The switch is on

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In February I served as a judge for the Miami International Boat Show Innovation Awards, an experience that is invaluable to me because I get to see what’s truly new in a variety of product categories. It’s also an opportunity to analyze industry trends that I might miss as they come to me randomly in press releases during the year.

Several things jumped out at me. First, wakeboards are capturing a giant share of the new-boat market. Second, it became clear to me that there is a huge engineering effort among competing builders to figure out how to create the perfect wave using very trick technology; and last but not least, fully integrated digital switching systems are trickling down into this same “tow boat” category.

Certainly nothing new, digital switching in the midsize boat market came on strong before the most recent U.S. financial meltdown, with a lot of major players from the United States and abroad competing for market share and acceptance. When the market collapsed in 2008-09, the interest in digital switching for the mainstream market collapsed with it. As builders retrenched, the cost associated with a switchover to a totally new technology not proven in the marine world fell by the wayside.

As a true believer in the potential of digital technology, I found myself waiting for the boatbuilding industry to catch up yet again to virtually every other industry sector you can think of and get back to embracing integrated digital switching technology. As I saw the technology trending into boats in the under-30-foot category this year, I’d say we’re back on our way. But there is more to the trend than meets the eye. Read on as I share my observations.

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The big-boat side

Sophisticated, user-programmable digital switching systems have been in use right along on larger, high-end boats. The economy did not force those builders to look back; their customers demand the functionality that only a digitally controlled network can offer and the systems just keep getting better in that class of boat.

Systems produced by companies such as Trigentic (EmpirBus), Digital Switching Systems (omni-BUS), E-T-A (PowerPlex), Mastervolt (CZone) and Carling Technologies (Octoplex) continued to find their way onto new builds for boats that weren’t as driven by price points.

In the midsize power and sail markets the CZone system has taken a strong foothold and seems to be emerging as the leader in off-the-shelf systems for the production-boat builder, at least here in the United States. Recently, though, Raymarine said it’s partnering with the Swedish company Trigentic and will integrate that company’s EmpirBus distributed power system with a typical onboard Raymarine network. Perhaps partnering with Raymarine will help to expand Trigentic’s market share. Time will tell on that count.

Both of these systems have their pros and cons, but I think one of the compelling features of either system is that they can be customized to the specific application in a field situation to meet the desires of the customer. Additionally, they offer the ability to mix and match fairly well with NMEA and CAN bus systems, albeit with adapters needed in some cases.

The guts of the C-Zone system inside a Scout model.

The guts of the C-Zone system inside a Scout model.

So in what I’ll call the midrange, we see builders such as Scout, Boston Whaler and (on the sail side) the Dutch builder Contest embracing the CZone system. I can recall asking Scout president and CEO Steve Potts whether he thought he was saving money in production costs by using the technically easier-to-install CZone system in his boats.

Was he cutting down on build time? The answer was no, not really, but he believed he was doing a much better job of meeting the demands of his customer base by being able to offer programmable functions that he was previously unable to offer with analog systems. Perhaps more important to him was the ability to match his customers’ expectations for their boat’s functionality to their luxury automobile or home electronic systems.

The rest of the market

I’ve thought for some time now, as I’ve watched the boating market mature, that it was going to be a long time before we would see any of this digital technology employed in the small-boat sector, at least not using the sophisticated systems already mentioned. It was just too price-point-sensitive.

Well, this year I saw the alternative, bringing me full circle to the wake boat/tow boat category. Although I don’t call these craft “entry-level,” they certainly fall into a unique space in my mind, which in part is what enables them to embrace entry to the digital-control arena.

I think I see the automotive build model being employed full-on here. These boats come fully equipped. Just add cold drinks and skis or a wakeboard or two. All of the needed electrical and electronic equipment is installed. The boats are typically used on inland lakes and waterways, so things such as optional chart plotters, fishfinders, AIS and radar are simply not needed.

According to Yamaha’s Mike Ricciardi, who works in the company’s Watercraft Planning Division, Yamaha’s approach to its award-winning Connext helm control system was customer-based and totally market-driven, based on the company’s own extensive customer input. “Simplifying the user interface” was a statement I heard Ricciardi and engineer Dusty Abel, of Ski Nautique, use to describe their reasoning for moving to what I’ll describe as closed-platform proprietary digital switching systems.

Yamaha says its award-winning Connext Helm Control System was market-driven.

Yamaha says its award-winning Connext Helm Control System was market-driven.

So what do I mean by “closed-platform”?

