Firm customizes manuals for exporters to EU

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One of the few bright spots in these tough times for the U.S. boating industry has been exports of pleasure craft to countries within the European Union.

After rising 23 percent in 2007 over 2006, exports are expected to be strong this year as well, according to the latest data from the National Marine Manufacturers Association. This results in part from the weakness of the U.S. dollar in comparison with the euro, making purchases of American-made boats attractive to European buyers.

But boatbuilders trying to reap the rewards of selling in the EU face regulatory snags that can end up stranding boats in the customs yard. In 1994, the EU issued the Recreational Craft Directive — essentially a regulation that required extensive product documentation specific to every vessel. It was amended in 2003 to cover personal watercraft and to require data on engine exhaust and sound emissions. To comply with the directive, U.S. boat manufacturers provide an owner manual that includes boat-specific data in the language of the country to which the boat is being shipped.

Any omission in the manual, even a minor one, will maroon a boat in a sea of red tape.

“We get urgent calls every month from boatbuilders who have boats stuck in customs because of a documentation problem,” says Tim McAdow, vice president of sales and marketing for Milwaukee-based Ken Cook Co., which specializes in providing product documentation for a variety of business sectors, including recreational marine. “The cost to the boatbuilder can be significant,” he says.

In response to the EU directive, Ken Cook Co. began selling generic, multi-language international boat manuals to help boatbuilders provide the required data. Users filled in the blanks, customizing the manual for a specific boat. As helpful as the generic manuals were, however, the process of entering the data was arduous and rife with the potential for error and omission.

About two years ago, on a case-by-case basis, Ken Cook Co. started customizing manuals for boatbuilders, says Kenneth J. Cook, the company’s president and CEO. “The complexity involved in getting boats accepted at the ports was a key driver behind the customized manuals,” he says.

The push to develop a service to enable boatbuilders to automate customization of export documentation began in earnest at the company last year. The end result was BookBuilder, a new subscription service through Ken Cook Co.’s Web portal www.boatpubs.com, which was being introduced in October at the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference in Miami Beach.

“When you think of having all this information for a specific hull number, you’re down to printing one manual at a time,” says John Jost, Ken Cook Co.’s director of software solutions, who oversaw the project. “We were able to marry the online application that allows people to build their own customized manual, and our special system that allows you to economically and automatically print and bind a single manual.”

The ability to include drawings and schematics, and to create a cover showing the boat was important to boatbuilders, says Tom Morris, senior sales executive. “Our customers wanted an actual picture of the boat on the cover of the manual, so that the customs agent could compare the U.S. manual in the boat to the international manual. Both manuals had to match in every way,” says Morris.

Large companies can create a manual for multiple units of a single model, plug in the hull identification number applicable to each vessel, and produce as many manuals as needed. Smaller boatbuilders can create and produce a manual for a single boat. The software provides access to 19 languages bundled in five language sets, facilitating the translation process.

After a boatbuilder has collected all the information on a specific model, it can send the data electronically to Ken Cook Co. for uploading into the customer’s private library on the Web site. Getting a BookBuilder program started should take less than 30 days, according to McAdow.

In addition to demos at IBEX, the company will launch a direct marketing campaign primarily targeted to North American boatbuilders.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.

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