For the past few years the new-boat sales buzz has centered on several key factors — attracting millennials and Hispanic buyers, keeping boating simple and user-friendly, and minimizing maintenance concerns — oh, and we need to do all this while keeping costs at an affordable level. Basically we’re talking about offering more for less, a tall order under the best of circumstances.
One of the things that I and a growing number of boatbuilders believe offers huge promise in achieving these goals is the slow but steady movement toward digital switching systems on new boats. The promise these systems offer includes reduced weight, because they use far less copper cabling, and a modern, simplified user interface that boat buyers will find is as familiar as their smartphone or iPad.
Additionally, there are potential savings in build cost because of the reduced amount of labor needed to install these plug-and-play systems. Lastly, maintenance is minimized and reliability maximized with the use of watertight system connections and solid-state black box components.
Menno Ligterink, Northeast OEM sales manager for Mastervolt/CZone, says the biggest hurdle he encounters when he tries to sell his system to boatbuilders is fear of the unknown.
“As a group, boatbuilders tend to be quite conservative,” he says. “It’s hard for builders to get their arms around the depth and breadth of this technology and to fully understand what it can do for their customers.”
I talked to several builders that use digital controls, and I began by interviewing Peter Truslow, president of EdgeWater Boats. Truslow is fairly new to digital switching.
At the time, Truslow had set up only one boat with a digital electrical system. He had spent a recent week on board, testing the boat and the system to see what he thought. The short answer was that he loved the system, but when I asked whether he thought he had saved money in the build cost, he emphatically said no. He said that wasn’t an issue with his customers.
He was overjoyed with the ease of use and trouble-free operation of the system, but when I pressed him to talk more about pricing, he reminisced about the early days of GPS. He has fond memories of the first Magellan GPS NAV 1000 that he saw at a press event sometime in the late 1980s. At the time, the handheld unit was selling for $3,000 and was a monster at almost 9 inches tall by 3.5 inches wide by 2.5 inches thick, huge by today’s standards for handhelds.
He remembered sales representatives talking about how the units would drop in price to about $1,500 in a few years. The NAV 1000 ran on six AA batteries and ran for only a few hours with very limited capabilities, compared with anything available now. Today, he says, you can buy a handheld GPS for $200 that will outperform anything available in the 1990s, and it can be smaller than your cellphone.
He compared the stage we are in with digital switching to the early days of GPS and believes, as I do, that prices will begin to drop as soon as unit volume increases. He also thinks the biggest savings will be in larger, more complex systems. The savings in copper wiring alone begin to mount as more equipment gets installed, not to mention the additional labor needed for routing all of the cabling and making the connections.
Peter Johnstone, founder and CEO of Gunboat, also talked about saving weight. His boats are engineered to be lightweight and performance cruising-oriented. He estimates that the difference between a typical analog system and a digital system on one of his boats represents about a two-thirds savings in weight in the wiring alone.
He’s not certain because the company has not done a cost analysis, but he believes that because of the cost of copper, the cost of the CZone system he has the most experience with and the equivalent cost of a hard-wired analog system may be a wash just in the cost of cabling. He’s also reasonably confident that the installation time on the production line is reduced because there are far fewer electrical connections to make.
His position is clear: His boats are forward-thinking, and there is no way he will go back to analog conventional wiring. He described his customer base as people looking for “fully integrated consumer products” and he sees touch-screen displays as being one step closer to that goal.
He believes he’s only about 80 percent of the way there. Some circuitry is still used on board that can’t be handled by the existing systems, but he believes that will change in the foreseeable future.
When I asked about the reliability of the CZone system, he conceded that early on his company encountered glitches, mainly because of two problems — overloading the bandwidth of the system with too much data and routing network cabling too close to high-current-draw conventional cable runs for things such as electric winches. After those lessons were learned, he was quite pleased with the performance of his systems.
I also talked to engineer Dusty Abel of Ski Nautique. Like Johnstone, Abel is confident that there are labor cost savings on the production line. Simply think about how much time it takes to hand-crimp 12 or 14 wires and screw them into place, he says, compared with plugging a single gang-plug assembly into a black box. Using that analogy, it’s easy to see the time savings.
I asked Abel whether he thinks warranty claims have been reduced by Ski Nautique’s use of digital vs. analog switching. Again I was looking for total cost savings on a per-boat basis. The biggest problem he saw was that field personnel weren’t as software-savvy as they might need to be. So from a warranty perspective, time was invested in getting them up to speed on the nuances of the new technology. Once they are familiar, the problem should be minimized.
Abel believes the system has been quite reliable. Nautique’s Linc 2.0 is a proprietary system, custom-designed for its boats, that brings all of the on-board data to a single display. The software also integrates with a sophisticated wake control system that automatically adjusts the boat’s trim based on speed data, and it’s all done automatically, playing to Peter Johnstone’s idea of a “fully integrated consumer product.”
Other builders, such as Scout and Boston Whaler, have embraced digital switching systems and will tell any and all that the primary reason was to meet customer demand for the fully integrated product Johnstone describes.
Steve Potts, founder and president of Scout Boats, describes such a system as having the functionality he has at home and in his automobile, where touching one button can control multiple preprogrammed circuits to turn on lights, climate control and the appropriate sound system.
He knows his customers are used to that sort of capability and believes he would be missing his market in a big way if he did not embrace the technology. The folks I’ve spoken with at Whaler feel the same way, and that is from a company known for its conservative approach to just about everything and a deep concern for reliability.
The bottom line here is that, slowly but surely, the word is getting out that these systems can be just as reliable as they are in the automotive, aircraft, farm equipment and heavy construction industries, which have been embracing the technology for years.
So what’s to be concluded from these interviews? Does digital switching play to the concept of producing more cost-conscious boats? Does digital switching do a better job of meeting the sensibilities of millennials and Gen Xers? Do digital systems truly simplify things in general?
As someone who has spent the past 25 years raising a millennial, I can assure everyone that at least one person from that generation is far more comfortable with computers and electronic gadgets with touch screens than the vast majority of my boomer peers.
Why wouldn’t he be? He has been exposed to this sort of equipment his entire life. Traditional switch panels are quaint and “retro,” if you ask him. As for cost, all of my interviewees believe we will soon see prices on these systems begin to fall as more builders embrace the technology.
Are the systems reliable? So far, so good for the builders mentioned here, but perhaps more telling was my recent visit to a Volvo Ocean Race boat that uses Mastervolt/CZone gear. Members of the shore-based support team said the systems have been working beautifully under some of the harshest conditions imaginable. That speaks volumes to me.
So here’s my take on all of this. The industry needs to follow the lead of builders such as Robalo. It recently introduced a 16-foot center console with really nice amenities as a “first-time buyer” purchase for just under $20,000, but the company saves on costs in a way that does not create a non-integrated consumer product, as Peter Johnstone would call it, or one that seems retro, to use my millennial son’s word.
Ed Sherman is vice president and education director for the American Boat and Yacht Council. He is also the author of multiple titles dealing with marine electrical and electronic systems.
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue.