Monday, July 13, 2015

Boat builders installing marine electronics. Is this really a good idea?.

Like the title asks, should boat builders be in the marine electronics business? I think the answer for some is maybe yes. For some absolutely not. Then there is everything else in between. So I'm going to opine a bit on this subject and explore the pluses and minus of this approach starting with the costs to the buyer first. For the buyer the big plus of a factory electronics install is it's easier to finance the electronics on a new boat when it's folded into the mortgage.... provided it's well installed.

Certainly lenders will allow buyers to finance both dealer, or outside firms added marine electronics. The downside of this is it requires knowing in advance the hard costs to do so resulting in many cases a higher price to manage the unknown issues involved with the install.  

I've had the opportunity to see some end user pricing on electronic packages. There are a couple things to note. Rarely is the equipment pricing less than full boat retail, and the install labor costs are generally less than a bargain either. In most cases the end user price is substantially higher than the aftermarket purchase and installation price.

Here is a real and quick example. A factory installed electronics package has a cost of $18,000. It has two high end MFD's, sounder module, transducer, VHF radio and antenna. I loosely priced this gear at MAP (Minimum Advertised Price) or in other words full retail. This comes out to be about $11,000. What's left is the labor portion and it's a whooping $7,000.

Let's say the boat builder is selling its labor at full blown marina labor rates. I'll use $100.00 per hour and this may be low, for marinas at any rate. This makes the man hours to install this system about 70 hours. This is almost nine working days. In the real world a good installer would easily be able to do this same install in three days or less without working up a sweat, well at least if they weren't working in the subtropics.

Now even worse I could have reconfigured the above system, saved over $3,000 in hardware costs, reduced the labor installation time and improved the system's capabilities. 

Okay so it's more expensive to have the builder install the system, but it's professionally done while the boat is being built. The system costs although higher have the warranty support coming from both the dealer and the builder so I'm well taken care of aren't I? 

The difficulty is not all of the statements above are correct in many cases. I'll start with the professionally part of the equation. I'm sure at the factory one or two of the personnel are certified. In most cases this means they have taken an open book test and passed it. I would aver that a good install requires more than a manufacturer's certification which indicates a basic understanding of that electronics brand installation needs. This doesn't guarantee the installers have a full grasp of the entirety of the system and its overall integration into other systems on the boat.

Can they take the boat out and properly set up and test the autopilot on a step hulled boat that can travel at 70 miles per hour? When they installed the autopilot compass did they clearly mark where the compass was placed so the owner doesn't inadvertently set the lunch hook anchor near it. Do they understand the basics of ABYC wiring standards. Are the how's, why's, and where's of transducer installation well understood. Do they even fully test the systems before they leave the factory?

I believe that only the basics are being given a cursory check leaving the nuance for others. This is why I'm seeing so many problems. I'm sure many factory installers are more than capable and very skilled. But the numbers tell me many are not. The examples used here are from four name brand boat builders and involve two MFD manufacturers.

The point of this rant is I have recently dealt with a number of poorly installed factory systems. Transducers badly installed. A poorly installed radar that couldn't see an aircraft carrier in front of it. An autopilot system powered through a 5 amp fuse which did a dandy job of protecting the autopilot's 20 amp fuse for about a blistering two milliseconds. A MFD's sonar was in simulation mode. Autopilot plumbing that wasn't purged. Wires left unconnected.  A failed sounder module. The software isn't current, and the list goes on and on. All real and all occurred over about 8 weeks of time.

What is happening is too many builders are shoving these boats out the door and leaving their problems for the dealers to contend with. At what they are charging for these systems they should be absolutely perfect every time. They have all of the advantages I don't have. Transducers can be installed before decks are dropped on. Wire pulls are exposed and easy to get to, access is easier. They even get to work in the shade instead of the glare of a stinking hot Florida melanoma inducing sun.

Now about the mystical warranty coverage on these factory installed systems. This is a shaky deal at best, and I am more often than not on the losing end of these transactions. So here is new boat with a factory installed system suffering from technical aliments. What do I know about the install? Squat, zip, nada, nothing, zero. A pile of manuals are in the package and that's it.

