Tech innovation and global exploration are similar in that each makes forays into unknown worlds in search of knowledge and new frontiers. It makes sense, then, that the former has co-opted a phrase made popular by the latter: If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.
How to go together, though, is a matter of corporate strategy. Numerous marine companies have teams working to innovate new products and ideas, sometimes through stand-alone innovation centers, sometimes through general day-to-day operations. There is no right or wrong approach; each company’s culture and mix of personnel tend to affect the outcome just as much as budgets, structure and other factors.
Here’s a look at the strategies that Volvo Penta, Evinrude, Brunswick Corp., Correct Craft and the Ferretti Group are using to drive innovation in several areas.
Joining Concept and Product
Two and a half years ago, Volvo Penta carved an eight-person New Technology Development team and a six-member Advanced Learning Team from among one division’s roughly 1,500 employees. The teams were given a focus: “How do you use technology to bring value to customers that they’re willing to pay for?” says Hanna Ljungqvist, vice president of new business.
That’s the mission, but the method is also notable. “Our department makes sure there is expertise and a focus on innovation,” Ljungqvist says. “But we’re connected to production, so we can build competency as we go and actually go to market when we have a finished product.”
The results justify the approach. The teams’ crowning achievement thus far has been self-docking boats. Boaters love the technology, but it’s just a toehold on Volvo Penta’s climb to driverless boating, which, Ljungqvist says, will arrive incrementally.
Ljungqvist and Volvo Penta say transformative technology involves a series of steps, each an advancement but none a giant leap. Consider the company’s Easy Connect technology, which allows a smartphone app to talk to a boat’s engine, on-board systems and chart plotter via Bluetooth. A boat owner can analyze usage data, allow people onshore to track her progress and share information with service reps.
In the future, Ljungqvist says, the system will be able to analyze the data to determine when parts are close to failing so they can be replaced before they cause downtime — a feature that likely would appeal to commercial operators most. Ljungqvist considers target audiences key to the innovation process, no matter the technology. “With electric boats,” she says, “the solutions will look different depending on the use case.”
To her point, earlier this year Volvo Penta released an electric sailing catamaran prototype built with Fountaine Pajot. Volvo Penta identified a market it thought would be open to the technology. It worked up an in-house plan to build the drive system, then partnered with the French builder to ensure production was viable. Finally, it released an early version to test the response with customers. “We never would have done it like that in the past,” Ljungqvist says. “But now we openly share in the early stages to make sure the concept will work and that we’re bringing value.”
When Bombardier bought Evinrude in 2001, it moved nearly the entire company to a 450,000-square-foot warehouse in Sturtevant, Wis. (The engineering division remained in Waukegan, Ill.) In 2013, Bombardier rebuilt part of the facility into a Product Development Center and moved the engineers in with the rest of the group: 650 people aligned under one roof with a unified mission.
And that, according Jeff Wasil, Evinrude’s manager of emissions and regulatory development, has made all the difference. “Having the whole team here makes everything work better,” he says. “Sales and marketing can get feedback from dealers or service reps in the field and walk right over to discuss it with us.”
The togetherness has also helped with production. “One of our engineers might be walking past the line and see someone struggling to complete a task,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Is that grommet hard to put on? Let’s move it.’ And in minutes, it’s done. It’s amazing to watch.”
Proximity also promotes cross- pollination. Off-the-floor concepts are added to a list along with ideas that the 125-member development team has prioritized. “From ideation we go to design, simulation and computational fluid dynamics,” Wasil says. “We can simulate the performance aspects of an engine before we even build a prototype.”
The machine shop can cast an entire engine block and make plastic or rubber parts. The development from conception to prototype can happen in as little as two months, without going outside the building for anything. “It’s not just building the prototypes faster that speeds up the process,” Wasil says. “Because we can do so many simulations before we start building, we already know how a lot of variables will affect performance. It cuts down on the number of prototypes we need to build and makes each prototype more meaningful.”
