In Good Hands

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Innovation is one of those buzzwords that has become common marketing speak across the industry. It’s often used to describe a product that may be new, but not particularly useful in advancing design or technology. In those cases, innovative has lost its meaning — another empty adjective like high-tech or state-of-the-art.

Having said that, I think the industry is seeing big innovation — across multiple fronts — this year. Maybe more than ever. We saw that in the number and quality of entries for the IBEX Innovation Awards, which topped 100 for the first time.

The submissions in our own Top 10 Most Innovative Marine Companies awards also had more depth and range than last year. I think our awards also show that innovation doesn’t have to be limited to new products. It’s also about new ways of going to market, reorganizing internally or acting on sustainability issues, such as clean oceans and water quality, which have a direct impact on the industry.

Certainly, product development and new technologies are moving at a faster pace than in previous years, pushed by competition and developments in such industries as automotive and aviation. Telematics, the connected boat and even a new take on the time-honored VHF by a New Zealand company called Vesper Marine are changing the rules of boating and building boats.

Innovation is going deeper than products, penetrating into the infrastructure of our largest companies. Volvo Penta and Groupe Beneteau have teams that ferret out technologies and decide which make long-term financial sense to bring to market. Brunswick Corp., Correct Craft and BRP have established their own innovation centers to develop designs and technologies. They understand that boating, like every other industry, needs to respond to emerging consumer trends. They also understand we’ll see winners and losers.

Correct Craft and Brunswick-Mercury were joint winners of our innovative company awards this year, thanks to a tie in the judges’ scoring. While that result was unexpected, I felt they represent innovation in its different forms — the industry’s largest boat-and-engine maker and a fast-growing upstart.

Under David Foulkes, Brunswick is restructuring itself internally for the future. Its Brunswick Business Acceleration unit has some of its most interesting companies — Nautic-On, Freedom Boat Club and a handful of startups in its joint venture with TechNexus; all offer significant growth potential.

Following a $1.8 billion investment over the last 10 years, Mercury Marine continues to invest in its engines and Fond Du Lac, Wis., facilities. The Boat Group also has seen a $40 million investment in the last five years.

I visited the Brunswick Boat Group Technology Center at Boston Whaler headquarters in Edgewater, Fla., the day before IBEX opened. The group has brought together 160 designers, engineers and naval architects in one office to create a center of excellence for Sea Ray, Whaler and its seven aluminum brands. I assumed it was for cost efficiencies, but Foulkes explained that it was more about having a critical mass of skills in one location to spur creativity and, yes, innovation. It was interesting to see the designers’ offices, with poster boards of concept cars, smart homes and other inspirations beside the engineers, who have to figure out how to make the designs actually work on a boat.

I also visited Brunswick’s i-Jet lab at the University of Illinois, another creative think-tank for emerging technologies. Like the Technology Center, there were a lot of young people in the office/lab, working on diagrams and prototypes, laughing as they worked. Seeing that enthusiasm and knowing how corny this sounds, I felt a real sense of hope for the industry’s future.

I was also impressed at Correct Craft, which I visited a few days before Whaler. Located in a production warehouse outside Orlando, Fla., the Watershed Innovation center is much smaller and scrappier than Brunswick’s facilities, but no less serious. What CEO Bill Yeargin, Watershed president Sean Marrero and their team have accomplished in a year is significant, not just for the speed at which they delivered solutions, but also for the potential impact on their business.

Their Osmosis telematics system was brought to market in a few months and will be standard on all 2020 Nautique models. The details are in this issue, but the system’s range (designed for the dealer, boat owner and manufacturer) and potential applications beyond Correct Craft are its most impressive features.

Their Ingenity electric towboat also took a lot of research and brainpower to get the architecture of the battery right, but the engineers added 30 percent more capacity in the same-size housing. They were visibly excited to have the just-delivered battery in their offices after working on it for so long. Ingenity could well be a game-changer for the towboat market going forward.

What excited me most about my visits is understanding that innovation can come from a small group. Watershed has just 10 people working on very different projects. But they are a serious and focused group. If they’re an example of what the industry can do, we’re in good hands. 

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.

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