I have to go look and see what's actually installed, and compare it to what the system believes is installed. Hmmm... I see a weather module inside the console but the system doesn't. Then there are the integration issues? Why are the side and down view sonar pages only available on one MFD? The real problems arise when it comes time to play the blame game for problems, and who is going to pay for it? The builder. The electronics manufacturer? The dealer? WTF, do I have to eat these damn costs again? I'm a little over this.

Here is where things get real fuzzy with the warranty issues. Who pays to figure out what's wrong in the first place and then what needs to be done to fix it? It recently took me an hour alone after cutting a zillion tie wraps to find a small module buried in a bundle of wires behind a battery discovering it had been incorrectly connected.

An autopilot that blew a fuse in the middle of bay while trying to get the autopilot system set up. It took an hour to trouble shoot in a cramped 100 degree console. Tie wraps raining down trying to trace the power wire till I found it fused in a block at 5 amps. OMG, why would I be looking for a freaking 5 amp autopilot fuse in the first place? 15 amps and up, yes, and there were just few. Then the time it took to tie everything back up. Another hour was wasted going back to the dock to get a correct fuse from the truck, and then back out into the bay to start anew.

This was the builder's fault, but they will grump about it. Are you sure? Our folks wouldn't have done that, they're professionals you know. The dealer's guys must have done this. What? You're trying to bill us two hours over a blown five amp fuse? Not a chance! What makes all of this worse is the owner often gets stuck in between the bickering about who pays who for what. 

To be fair some builders do an excellent job on the installs. They typically are the ones who put the boats into the water and carefully check their work. There is also a correlation between the system complexity and problems. As complexity increases, the potential for integration issues rise exponentially. 

For MFD manufacturers bad boat builder installs can and will quickly damage your brand image. One unhappy customer shredding your product because of installation issues on a long "The Hull Truth" thread will keep the marketing department busy for a year. Your field staff have to stay on top of your builders, work with them to improve the quality of installs and documentation. Their job is to insure installs are done well and you have customers happy with your brand. Yeah I know this is real work, but it needs to be done.

My last point is if there are install issues in the field, manufacturers need to expeditiously help the dealer because the typical builder isn't typically going to fly in a tech to help. A customer who is upset because 20 grand worth of electronics on his brand new boat can't tell him how deep the water is shouldn't be told the field rep will get back to him next week. This is your brand, protect it well and you will keep the customers forever. If you're slow to respond and really don't care.... well we know what will happen.

For builders this is true also. You sting your dealers too often with poor work and problems this will be the end of your factory electronics install business and maybe your product line with them. Builders need to improve their interaction with the buyers. A conference call between your installers, the buyer and the dealer will go a long ways in improving the installs. This has the plus of making your buyer feel important by allowing letting them participate in the decisions. Oh you're left handed? We'll install the autopilot control head on the port side of the helm to make it easier for you to hit the standby button. Lastly to the builders. Take some real time to check out these installs before shipping and advise the dealers about what yet needs to be done. In other words drag the boat out into the harsh light of day and see if the GPS and other gear really works. Lord knows your being paid more than enough to do that.

The dealers need to take more time prior to delivery and make sure when there are electronics issues that they are quickly resolved. In the end it's your customer and you have to make sure problems are resolved earlier than later. You have to also gracefully beat on the builders and the system manufacturers if you start having regular issues. Your job in the end is to support your customer, even if you have to dig into your own pockets on occasion.

There is an alternative for dealers and that's using a good local installer. He or she can meet with the customer and help them decide what they need and want. There is no finger pointing. Warranty issues are promptly handled. And best of all the installer can spend time with the customer teaching him how to use the system thus giving them the confidence needed to boat safely and catch dinner if they desire. There are thousand of us and we're not hard to find. We have extensive real world experience and we care about our work. Pay attention boat builders. Do it right or not at all. I have seen enough poor work to last a lifetime.

1 comment:

  1. Bill - thanks again for an excellent post. Well stated for all sides of the marine business. I will be forwarding to a friend who is in the process of buying a new boat.


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