Great Reasons to  get Excited

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Michael Verdon

Michael Verdon

October means IBEX. And IBEX means innovation. Those two phrases probably wouldn’t make sense to most people unless you’d helped judge the NMMA’s Innovation Awards for years.

Innovation is one of those buzzwords used by marketers and public-relations folks for any new product. But on the awards committee, we saw its different forms, from new classes of outboards to a tiny fitting attached to a through-hull drain to keep outflowing water from staining the hull. Opposite ends of the spectrum, but both innovative.

Recently, I had a chance to see innovation in a compelling new way at Brunswick’s I-JET lab at the University of Illinois and, a week later, at Correct Craft headquarters in Orlando. I-JET is just one component of Brunswick’s multifaceted strategy to harness emerging technologies and put them on our boats.

Instead of men and women in lab coats testing the latest 4-stroke technology, I-JET was full of young graduate students glued to computers, most of whom were not boaters.

Data analysts, computer scientists, electrical and mechanical engineers, MBA students working with artificial intelligence, augmented reality, automated boats, telematics and a half-dozen other emerging technologies that may or may not end up on boats.

Essentially, they’re exploring the same technologies that the auto industry is putting into our cars and the smart-home sector is integrating into residences. Instead of bilge pumps and catalysts, I heard about neuro-networks and the relative merits of virtual vs. augmented reality.

What I liked best about I-JET was that a lot of the projects may never extend beyond the lab. Brunswick has purposely made I-JET independent of its boatbuilders and engine makers, with permission to fail if a new technology does not make sense for boating.

It’s a research lab in the purest sense, breaking emerging technologies into chunks to study how they really perform in the marine environment.

Leaving there, I was excited for the industry’s future, probably the most excited I’d been in a long time. I’d always considered Brunswick somewhat of a conservative juggernaut, but now they are harnessing brain power from all of their companies and adding fresh minds with I-JET and the startups at its joint venture, TechNexus, to propel boating into the future. That’s something to get excited about.

At Correct Craft, CEO Bill Yeargin gave me the grand tour of the Nautique factory. It’s an impressive place, from the design studio with its subdued, loungelike vibe to promote creativity to the state-of-the-art Ski Nautique in a test facility. The new towboat broke a lot of conventions with its advanced running surface, lightweight, carbon-fiber layup and electronics system that Correct Craft’s software engineers designed from the ground up. The $150,000 boat is the epitome of innovation.

 Or as Yeargin corrected me later, sustained innovation. Yeargin is a student of Clayton Christensen, the Harvard professor who came up with the concept of sustained vs. disruptive innovation. In a nutshell, sustained innovation is about mature companies fueling growth by building pricier and more innovative products. Eventually, those products become so expensive that many consumers can no longer afford them. Or, as Yeargin puts it: “Competition between companies actually drives up prices.”

Disruptive innovation happens at the other end of the market when a startup has a low-cost idea that attracts a new consumer base, and the new technology eventually overwhelms the established companies.

Examples include personal computers (disruptor) and mainframe computers (sustainer) or more recently, Netflix vs. Blockbuster.

Yeargin started Watershed Innovations, which will be structured like Brunswick’s I-JET, to be a disruptive innovator outside of its established boat and engine companies. Watershed will focus on technologies that could transform the market. Its first project is a silent aluminum boat that could become a real disruptor if Watershed can contain costs.

“Our other companies don’t have the time or capacity to research projects like these,” says Yeargin, who fully expects Watershed to go on “wild-goose chases” as it tests emerging technologies.

Correct Craft is also investing in 3-D manufacturing, robotics, electric drives and AR. “We’re spending a lot of money on the future,” Yeargin says. “Otherwise, I believe there’s a reasonable chance we could eventually be out of business. There’s a long list of Fortune 500 companies that are gone because they didn’t keep up.”

In the meantime, Correct Craft is doing quite well with its sustaining innovations.

At IBEX, I expect to see innovation across the show, thanks to the prolonged boom. We’ll be covering innovation in the next issue and issues ahead. For a taste, check out this month’s stories on AR (Page 34), innovation centers (Page 38) and 3-D printing (Page 40). I’ll see you in the back aisles of IBEX, looking for the disruptors.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue.


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