Raymarine on its A-game with plotters - Trade Only Today

Raymarine on its A-game with plotters

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Company’s feature-rich A Series packs advanced technology into a more compact unit

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Raymarine holds an enviable franchise in the chart plotter market with a product range that extends from systems using 5-inch screens, through black-box equipment that incorporates variations of the largest available display screens. Its products benefit from the latest technology and, as it was in the case of its benchmark Digital Signal Processing (DSP) fishfinders, the company is often a pioneer.

The breadth of its product range provides significant strength in the competitive marine electronics market, while at the same time creating a large number of compelling targets for their competitors. Raymarine can’t afford to allow a product or system to become stale — loss of share in one segment can have serious consequences elsewhere, especially in a market where buyers often move progressively upscale, making brand loyalty important. Awareness of this concern led Raymarine to introduce the new A Series chart plotters.

Creating a product or a complete system that’s based on new technology — for example, what Raymarine accomplished in creating its E Series and the companion Digital and HD Digital radar sensors — presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities. The new technology can provide a valuable, often critical marketing advantage. If the job is done right, the new gear will outperform the products they replace in your own line as well as trump the competition.

This type of design project entails a lot of hard work, long hours and financial risk, but for those engaged in the effort it is usually great fun (at least in retrospect, when memories of the really trying and discouraging times have faded). Creating the updated products required to renew a franchise in an existing market segment can be equally daunting, especially since the excitement created by a dramatic change in technology is not part of the development process.

The creation of Raymarine’s new A Series GPS chart plotter and dual-function GPS chart plotter/fishfinder range presents a useful case study of what it takes to maintain and enhance a hard-won market position.
Based on extensive discussions and demonstrations with Dan Bilger, product manager for the new A Series, we were able to gain substantial insight into the details of the process used by Raymarine to create the A Series.

A strong foundation
Raymarine’s objectives in creating the new A Series products centered on maintaining the market position and sales of the core of their chart plotter and fishfinder business against competitors, Bilger told me. The company devoted substantial effort to ensuring the new products would provide users with the right features at the right price. To that end, it consulted with each of its constituents, distributors, dealers, boatbuilders and boat owners to obtain a fix on the product features and benefits that would make the new products more desirable than anything else in the A Series market segment, Bilger said. Raymarine also solicited comments from its warranty support and repair parts activities. Anything that was causing annoyance or had a higher-than-normal failure rate became the subject of an intense review and, when necessary, a redesign, according to Bilger.

The opportunities to provide new features and to improve on the capabilities already available in the A Series were reviewed for possible inclusion in the new system. Some of the changes made are “silent” and will be immediately apparent only to someone who has been using the preceding generation equipment.

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Changes in this category include doubling of memory capacity and substantial increases in Flash memory and processor speed.

Although these changes will look good in print, they will become useful sales tools only when prospective purchasers can use the equipment and, where possible, compare it with the predecessor products.

The guts of it
Some design changes would be immediately apparent and could therefore be counted on to spur sales. For example, the resolution of the LCD in the smaller A Series units was greatly improved, from QVGA (320 x 240 pixels) to VGA (640 x 480), according to Bilger. Sunlight visibility, a challenge for any LCD, was improved, using the performance of the more costly C Series products as the benchmark. The housing design and mounting system were redesigned to improve appearance and ease of installation, the product manager added.

Improved GPS receiver technology was incorporated in the design of the system’s internal GPS receiver/antenna. Data acquisition speed was increased, both for the “cold-start” and “hot-start” cases, with concurrent improvements in tracking sensitivity. Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS) capability was included to enhance accuracy. Bilger said GPS receiver performance with the “A” system installed beneath a fiberglass deck was tested so boatbuilders, installers and boat owners could be informed of the kind of results they could expect with this type of installation. (Provisions are included for an external, NMEA 0183-connected GPS antenna/receiver for applications in boats where a deck or superstructure interferes with full sky coverage for the GPS.)

The new units include a built-in library of either coastal or inland lake and river Navionics charts, with provision for installation of CF card cartography that can include the Navionics Platinum and HotMaps Platinum series, plus support for Navionics Gold+ charts with their high-resolution 2-D bathymetric charts for fishing.

Raymarine sought to improve the new A Series fishfinder products by building the DSP sonar module into the main unit. They also recognized the potential value of an asymmetric 200 Khz sonar transducer, the “Ultra Wide Beam” unit. The asymmetric beam substantially expands the volume of water interrogated by the sonar beam. Mounted in a transom bracket, the transducer can be rotated from its normal “wide beam athwartships” position to an orientation that increases the fore and aft scanned area. Conventional dual frequency, 200 Khz/50 Khz transducers are also available.

Mobil and stout
Raymarine’s marketing research disclosed that many of the A Series were being installed on trailerable boats and that the boat owners would routinely remove the chart plotter from the boat for safekeeping, especially when the boat is parked in an unguarded location, according to the company. The design of the new mounting bracket takes this into account by making it easy to install and remove the unit, and with protection for the electrical contacts of the interconnecting cables when the unit has been removed from the boat.

The desire to ensure that units installed in exposed positions on small, fast craft could withstand a rough, wet ride led to a design that complies with waterproof specification IPX-6, a lower standard in the specification series than IPX-7 (which is full immersion in three feet of water for up to 30 minutes), but one that includes a severe water jet requirement representative of what the equipment may have to endure.

The standard for IEC 529 for water protection — similar to IPX-6 — states that the device is protected against heavy seas and must withstand water jets projected at all angles through a 12.5-mm nozzle at a flow rate of 100 liters per minute at a gauge pressure of 100kN/square meter for 3 minutes from a distance of 3 meters. In more familiar measurement terms, the device must work after 3 minutes of being hosed down with a 26-gallon-per-minute deluge at a pressure of 14.5 pounds per square inch from a 1/2-inch nozzle 10 feet away.

Working together
Raymarine recognized the value in having the new version of the A Series products work with older Raymarine equipment on a customer’s boat. Ensuring compatibility would provide the purchaser with a reason to stay with the Raymarine brand rather than buying someone else’s product. The new equipment was therefore designed to interface with Seatalk 1 equipment (using a converter module) as well as NMEA 0183 devices and the new SeaTalk system (essentially NMEA 2000 using Raymarine connectors rather than the NMEA 2000 type).

The physical appearance of the new A Series units was changed (for the better, in my opinion), creating a more rectangular overall shape, reducing the number of controls from 14 to 11 (and making the system easier to use). The card slot that formerly protruded onto the front panel has been relocated to the right edge of the housing. The power key is now located adjacent to the other controls. The overall appearance of the units has been improved by de-emphasizing the Raymarine logo, resulting in a more professional appearance. The former open yoke-type mount has been replaced by a substantial molded plastic swivel/tilt mounting assembly. The rear of the unit is designed to facilitate surface mounting onto an instrument panel with the provision of threaded metal inserts for rear inserted fastening screws and enough margin beyond the screw pattern to allow for minor errors when the panel cutout is made.

From my perspective, the new Raymarine A Series products mark a significant improvement in the value and usability of the units in the product line. In my opinion, the engineering and product managers at Raymarine have succeeded in renewing their franchise in this important segment of its overall market.
MSRP on the units ranges from $1,075 to $1,999. n

Chuck Husick is an electronics engineer who runs his own consultancy in the marine and aviation fields. A former chairman and president of Chris-Craft, he holds a Coast Guard 100-ton license, sails a 46-foot Irwin ketch, and is a commercial pilot/flight/instrument instructor.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue.

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