Yamaha Connext and the Ski Nautique Linc 2.0 helm system are quite different from the digital switching systems already mentioned here. They do not offer extensive expansion capabilities. Reprogramming or calibration in a field situation is not possible, either. These systems do offer some of the advantages of the more sophisticated systems, such as a huge reduction in wiring termination points. The network cabling connections they use are far more water- and moisture-resistant than conventional analog systems, and by centralizing the user interface onto one display screen, a less complicated and more intuitive human interaction experience can be designed.

But the significant difference between these two systems and the others mentioned is that they are engineered solely to provide the maximum level of control for the boat they are installed on, as delivered from the boatbuilder. Things such as over-current protection (fusing/circuit interruption in the event of an electrical overload) are factory-programmed, based on the devices that were installed when the boat is new. This means that if your bilge pump wears out after five years you are going to have to replace it with the same components or specifically match its electrical specifications as to recommended maximum fuse rating and voltage for things to function as they did originally. There is no provision for adjusting any of these tolerances in a field scenario. In taking this approach, I’m betting that the builders were able to get system pricing fine-tuned to the lowest common denominator.

Is this a bad thing? I would argue that it is where the automotive build model I mentioned earlier comes into play. If the touch screen on your Lexus burns out, believe me, you are going to have to acquire a replacement directly from Lexus, not your local NAPA auto parts store. The model is not necessarily a bad thing. First, there is the proven reliability of electronic components in general. It really is quite good.

Second, the digital nature of these systems allows the engineers to integrate some very trick functions that are completely automated. For example, the Nautique Linc 2.0 system incorporates an automatic function that sends speed data to the power distribution module in the system and, in turn, automatically adjusts the boat’s trim, based on speed, to maximize its wake height and shape, all without any human intervention.

Speaking of touch screens, it was interesting to learn that Ski Nautique has held off on employing touch-screen functionality and has instead stayed with soft keys at the perimeter of the screen that send the digital signal to the power distribution module. The system is completely CAN bus-based, offering no support for NMEA 2000 electronic equipment, which is part of the reason I refer to these systems as “closed-platform.” But again, in support of this approach, the boat is completely equipped for its intended use, so an NMEA interface, it would seem, is just not needed.

The EmpirBus NXT enables Raymarine’s gS Series to take control of a vessel’s electrical systems.

The EmpirBus NXT enables Raymarine’s gS Series to take control of a vessel’s electrical systems.

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It also should be noted that rather than attempting to design this system in-house, Nautique worked with the Oklahoma company FW Murphy, which recently changed its name to Enovation Controls, to develop its system exactly to its specifications. By approaching its entry into the digital world this way, the company was able to tap into the vast and broad-based experience that Enovation Controls brought to the table in integrating digital controls and distributed power systems to a wide variety of industrial applications. This approach, though slightly more conservative than others, will help, I think, to further ensure a high level of product reliability.

Yamaha Watercraft decided to go just a little bit further into the digital abyss and did utilize touch-screen tech, completely backed up by hard buttons at the base of the display, to provide a backup switching method for mission-critical electrical circuits for things such as navigation lights and bilge pumps. Yamaha went just a bit farther than Ski Nautique by building in some compatibility with NMEA 2000, but Mike Ricciardi did concede that it was rather limited. Basically the concept of a fully equipped boat really not needing any expansion capability with its distributed power system or system monitoring was applied here.

With the Connext System, besides the touch-screen LCD, a joystick control enters the mix, I think wisely targeting an age demographic quite comfortable with using a joystick. The system doubles as the entertainment hub of the boat, offering full access to radio and stereo controls, satellite radio, Bluetooth and USB connectivity. The system even has an easily accessible diagnostic page to help troubleshoot any electrical circuit problems that may crop up. But just as with the Ski Nautique Linc 2.0 system, circuit overcurrent protection parameters are programmed at the factory and are not field-adjustable, so again, when electrical components fail, replacements are going to have to match original OEM specifications for both voltage and amperage.

So where are we now?

Digital switching is here to stay and I think we are going to see more and more boatbuilders embracing this approach to electrical system design. I personally believe that this type of technology offers a potentially more reliable product than older analog design. Any time the number of wire termination points can be reduced, I believe you have reduced the number of failure points in any power distribution system.

In my more than 40-year tenure working in this area of the marine industry, I can say without a moment’s reservation that the vast majority of electrical/electronic failures I’ve seen were at wire and cable termination points. These systems not only reduce termination points, but the terminations that are made are also typically with latching weatherproof plug assemblies — just as we see in automotive applications — and they just don’t fail!

I’ve said for about the last 10 years that once I began seeing digitized distributed power systems installed on boats under 25 feet I’d know the technology was going to go mainstream on new boats and be here to stay. We’re there, people!

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue.

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