Digital Threads

Technology is changing manufacturing by speeding new products to market, providing automatic service updates and allowing “mass customization”
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Groupe Beneteau is working with software developer PTC on new ways to market and build boats. 

Groupe Beneteau is working with software developer PTC on new ways to market and build boats. 

A few years ago, a manufacturer creating the next generation of a part would have needed time for testing and cultivating marketplace data. Engineers would then have needed time to talk with dealers about any problems, and yet more time to make changes. Eventually — after a wait that felt too long for consumers — the part would have come to market.

With new technology, that process is faster than ever. Designers are using software to gain market data in real time, generate parts by plugging complicated parameters into a digital system, find the bugs before a customer does, and make fixes that filter all the way to sales and marketing, and even service.

Put another way: The days of guaranteeing customers the wrong options on a model could be numbered.

The gaps among design, engineering, manufacturing, marketing and service traditionally have been filled manually, whether by using a spreadsheet, pencil and paper, or by trying to connect two unrelated pieces of software, says George Armendariz, CEO of Groupe Beneteau Americas. Those methods left room for error and were laborious, a reality that companies like Boston-based software maker PTC hope to change by connecting the whole process. Groupe Beneteau is in a three- to five-year process of adopting the PTC system worldwide.

“Today, there’s a way to write the code that makes it possible for all these pieces to communicate with each other with failsafe integrity,” Armendariz says.

The software also helps to bring more reliable products to the marketplace faster. PTC is using artificial intelligence to plug parameters into a system that not only generates the part, but also simulates the part’s use in various conditions. The process starts as far back in the manufacturing chain as the computer-aided design phase, so when an engineer is working on a change, a digital link ensures the right parts are ordered to support that change and are available on shop floors.

“Traditionally, to do simulations with a boat, you had to have it on the water,” says Mark Taber, vice president of marketing for PTC. “Imagine if you could have information coming from various suppliers while you were engineering it. Using closed-loop engineering, you can get more information while customers are using a product. Deliveries are more predictable, and if there is a mistake, the dealer might actually discover it before the customer.”

Nautique installed a MyNautique telematics system on every 2020 model to identify potential issues before they happen. 

Nautique installed a MyNautique telematics system on every 2020 model to identify potential issues before they happen. 

More data, more savings

Watershed Innovation, a Correct Craft startup focused on integrating emerging and disruptive technologies for marine companies, is also looking at the type of technology that PTC’s software allows, and more. It began its foray into telematics—or connected boats—almost by accident.

“Some of this technology is a whole new world, and one that we really do believe is a matter of when, not if, it’s coming,” says Watershed Innovation President Sean Marrero.

Like Groupe Beneteau, the team at Watershed Innovation is realizing that big data collected in one area can help speed manufacturing in other areas too. For instance, when the team realized that an electric-powered wakesurf boat being designed in its Ingenity R&D program needed more monitoring systems than gas-fueled boats, and then started gathering data about that issue, “we realized pretty quickly we had a good solution for gas boats also,” Marrero says.

Through Watershed’s Osmosis brand, the company developed software skills, control software and analytics, and formed partnerships to develop systems for connecting and monitoring boats.

The potential savings from the systems are huge, Marrero says. In a typical engine warranty process, something breaks, a customer calls the dealer, and then the dealer works with the manufacturer on a solution. But if manufacturers can see data from onboard sensors that show a problem emerging before anything breaks, then time and money can be saved.

Nautique is among the boatbuilders investing in these types of emerging systems: All Nautique boats for the 2020 model year will be connected to the builder over a 4G cellular network. The system is called MyNautique connectivity platform.

“I don’t know of any other boat company doing this,” Marrero says. “Nautique has a good base and good long-term vision for how that will improve the customer experience in the future and allowed us to work with them to really get this started.”

The data is most valuable to manufacturers with a large sample size, but in the age of hackers and breaches, a key challenge is to convince boat owners that their information will be kept safe.

To address security concerns, Marrero says, Watershed plans to let individual customers view their own data. However, on the manufacturer’s end, anonymous statistics will be aggregated. That approach keeps the customer anonymous, but lets the manufacturer know if multiple boats are having a problem, in which case Watershed can send a message to the engine or boat company.

Virtual-reality software allows potential Beneteau owners to “see” boats in new environments at shows. 

Virtual-reality software allows potential Beneteau owners to “see” boats in new environments at shows. 

Speed to market

MasterCraft Boat Co. has taken its own approach to digitizing the manufacturing process since Terry McNew was tapped as the company’s CEO.

