|Building a Boat Brain|
Part 3: A Wicked Testing Regime
By Ben Ellison — March 2002
Of course, Sea Ray would rather that Navigators never require repair. Toward that end, the development team devised a wicked testing regime. Besides the standard outside-lab environmental tests for emissions, moisture resistance, etc., the Navigator had to spend time on "The Roof." Compared to all the high-tech gear around the PD&E facility at Merritt Island, Florida, this patch of rolled roofing on top of the Mechanical Lab trailer is pretty simple; however, running for a full month totally exposed to the heat and rain there is a real trial.
Onboard testing was equally grueling. SRNs were not only put on boats run extensively by Sea Ray’s own captains and several experienced customers, but also the run-all-day-every-day fleet at a nearby Mercury test facility and a few wildcards like the Coast Guard rocket boat I rode on. Sometimes the Navigator broke, and, when the fixes were substantial, the testing clock went back to zero. The process even uncovered the fact that certain dual counter-rotating props, when running at speed in flat water, could generate a harmonic vibration that would freeze a certain brand of hard disk. In retrospect Knapp will tell you that "building a computer that will take this abuse is &?@# hard!" The "validation" process may have taken longer than hoped, but it also allowed for some true fine-tuning. When Bosun’s Mate Allain made an astute, though quite minor, suggestion about the unit’s night-screen mode, Pratt dashed off a wireless e-mail to a programmer in Massachusetts.
Sea Ray also subjected the Navigator to a full Failure Mode and Effects Analysis, in which every department with any contact to the unit attempted to predict all possible failures and ways to avoid them. It’s a structured process much more common to the automotive industry than to boatbuilding, but no surprise, as Sea Ray is well known for its early adoption of carmaker design and production technologies. In fact, some of Navigator’s proposed features are a lot like the OnStar system proliferating in high-end cars, and the very notion of normally incongruent hardware, software, and boatbuilding companies working together on a unified product is so strange in this industry that it deserves attention in the business press.
I share not only Criner’s assessment of Navigator as a revolutionary product, but also his addendum that its creation has been an "industry-changing process." Over the last few years there have been tremendous advances in the integration of electronics with each other, but most systems remain complex to put together and operate. If Navigator foreshadows a new level of power and ease for a boater at his helm, it may also begin a whole new round of development and team building amongst all the players behind that helm. My guess is that more SRN-style "boat brains" will be developed, but not quickly. Ask Pratt, Knapp, and Criner; developing a system that seems so simple, so part of the boat, so "why didn’t I think of that"… is hard.
Sea Ray Phone: (800) 772-6287. Fax: (314) 213-7878. www.searay.com.
Maptech Phone: (978) 792-1000. Fax: (978) 792-1092. www.maptech.com.
This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.