By Ben Ellison
Behind the Screens
|Part 2: One job of the big guys is to put it all together so your boating and shopping is easier.|
The line marking how much a strategically smart supplier like Airmar contributes to an end product versus what the brand OEM contributes is purposely very gray. Brand X may get Airmar to perfect and build a certain idea, and the resulting part may then be all Xs. Or, like the broadband technology discussed here or the intriguing Weather Station I wrote about last April, Airmar might come up with something new that it makes available to all its clients, who can use the sensor as is or fashion it into a larger integrated system improvement.
The case of the Maptech FishFinder seems to be all of the above! Other manufacturers are working with the hardware that Airmar calls its BBFF170, for 170-kHz Black Box FishFinder, and new end-user products may ensue, but apparently at least one data string coming out of that box is proprietary to Maptech because its contractor NSI codeveloped it.
Companies like Airmar, successful with numerous clients who compete vigorously, are naturally darn quiet about all they know, but there’s still gratification, even fun, to be had in the multiteam creation process. I picked up that the project developers at all three firms involved with 3-D fishfinder not only respect each other but had some good times fishing—errr, I mean testing—together. Airmar and Maptech, which is in Amesbury, Massachusetts, both have off-site test boats, but NSI’s little office outside Annapolis is purposely just a short walk to a marina where partners Mark Pringle and Floyd Philips keep two capable test vessels commissioned year-round. Never mind that the newer one has Maptech painted all over it; that’s part of a business plan that’s finally working well after ten years defined partially by struggle (wrong partner, unpaid royalties, lawsuits, and so forth).
Today the pair knows NSI’s niche (and regard Airmar with unbridled awe). And, with only one employee, it’s responsible for the contour modules in several Maptech products as well as in Raymarine’s RayTech, plus the cool and real—they actually survey the lakes—Bass Tracker animations you may have seen on ESPN or Fox Sports. NSI is also working on Bathy Creator software that will intelligently blend high-resolution sonar readings into existing 3-D bathymetry on the fly; I saw a prototype that I’m sure will fire up some fishermen, or other amateur Capt. Cooks like me, whether it’s integrated into i3 or sold directly by NSI, or both. Google can’t find NSI, a downside of working behind the scenes, but you can learn more at www.nsiworldwide.com. What you won’t find out, and I can’t tell you, are the other marine screens where NSI’s 3-D work may eventually pop up.
The 3-D fishfinder may be unique, at least for now, but its development wasn’t. Multiple teams, often layered and overlapping, commonly conspire to fashion the big integrated systems we see at our helms. But you don’t want to be overly clever with that knowledge; the whole is usually much more than the sum of its parts.
Don’t assume, for instance, that a particular Airmar transducer will work the same with a different fishfinder or that identical radar scanners will produce identical results on different display heads. And you certainly shouldn’t worry about it; one job of the big guys is to put it all together so your boating and shopping is easier. However, if you’re looking for help in a defined niche or clues as to what’s coming next, or just enjoy understanding how the marine electronics business really works, poke around behind the scenes.
This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.