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Designing Around Technology

Electronics, accessories and bigger outboards are great for boaters, but they create challenges for builders and designers
With versatility a major selling point, Solace designers created a boat  where large outboards don’t limit access to the stern for such activities as fishing and diving.

With versatility a major selling point, Solace designers created a boat where large outboards don’t limit access to the stern for such activities as fishing and diving.

It’s an exciting time for boat buyers. Newcomers can take comfort in tools such as auto trim and docking, those who are prone to seasickness can offset motion with gyro and fin stabilizers, and anglers can use electronics to detect the species of fish beneath the boat.

But all of that technology also makes the task of engineering and designing boats an endeavor with many more moving parts than in the past. “The amount of technology that’s out there with Seakeepers, Yamaha 425 [outboards] — which are extremely heavy compared to engines they replaced — actuating doors and backrests, and seats with coolers and SureShades on hardtops, the first thing you have to address is not space, but weight: where it adds to the boat and how much,” says Intrepid Powerboats president Ken Clinton.

Clinton is one of many builders working to adapt boat designs to accommodate the increasing amount of technology that consumers demand. The challenges that builders face span all areas of design, construction and sales, from wiring and weight to packaging and performance. And it doesn’t matter whether consumers are shopping for bass boats, pontoons or express cruisers; buyers see the new technology in their homes and cars, and they assume that it should be available in their boats, as well.

Yet even when adding what may seem like minor gadgets to boats, builders have to determine the fore and aft center of gravity in ways that home builders and automakers do not have to worry about. With SureShade, for example, weight is being added to the top of the boat, which can create an inverted pendulum. “At the end of the day, the boat’s got to run right,” Clinton says. “Getting that right is first and foremost. It’s definitely been something that has created some hurdles.”

Builders have to address how much weight components such as gyro stabilizers add to the boat as well as the best place to put them.

Builders have to address how much weight components such as gyro stabilizers add to the boat as well as the best place to put them.


With multiple new digital technologies that are accessible through multifunction displays, there are several things that come into play when designing new models, says Stephen Waller, co-owner of performance and tournament bass-boat builder Falcon Boats. “In years gone by, a 5-inch screen was very common,” Waller says. “Now bass boats are using up to 16-inch screens, and sometimes as many as five units are installed on one boat. This not only creates issues revolving around space, but it also creates power-related issues. Wiring harnesses have to be modified, and your power source has to be modified, as well.

“It’s not only a challenge to keep our employees trained up on installation techniques, but keeping all the products in stock is a bigger challenge,” Waller adds. “There are literally hundreds of possible combinations available.”

Finding space for the growing number and sizes of screens creates challenges in all segments, other builders say. “Standard models are not as easy as they used to be,” says Mike Fafard, vice president of engineering for Chaparral and Robalo. “We try to do it up-front so we’re not scrambling if, say, a customer wants a 16-inch screen instead of a 14-inch screen. You end up running out of room trying to fit everything in. I know it’s also frustrating for suppliers when they can’t put their products on boats.”

Keeping up with Demand

Pontoons have gone up in price during the past five years, presenting a challenge when considering electronics and connectivity, says Josiah Druckenmiller, director of design and development for Barletta Boats. Everybody wants the newest technology on board, but it’s difficult to add technology while keeping prices down.

“It’s just slightly out of reach from a design standpoint,” Druckenmiller says. “The customers are asking for it, but it seems like the cost of it is just a little too much for most buyers to justify. I think we’re going to get there because as people want that, the supply chain and vendors have to step up a little bit more to be able to make it less expensive and still have that same quality that people are expecting.”

In the face of similar challenges, Intrepid stopped installing electronics altogether. “In my particular case, the biggest thing I have to do is provide real estate,” Clinton says. “When I have a back order of boats that’s eight months to a year out, and other [electronics] models have come out since then, customers feel like they got left behind. Instead, we have two installation companies we use so customers still get a turnkey experience.”

Digital switching adds another level of complexity. “It’s intriguing to have that twisted pair of wires running from a switch to a pair of components versus the wiring required from analog systems,” Fafard says. “The technology is there now, but it takes a big commitment to make that change and convert. As we develop the bigger boats, we’ll head in that direction because of the amount of wire required.”

Despite the capabilities of digital switching and the technology’s cool factor, it is expensive and isn’t always accepted by the less-is-more type of customer, Waller says. “You also have to keep compatibility in mind when switching to digital technology,” he says. “Not all boating-related technologies work flawlessly together at this time.”

 As more and more technology finds its way on board, service access becomes even more important.

 As more and more technology finds its way on board, service access becomes even more important.

Engine Challenges

Sōlace designed its new boat with the expectation that Yamaha’s 425-hp XTO outboards would be the core propulsion, and engineers knew they’re heavy, says Sōlace president Todd Albrecht. “We also knew it was going to be by far the most sought-after package,” he says. “So we needed to figure out what buoyancy was needed on the boat. People in the cockpit can only go aft so far. Being able to walk past the motors, we needed a lot of stuff underneath the boat to achieve buoyancy.

