Boating’s New Gold Rush

Some of the industry’s biggest companies are setting up university incubators to mine the fast-changing world of emerging technologies
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Designed for maximum creativity,  Nautique’s modern studio reflects a changing attitude toward new product development.

Designed for maximum creativity, Nautique’s modern studio reflects a changing attitude toward new product development.

I-JET could be any Silicon Valley startup. The unusual angles of the ochre and light green-colored walls, the high ceilings and tall windows, a bicycle casually leaning against the wall. There are a dozen young people at the long tables beside the large windows, graduate students from the United States, India, and China. They are working on computers, playing soft music, surfing the Web. A stainless steering wheel for a boat sits on a pedestal in the center of the lab under a Boston Whaler banner. In a glassed-in office, three students — a data analyst, a software engineer and an MBA student — are going over a project. A poster with the terms AR/VR, AI, Telematics, Automated Boats, and a dozen other emerging technologies outlines the lab’s mission.

Welcome to Brunswick’s I-JET Lab, which is not in San Jose, Mountain View or Palo Alto, but in the Midwestern heartland at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Hundreds of miles from its suburban-Chicago headquarters, Brunswick established the boating industry’s first innovation center in a special section of the campus, near 100 other corporations doing the same thing. It’s not the only organization dedicating serious resources to innovation — Correct Craft has a similar project in the works, and European companies such as Groupe Beneteau and Volvo Penta have cross-discipline teams working on new technologies.

I-JET students bring different disciplines to solving boating’s  “pain points.” 

I-JET students bring different disciplines to solving boating’s “pain points.” 

But I-JET has moved ahead of the others by creating an independent space for studying technologies that could eventually be applied to boats. The multi-million-dollar lab came about in a circuitous way, three years after a group of managers and executives at Brunswick’s boat, motor and engine companies visited each other’s facilities in the U.S. and Europe to explore emerging technologies.

“It was the first time all the companies got together to talk about technologies we found interesting,” says Troy Kollmann, who set up and now manages the I-JET lab. “That spurred a list of projects we wanted to pursue and began the collaboration between companies.”

The new steering committee of Brunswick companies met monthly to discuss updates on projects. “Brunswick had done some projects in the past with its Advanced Technology Group, but it didn’t feel like this,” says Kollmann. “Everyone was offering up resources to help everyone else out. It came from the VP levels on down.”

Eventually, Brunswick decided to establish an innovation center that would study emerging technologies on its own. It would serve as a focal point for doing research and specific projects for the Brunswick companies but also retain its independence as an incubator. Kollmann says that the work I-JET (which stands for Illinis Joint Explorations in Technology) is doing will solve the “pain points” of boating — in other words, focusing on areas that will make boating more seamless and stress-free.

But it’s not all pie-in-the-sky theorizing. “We want to bring ideas to production we know will resonate with our customers,” Kollmann told me during a recent visit. “We won’t make vaporware you never see on a boat.”

“We don’t develop technology for technology’s sake,” adds David Foulkes, Brunswick’s chief technology officer and the force behind the company’s forays into emerging technologies. “We understand the kinds of things that make the boating experience more compelling and the need to alleviate some of the pain points. Then we develop ideas around how to do just that.”

The I-JET project is one of several ways Brunswick is tapping into emerging technologies and the start-up world. Brunswick also has a joint venture with TecNexus, a company that invests in startups working on technologies that Brunswick may eventually incorporate into its products.

I-JET’s Kollmann and his young, smart and multicultural staff want to change the way people boat. 

I-JET’s Kollmann and his young, smart and multicultural staff want to change the way people boat. 

“Big companies don’t necessarily find it easy to navigate their way through the startup world,” says Foulkes. “This gives us access to people who are completely committed to developing fields like connectivity, AI and various forms of human-machine interaction.”

The list of fields on the I-JET poster is wide-ranging, but typically the lab focuses on two or three projects at a time. Last year, it developed an augmented-reality version of the Boston Whaler Montauk. It allows viewers to slip on a pair of special goggles and look around at a full-sized Montauk that isn’t really there. A potential buyer can even lift the hatches on the forward stowage locker. It was introduced at last year’s Whaler dealer meeting as a potential marketing tool for dealers.