From the shop, engines move to the 600,000-gallon test tank, where as many as eight outboards can run 24/7. When testing is complete, the engines are disassembled and autopsied to diagnose trouble spots. At the same time, a materials compatibility team tests parts for durability and sensitivity to vibration, temperature, sunlight and salt water. “We can put a throttle arm on a shaker table that runs intermittently to get a sense of how it will hold up over time,” Wasil says.
Among the development team’s recent wins are a line of midrange E-TEC G2 outboards from 115 to 150 hp that offer the features and improved fuel efficiency and emissions of larger, top-of-the-line outboards. “We wanted to bring a bit of that technology to a platform that will be meaningful to a lot of boaters worldwide,” Wasil says.
As for the future, Wasil says Evinrude is working on advanced biofuels, pure electric engines and electric-combustion hybrids. “There are some challenges,” he says, “but those could be interesting.”
Betting Big on R&D
One of the biggest players in the marine business continues to place big bets on research and development. “We own three of the best brands in the marketplace — Sea Ray, Boston Whaler and Bayliner — and seven aluminum brands,” says Brunswick Corp. CEO David Foulkes. “If we’re going to own those brands and be a big player in the marketplace, it’s our responsibility to make sure we leverage best practices and use our scale.”
The company has spent about $40 million on product and infrastructure development for its Boat Group during the past five years. That includes a handful of crossover partnerships and the Brunswick Boat Group Technology Center, which officially opened in September in Edgewater, Fla. The center gathers 160 designers and engineers in a 45,000-square-foot facility to create a centralized vision and coordinated effort.
“If you have everyone spread around, you can’t get that critical mass, that density of expertise and the use of best practices across the industry,” Foulkes says. “It is common in other industries. If you look across areas like automotive, you’ll find consolidation of expertise.”
Foulkes says the idea for the center came during discussions about the best way to revive the Sea Ray brand. The design and engineering of Sea Ray and Boston Whaler models will be a primary focus at the center, with a secondary emphasis on design for Brunswick’s seven aluminum brands.
“If the brands are working separately, they don’t know if they are colliding with each other,” Foulkes says. “These guys know what the brand DNA is and how to maintain it. They can also help provide concepts that the individual brands might not see.”
The center has had some growing pains since its soft opening in January. The facilities at the Boston Whaler plant were converted into a much larger space where the designers with concept boards sit near the product engineers, who turn the ideas into functional boats. Bobby Garza, engineering director of Brunswick Boat Group, says his department more than doubled in the past nine months, from 25 to almost 70 people. “Initially, we had to learn to operate as a much larger group, and we’ve adapted to that,” Garza says. “Now we’re focused on the next generation of boats.”
While the center’s team focuses on the current lineup, the Brunswick Business Acceleration group is looking further into the future. “Our mission is to expand boating and get consumers on the water,” says group president Brenna Preisser. “That happens with partnerships outside the industry.”
Those partnerships include a relationship with TechNexus, a venture capital firm that funds new technology. Brunswick also is doing work through i-Jet Lab, a Brunswick-dedicated research lab on the University of Illinois campus, and Nautic-On, a Brunswick-owned telematics system that lets boaters keep in touch with vessels remotely. “For any company to really lead in innovation,” Preisser says, “they need to focus on the R in R&D.”
At i-Jet Lab, that means employing a lead engineer, a developer and 15 to 20 students a year in a 3,400-square-foot space. The team also has access to a 1,200-square-foot prototyping studio. “We’re usually a good two years out, planting the seeds about what’s coming down the line to inform management’s decisions about what to pursue,” says Troy Kollmann, who runs the lab.
The team’s most recent success is a virtual reality version of the Sea Ray SLX-R 350 that can re-create the boat with any combination of colors, materials and options. It’s so lifelike that users can feel the softness of fabrics and open virtual hatches. “It really puts you into the experience,” Kollmann says. “Dealers and buyers have really loved it.”
Such virtual boats also can help in the building process, letting designers know if a component works better in one spot or another. It took almost five months to create the virtual 350, but Kollmann says the process is down to two months, and he hopes to get it down to “days or even hours.”