“When I got here a little over seven years ago, it was a chronically break-even company,” says McNew, who previously spent six years running one of the largest product development programs in the world for Brunswick Corp. “Our cycle time for product development was twice what it should be. We needed new product, and we needed it now.”

At that time, hull development was done as it had been “since Noah,” McNew says. Now, MasterCraft is using six scale models and 10 percent tooling to take the cycle time for hull development down to eight hours. The company also created digital component libraries and reduced the number of SKUs, driving up common part usage to 91 percent.

“So if I’m out sick, you can come do my job and recognize similar hinges, harnesses and other parts,” McNew says. “We tripled the business over six years and essentially did not raise our net inventory dollar value. Our dealers also benefit from that, because technicians don’t have to learn how to repair 18 parts. They have to learn six, for example.”

Computer-aided design has also helped, allowing MasterCraft to package studies, take libraries of drawings and build virtual boats to determine whether components and spaces work.

“You want to have that done digitally and confirm that your packaging studies work and build your parts so you know they’re going to fit and interface properly,” McNew says. “It reduces cycle time in product development, but it also delivers a high-quality product to the consumer.”

These technologies also help meet customers’ increasing demands for customization, Taber says. “People want what they want, and they change their minds,” he says. “It’s the idea of a lot size of one, and it’s hitting manufacturers in every industry.”

As just one example, in its Cadillac, Michigan, factory alone, Groupe Beneteau has four brands consisting of 65 models with up to 135 variants, all made in one building by the same workforce. It’s rare for two identical boats to come down the production line.

“Our software is actually very good at handling that kind of complexity,” Taber says. “For Groupe Beneteau, with so many plants and boats, to provide that level of choice to customers, the costs would go through the roof. In the past, it wasn’t a problem. You had lots of highly skilled boater craftsmen who could handle that. But now millennials don’t know what to do or even recognize if some wiring doesn’t line up, for example.”

The problem comes when the boat reaches the customer and it’s not exactly what they wanted.

“That’s one of the things that this platform and digital thread eliminates,” says Armendariz, calling the emerging software solutions “mass customization.”

PTC says real-time information via digital threads lets boatbuilders make quick changes to boats and parts during manufacturing.

PTC says real-time information via digital threads lets boatbuilders make quick changes to boats and parts during manufacturing.

Sales, marketing, training

Groupe Beneteau also has been exploring augmented reality technology in sales and marketing, using phones and tablets to integrate actual world surroundings atop a virtual world, like in the video game Pokemon Go.

At the LiveWorx conference in Boston this past summer, Groupe Beneteau displayed its GT40 to showcase the builder’s technology, along with PTC’s. The company’s senior applications engineer Matt Mason held up an iPad with a faint line drawing of the model and pointed it at the actual boat. The iPad’s software then populated the line drawing with realistic features.

Mason then went through options, demonstrating how customers could name the boat, choose a color, place it on an Italian lake with hills and villas in the background, and check every feature, including views of the engine room, or compare seating on the aft deck versus a grill. Because everything from product design, engineering, manufacturing, production and other departments was connected digitally, the options matched the boat model.

Customers also could view areas of a boat they typically wouldn’t be able to access. Mason, for instance, took viewers belowdecks virtually, and then allowed them to view the cockpit.

Giving customers access to this type of technology could translate into having to bring fewer boat models to shows.

“You’ve all heard us talk about the cost of boat shows,” Armendariz says. “Imagine if we could come to a show with two or three models.”

Armendariz and others also are thinking about the in-house training benefits that this type of technology offers. A new worker who, in the past, would have had to shadow a skilled employee could instead put on Microsoft HoloLens glasses and operate solo on a manufacturing line. System checks would back up the employee’s actions, Armendariz says.

Bonus:  The recent development of Nautique’s electric wakesurf boat gave Correct Craft unexpected data input for its gas-powered models. 

Bonus: The recent development of Nautique’s electric wakesurf boat gave Correct Craft unexpected data input for its gas-powered models. 

“Highly skilled, experienced workers are retiring,” Taber says. “You risk losing all that intellectual property. With our AR Expert Capture, you can turn that into AR instruction.”

Overall, Marrero says, the marine industry is only at the cusp of potential benefits from some of the technology that’s already available.

“It crosses over a lot of entities and brands as far as benefits go,” says Marerro. “It’s hard sometimes for people to get their heads around it, but I believe that boats will be connected in future — it’s just matter of time. I’m happy there are companies willing to blaze new trails and be forerunners into these technologies,” he says. “You’ve got to start somewhere; it will get better, faster and cheaper, and at some point, every boat will be connected.” 

This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.

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