“We’re heavily focused on three areas,” Foulkes says. “The first is seamless natural interaction between the operator and the boat. It’s all about making the control easier by making it seem more natural, all the way to voice recognition.”

The second field is autonomy. “We’ve been working hard with autopilot, joystick control and active trim to make a boat easier to control and more intuitive,” Foulkes says. “We’re now focusing on areas where boaters remain uneasy, including docking and anchoring. Our plan is to work through everything in a logical way.”

A Real Startup

A “more connected platform” is the third area where Brunswick is focusing its efforts. “Our Nautic-On team and other early-stage companies have been building systems around 4G Wi-Fi,” Foulkes says. “The Nautic-On app we introduced earlier this year is robust and easy to install. We plan to aggressively evolve it to progress its capabilities.”

Brunswick is investing in new features to make the app go beyond its current functions of monitoring a boat’s battery, bilge pumps, engines and position. Telematics will help predict engine failures before they happen.

Nautic-On is the first graduate of Brunswick’s efforts to turn an emerging technology into a profitable business. Located in downtown Chicago in a small, cramped office called the “Loop Lab,” Nautic-On has a small staff of tech-savvy young people. Spartan and no-frills, it’s a far cry from Brunswick’s new corporate headquarters out in Mettawa, or even the stylized I-JET lab, which Kollmann designed from scratch. Nautic-On looks like a real, cash-starved startup.

“We view our company as being somewhat different from other companies with five-year plans for their product lines,” says Shelley Nelson, Nautic-On’s director of marketing. “We plan to be quick with adaptations to our products and bring them to market quickly. That philosophy runs through our whole organization.”

 “We decided to pursue this as a standalone brand not tied to Mercury or the Brunswick Boat Group,” adds Adam Schanfield, who developed the business with Mike Edwards, another longtime Brunswick employee. “We want our app on all boat and engine brands.”

Nautic-On is a client of I-JET, which helped to develop its app. Instead of being the Good Housekeeping Laboratory for Brunswick, I-JET is just one center of innovation among many that include the TechNexus startups and the steering committee that extends across all Brunswick companies. All are working toward innovation in different areas, sometimes pursuing research that goes nowhere.

But I-JET is on the front lines of projects related to boating. “It’s hard to buy a technology from another industry and make it work in the marine space,” Kollmann says. “We take one technology and break it down into chunks so we understand it as a more basic model and how we can use it in the boating space.”

“ ‘Parking’ in a marine environment is very different than being in a car,” Foulkes adds. “It’s not easy when there are wind and waves. In a car, when you turn the wheel it’s well defined. In a boat, sometimes you turn the wheel to stay stationary. You need a different set of solutions.”

Situational awareness and object recognition have become big research areas for Brunswick as it explores new technologies for easier docking. The company has also partnered with MIT on an autonomous boat project.

I-JET’s student staff includes mechanical and electrical engineers, industrial designers, a telematics engineer, data analysts and four MBA students. “They’re all over-achievers,” Kollmann says. “The data analysts and engineers are obvious. We have business students to help decide whether something is viable in the marketplace.”

Stealth Fishing

Correct Craft is moving on a similar track with its Watershed Innovations. Like I-JET, Watershed will operate independently from its parent and the other companies in the group. Watershed will retain a small executive staff, but most of its work will be done by senior and graduate engineering students from the University of Central Florida. The lab will focus on electric boats, artificial intelligence, proprietary software, telematics, augmented reality and advanced building processes.

“We’ve committed $2 million this year and another $2 million for next year,” says Bill Yeargin, Correct Craft CEO. “It’s an incubator tasked with researching ideas our other companies don’t have time for.”