Correct Craft breaks the concept of innovation in two: sustainable innovation and disruptive innovation. Sustainable innovations are the typical kind, in which a company continues to improve and evolve. Disruptive innovations start out with little or no consumer application and, over time, grow into something that overtakes existing technology, completely changing the field.
To focus on the disruptive side of innovation, Correct Craft spun off a freestanding subsidiary called Watershed Innovation, a sort of start-up working out of a warehouse on the outskirts of Orlando, Fla. It’s part of Correct Craft, but it creates products that will be available to the entire marine industry.
“We think a lot of companies in this industry will be out of business in 10 years,” says Correct Craft CEO Bill Yeargin. “Not because they’re mismanaged, but because technology’s going to change and disrupt our business. We needed to look ahead.”
Yeargin has pumped $10 million into Watershed, which after a yearlong incubation period has started to roll out interesting products. The first was a superquiet aluminum bay boat developed with 14 University of Central Florida engineering students and Correct Craft’s Sea-Ark brand. The team used computational fluid dynamics and an electric motor to create the stealth boat.
Next up was Osmosis, a telematics system that allows boaters, dealers and manufacturers to track a boat’s diagnostic data, movement and systems. It’s standard on the company’s Nautique 2020 models and is available to third parties. In dealer mode, it tracks the boat from the factory to the field. In consumer mode, anonymous analytics let builders know about systemic on-the-water patterns or problems.
“We wanted to find as many ways as possible to reassure customers that their boat is functioning properly,” says Watershed president Sean Marrero. “The idea behind Osmosis is a turnkey OEM solution.”
Watershed’s last main project is Ingenity, an electric towboat with a unique drive system. The idea started in Austria with a Nautique dealer. “Based on everything we know, this is the most advanced electric boat in the world,” Marrero says. “The battery is the weak link, though we’ve made great progress with that on this boat. That technology will be solved. There’s a lot of heavy investing going into battery technology.”
Watershed displayed the electric Nautique at its recent dealer meeting, with a goal to bring the concept into production in the next year. The company also acquired Merritt Precision, the mold maker, which it’s using to experiment with tooling capacity, robotics and additive manufacturing, and 3-D printing.
Technology Across Boat Styles
“We are today close to 100 people,” Michelangelo Casadei, director of the Ferretti Group’s engineering unit, says about his department. “When you look at how much we have to do, we could use more.”
He’s not joking. The Ferretti Group owns eight brands — Riva, Custom Line, Ferretti, Pershing, Wally, Itama, CRN and Mochi Craft — that build everything from lobster boats and runabouts to superyachts, ranging from 26 to nearly 300 feet. There are also six yards spread across Italy.
Since Casadei took on his current role in 2015, the engineering group has revamped its operations to be more efficient and bring more products to market. That approach led to the introduction of 27 models and advances in single-interface yacht controls, stabilization, noise and vibration reduction, and interior design. “Innovation is the key,” Casadei says. “We are always working hard on it.”
The Ferretti Group’s structure helps. Development teams are organized by fields of expertise: naval architecture, hydrodynamic performance, propulsion, composites, 3-D modeling, electronics, electrical power supply, entertainment, interior design and more. As such, each employee is working on simultaneous projects, a strategy that allows each person to cross-fit solutions and innovations among brands, class sizes and boat types.
The company also has relationships with outside designers and engineers who work closely with Casadei’s team. Each brand also has a relationship with an Italian yacht design firm. “In the early stages of development, the collaboration between the internal technical team and these outside designers is continuous,” Casadei says.
Casadei’s teams are now working on lightweight carbon-fiber layups aimed at improving performance and counteracting the impact of adding more systems and content to yachts. His teams also are looking at interface integration, hybrid propulsion systems and telematics apps that connect owners to their yachts. “We’re working on 20 projects simultaneously,” Casadei says, “but this is normal. It is expected by the consumer as technology advances.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.