Behind the Screens

Electronics — September 2005
By Ben Ellison

Behind the Screens
Sometimes it takes a village to create innovative marine electronics.

 More of this Feature

• Part 1: Behind the Screens
• Part 2: Behind the Screens
• Electronics Q&A
• Maptech
• Airmar
• Si-Tex

 Related Resources
• Electronics Column Index
• Electronics Feature Index

I often hear savvy boaters puzzling over who really makes what in the marine electronics industry; some even seem miffed that, say, company X’s radar scanner seems to be exactly like company Y’s. In truth, the interrelated web of suppliers and contractors behind many a major brand multifunction screen is more complex than even the most suspicious might imagine. But it’s not about scamming consumers. What’s evolved is a healthy system of specialization and collaboration that’s helping both features and reliability to advance rapidly. A recent field trip deep behind the scenes of Maptech’s remarkable new i3 3-D fishfinder brought this phenomenon vividly home to me.

It turns out that the fishfinder’s high performance and unique features, discussed on page 46, were very much a multi-team effort. While Maptech’s hardware and software engineers focused on overall development of its do-everything-easily PC-based i3—which is coming along very well, by the way—two specialty teams hustled together the fish hunter. Airmar, a behind-the-scenes designer/supplier so ubiquitous that you probably know its name, built the black box processor that’s wired between its sonar transducer and the i3, and a company you’ve never heard of, NSI, coded the software module. One feature of the process, appealing to some, is that you actually don’t need to know a thing about Airmar or NSI; Maptech can market and support the finished product just fine. But getting to know the companies behind the 3-D touchscreen will help you understand the larger state of fishfinding technology, plus you’re apt to come away with a warm and fuzzy feeling about the state of American enterprise.

It didn’t matter that Airmar founder and CEO Steve Boucher was off visiting Asian clients when I toured his Milford, New Hampshire, headquarters because the results of his 20-plus-years at the helm are wholly apparent. In fact, he helped design the building that now hosts the whole process of designing and manufacturing some half-million transducers per year, and is set up for further growth. Outside Boucher’s palatial corner office hang some 30 odd patents, and nearby a cube farm bustles with industrious R&D types, including a staff physicist for the really far-out stuff and two process engineers focused on making the production floor below ever more efficient, reliable, and ergonomic. When long-time business development manager Peter Braffitt walked me around, he seemed to know the name of all 200 employees, many of them fellow long-timers. He also seemed as proud of their handiwork—assembling transducers really does involve soldering irons, needle-nose pliers, and dexterity—as he was of all the high-tech manufacturing and test machinery. Every component gets tested before, during, and after production, which likely accounts for a failure rate below 0.3 percent, down from about five percent when Airmar began and purportedly the best rate in its niche.

Airmar’s near total domination of that niche is telling. The company’s underwater sensors account for more than 75 percent of the worldwide recreational marine market, PWCs included! Every electronics brand uses at least some Airmar transducers, even Simrad, notable as I’ve also toured its equally high-tech and worker-friendly facility in Horten, Norway (which is apparently content building big commercial transducers). Most companies ship these sensors as their own—which they are in terms of total product, warranty, etc.—but others are proud to proclaim their use of Airmar; thus the boxes pouring out the door in Milford are labeled with all sorts of brands, even Airmar’s.

So, yeah, you very likely have an Airmar sensor feeding your fishfinder and/or digital depth/speed/temp display. And, sure, you may be able to use it even if you change screen brands, but, then again, maybe not. Airmar is totally ecumenical. While it was one of the first to build “smart” sensors able to output data in standard formats like NMEA 0183, 2000, and SmartCraft, it can also produce a transducer with an injection-molded, hand-soldered plug that’s entirely custom and all built in-house. (If you are struggling with “Will this sensor work with that machine?” issues, Airmar may be your best source of help, as noted in the Q&A.)

Next page > Part 2: One job of the big guys is to put it all together so your boating and shopping is easier. > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

This article originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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