“It did take a lot of engineering and trial and error,” Albrecht adds, “but we trust in Yamaha’s performance and knew that was the first obstacle to overcome to put those heavy motors on the back. It’s difficult for somebody who maybe designed a product around the 350s. They’ve got to figure out ways to put these heavier motors on the existing platform.”

For Intrepid, the change in outboard design has meant shifting heavier components to get the center of gravity over the step. “One of those [components] is fuel,” Clinton says. “Any time you’re moving fuel or water, that is ballast weight that changes. The center of gravity shifts aft; to say it’s a balancing act is an understatement.”

Another way to offset engine weight is to add beam, Clinton says. “You have to be careful where you add beam and deadrise to boats because it affects performance,” he says. “When you spread the beam out further and change the deadrise to accommodate additional weight of gyros and engines and actuating SureShades, you can wind up with a boat that beats you to death in 3-foot waves.”

Engine manufacturers are doing a better job of approaching boatbuilders earlier in the development phases so they know what to plan for, Albrecht says. “They might not give all the specifics,” he says, “but enough that you know how to plan.”

The many features builders now offer can alter the boatbuilding equation.

The many features builders now offer can alter the boatbuilding equation.

Versatility in Small Spaces

Customer demand for versatility creates even more design puzzles for engineers as they work to install, for example, actuating seats and areas that convert a bench into a grill. “I compare it to the show Tiny House Nation, where they take every square inch of a house and make it multifunctional — the dining room table flips and turns into an ironing board, which turns into a desk,” Clinton says.

However, what one customer loves, another does not, which is why the Intrepid 375 Nomad has a side-entry version and a front-entry version. Some people love the futuristic look of the side entry, while others prefer a traditional T-top. “It’s two different extremes,” Clinton says. “When you’re designing the next model, you’re trying to cover all bases.”

And as much as technology can cause headaches, it also can make designing boats easier. “We used to develop a dash with wood and putty and cardboard, and now we’re printing it 3-D full size, so we can actually put it in the deck and put all the components on,” Fafard says. “Then we can see we need to move this or change that, or see we don’t have clearance for the steering wheel.”

At Sōlace, a team of eight engineers solves versatility challenges. Versatility is a major selling point for the brand, as the boats are used for fishing, diving, cruising and other activities. As an example, two engineers worked independently on the bait prep center where a seat comes out of the back and there’s a barbecue grill. The best ideas were taken from each project and then merged.

“While that’s going on, another couple of team members are working on the console,” Albrecht says. “Other engineers are working on the hardtop and tower. We’re giving people room to tinker and design.”

Boat buyers expect a level of technology on par with that of their automobiles and smart homes.

Boat buyers expect a level of technology on par with that of their automobiles and smart homes.

Versatility Conundrum

Given that pontoons are used for everything from fishing to cruising to family gatherings, it’s possible that pontoon builders have witnessed versatility issues more than any other OEMs. “The most difficult part is not necessarily the application itself but understanding the consumers and their usages, needs and wants,” says Curt Wilson, design and innovation director for BRP Marine Group, which includes Manitou pontoons. “In other areas of the marine industry, there are very specialized boats with teams working specifically on one type of application. Because of the vast breadth of applications on pontoons, you need to learn to put yourself in many different shoes and apply that knowledge to the product.”

More isn’t always better, he adds. “It is all about understanding the broad consumer base and their needs.”

Keeping pontoons lightweight is also important for increasing capacity and performance, as with most other boat types. “With Manitou, we have a great innovation with the V-Toon technology,” Wilson says. “We can handle speed and still be very safe, stable and predictable.”

Pontoons do have an advantage when it comes to implementing versatility, Druckenmiller says. “It is a challenge, but it’s part of what’s enjoyable about pontoon design,” he says. “We’re still coming up with ideas on how to make things work. The whole goal of that boat from the beginning was the versatility.”

Trolling Motors and Live Wells

Bass fishermen rely on rapid acceleration while maintaining exceptional top-end speed, and that can be difficult to achieve with boats that have electric trolling motors, Waller says. Weight has decreased while performance has improved with lithium batteries, but they cost around 10 times more than traditional lead-acid batteries. At the same time, larger lead-acid batteries have also added weight. And some fishermen are putting groups of batteries weighing almost 80 pounds each in the aft end of their boats, hurting overall performance, as well as fuel consumption.

“All the weight of the larger batteries and the additional weight of shallow-water anchors, all in the very back of the boat, can get your center of gravity too far aft,” Waller says. “Hull designs are having to be modified to accommodate the heavier loads.”

The reality is that, in a way, almost all gadgets come at the expense of top speed. “Even with the much more powerful engines of today, bass boats are not any faster than they were 30 years ago,” Waller says. “They are larger, both in length and beam, but overall top speeds, as an average, aren’t much different now than in the ’80s.”

Upfront and warranty costs are also presenting a challenge with new technology, Waller says. Fafard says the future in that respect is unclear.

“Will we just continue to put more and more expensive features on the boat and hurt ourselves on a price standpoint and reduce our volumes?” Fafard asks. “The demographics of who’s buying the products these days continue to shrink, which is really alarming. Our pie is getting smaller, and we’re putting more and more technology into delivering a better product. Hopefully, we can get a lot more people into boating.” 

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.



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