Watershed is now working on a collaboration between its SeaArk brand, Torqeedo electric engines and SeaDek to create an ultra-quiet aluminum boat. “Aluminum boats are a majority of new boat sales, but they’re noisier to fish in than fiberglass boats,” Yeargin says. “People have been saying for 100 years that someone should come up with a quiet aluminum boat. We’re doing that, with the brain power of 25 engineering students.”

Correct Craft has become a company that embraces innovation. Its Nautique Design Studio is ultra-modern, set up for creating cutting-edge boats. The builder’s 2019 Ski Nautique has been lauded as a breakthrough design, with its carbon-fiber hull and advanced electronics.

But Correct Craft wants to move forward, faster. It recently acquired Ortner Electric’s Ingenuity P220 electric drive system after the company built an electric boat based on the Nautique G23. It has also moved forward with additive manufacturing, partnering with a 3D printing firm in Indiana. “It’ll be a big competitive advantage in the build process,” Yeargin says. “We’re also working with a robotics company in Ohio. Increased computational power is making robotics less expensive.”

Emerging technologies are critical to its future. “We want to be the leader in innovation,” Yeargin says. “It’s important to have the underpinnings and a road map to get us there.”

Self-Docking Boat

Two of the industry’s largest players in Europe have also formalized innovation within their own companies. Volvo Penta’s mantra “Easy Boating” is, like Brunswick’s pain-point solutions, aimed at using technology to make boating less stressful. Last summer, I was on a boat in Gothenburg, Sweden, that backed on its own into a slip without a captain, despite currents.

“We believe the self-docking boat will be how we boat in the future,” says Thorbjörn Lundqvist, director of new technology at Volvo Penta. “As features in cars become more automated, we see the Easy Boating idea becoming more important. Eventually, we want the boat to do a better job than the human.”

Volvo Penta is part of the 100,000-employee Volvo Group, with divisions that include trucks, buses, construction equipment and industrial applications. Part of Lundqvist’s job is to use solutions that its other divisions have developed and apply it to marine projects.

“We work cross-functionally on issues like automation, situational awareness and other megatrends,” Lund­qvist says. “We’ve been able to accelerate technology while adding value to our products, often using technologies we’ve developed in other sectors of the Group.”

Its recently announced hybrid electric-diesel IPS engine, which will appear in 2022, has been developed using technology borrowed from its fleet of electric buses. “We have access to what is currently in production across our product line, as well as what is under development,” Lundqvist says.

Hanna Ljungqvist, vice president of new business at Volvo Penta, says innovation is driven from a business perspective. “We calculate what kind of value it has for our customers and the company before it gets near development,” she says.

Ljungqvist has been responsible for product planning on the new hybrid IPS and says it took time to determine where an electric engine would make the most sense in boating. “We knew that electrification was coming,” she says. “But we had to determine where it would add value without adding too much cost for the consumer. Once we had that, we started to build a business around it.”

When it comes to researching new technologies, Lund­qvist says Volvo Penta has a “fail-fast” philosophy. “We try not to keep a product too long if it’s not going to work,” he says. “We learn really early if it’s going to be successful.”

Total Control

Groupe Beneteau, the world’s largest boatbuilder, also equates innovation with its future. Chief executive Hervé Gastinel says the group doesn’t have a formal innovation center, but the members of its Innovation Committee meet regularly to discuss new projects. Beneteau also partners with universities in France, Poland and the United States to develop emerging technologies for its boats.

“We believe that innovation is best tapped into where our manufacturing facilities are located,” Gastinel says. “We invest heavily both in-house and with partners in new-product design and manufacturing processes to find innovative solutions at competitive prices.”

Last year, the Group launched Ship Control, a Web interface that provides navigational data, engine system analysis and control of different on-board functions. It can be used from the helm or with a tablet or smartphone. “It was designed for boats from 35 to 40 feet, and we made it standard on the Beneteau Gran Turismo 50,” Gastinel says. “This is the most complete solution offered by any builder, and we soon plan to roll it out across the group.”

Gastinel says Ship Control is just the start of a more “connected” boat. “We are developing new services around that trend,” he says. “This type of innovation is a priority for Groupe Beneteau.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue.

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