design to drive price points down for younger buyers, according to Ben Dorton, president of HeyDay Inboards. The WT-1 was named a Boating Industry Top Product in 2016.
The HeyDay WT-1 was built using a simpler design to drive price points down for younger buyers, according to Ben Dorton, president of HeyDay Inboards. The WT-1 was named a Boating Industry Top Product in 2016.

“The Baby Boomers are aging and kind of getting to the point where they’re going to keep on boating for a while but we really need to nurture the next largest generation, which is the Millennial, and introduce them to boating,” Dorton said.

These customers are price conscious, minimalistic, want to be social and like sports, and the WT-1 aims to meet those needs.

“It’s really [about] designing boats geared toward what our customers are looking for, and I believe the new introduction of the Millennial [in the market] has kind of changed the entire aspect of what the boating industry is starting to look like in the next 10 years,” said Dorton. “The Millennial is going to go through the same process the Gen Xers or the Baby Boomers have gone through, but they really need to be nurtured at this point, otherwise we’re going to lose them to something else like camping or off-road biking.”

(Read more about how manufacturers are looking to attract Millennials on p. 24)

Technology transformation

Lavigne believes the most significant impact on boat design has come from the advancements in engine and electronics technology. These advancements induce opportunities to create a new type of boat.

“You have much more connectivity with electronics than we had before. You have the possibility to connect with your phone, to connect the electronic packages with your engines and to have engines that do more things than they used to, like speed control, GPS speed control, adjustment of trim. There are more opportunities,” Lavigne said. “The possibility to surf behind the boats, that you see in many tow boats, has been supported by evolution in electronics, speed control, ballast systems and new engine technology.”

As the technology continues to advance, manufacturers have to work hard to seamlessly integrate these products. To properly do so, more and more companies end up becoming involved with the boatbuilding process to create one cohesive product.

“More and more, we have to have third and fourth parties involved. The engine suppliers have to be involved, and sometimes the radio supplier has to be involved, in order to share the protocol of communications for their own specific computers,” said Lavigne. “It’s becoming fairly complex to have all of these people involved in these electronic systems, but I think it’s one of the elements that have changed a lot in the last few years,” noting that is has also become very collaborative as well.

Conception to customer

As the market becomes increasingly aggressive in segments of the boating industry, manufacturers have to work harder to get product to consumers.

Premier is currently working on 2018 models and model components. Some projects, like the Encounter, take longer to develop, but most projects are completed in 12 to 18 months.

“We’re working ahead. We’d like to have two years, but we don’t have that luxury,” said Grovender. “You have to be able to go quicker than that.”

Some manufacturers have responded to this quick turnaround time by investing in technology. Rec Boat Holdings introduced a computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) system for designing its boats.

“We have a software or a series of software that give us an opportunity to create a complete boat, import virtual engines [and] virtual windshields, add all the equipment,” said Lavigne, “on CADD, and when everything is perfect, we can cut our toolings using large robotics systems.”

A computerized numerical control (CNC) machine cuts the CADD drawings into real-size, real-scale tooling, which allows manufacturers to be more efficient and deliver product quickly.

“These machines have cut the time of development by 50 percent, so we have really improved over the last 20 years the speed of development. It’s a huge difference between the mid-90s and today,” said Lavigne. “I can design today, from scratch, two prototypes of a new boat, a small one [of] about 20 feet in about six to eight months from nothing to production start, which is fairly efficient if you compare to many other industries. We expect to design a boat in that time frame.”

What may be surprising is that a complex, feature-rich model doesn’t necessarily take longer to complete, at least that is the case with Bryant Boats and HeyDay Inboards. Both brands take a year and a half to validate, source, engineer and deliver to the consumer, despite the fact that HeyDay is a “simpler” entry-level product.

“It’s funny because the HeyDay is almost as complex or more complex [to build] than the Bryants because not only are we thinking about making this boat cool, functional and have everything, but we want to make it simple. So it really takes time,” said Ben Dorton, president of HeyDay Inboards.

Certainly, for a manufacturer taking on an entirely new project, the development time will take longer. Such was the case for Cobalt with the Marker One. The company ran no fewer than 100-150 sea trials to fine-tune the different aspects of how the boat would run.

“[The research] was worth it to us because with all of the other benefits in how quiet it would run and the styling and everything,” said Callan. “That required us to take it to another level compared to pontoons that are out there today, largely because of the weight and what we expected of ourselves around hole shots, turning, safety and top-end speed, all those things that matter and excite our customers.”

Back to basics

In order to bring Millennials into the boating industry, manufacturers have taken a “back to basics” approach for designing new boats. While the products are still incredibly innovative, they are not as flashy and feature-rich as the products aimed at Baby Boomers.

“Simplicity in engineering is a beautiful thing and I think we’ve done a lot as far as innovation, but I think innovation can also be found in just a simple design as well,” said Dorton. “We’re really thinking about simplicity, and that takes just as much time as adding a bunch of features on the boat.”

Deurr echoed this sentiment. While the big boats bring in customers to the boat show and give customers something to dream about, returning to simpler engineering will help attract Millennials to boating.

“We may have to go back to some basics [to attract Millennials] but some very innovative basics. We’ve got to keep people in this [activity]. Not everybody can afford the $100,000 [boat], nor do they want it or have a place to keep it,” Deurr said.

Dorton compares how Baby Boomer and Millennial buyers are different by using an SUV analogy: the Boomers are looking for the Range Rover with heated seats and steering wheels, but the Millennial feels just as cool and happy in a Jeep with some modifications.

“We’ve built some complex boats with some great electrical engineering systems that work … and do increase price on the boat, but it’s almost like these guys are enjoying a simpler use boat with a [lower] price,” said Dorton. “[The WT-1] has some limitations to it, we know that [and] admit that, but it’s this price point and it does perform these aspects, and we highlight that.”

Simplicity also comes in maintenance and operation of the boat. Most of us were raised on boats all our lives and may forget that having a boat is a specialized thing that takes time to learn and understand. Creating products that enable new, young boaters to get in and go will help attract the younger generation.

“I can go pick up a mountain bike … [and ride it] fairly easy. But whenever you’re boating, you’re talking about trailering a boat, maintaining a boat, running a boat, listening to the Coast Guard standards,” said Dorton. “There’s a lot going on there and I think, through design, if we can make it as simple as possible for them, it’s going to end up [providing] more consumers for us.”


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