The Trickle Down In Reverse

By Zuzana Prochazka
Published: February/March 2014

These once James Bond-esque products got their start in the military, but today most of us can't imagine life aboard our boats without them.

Photo of a slot machine display
KEP, or Kessler-Ellis Products, makes highend multifunction displays found at the helm of many larger powerboats and megayachts, but they also market electronic flow meters/instrumentation and counter/timers such as those used in slot machines.

While marine companies might be diversifying into other fields, boating has benefited hugely from other industries that edged their way into the marine industry. Navigation systems like LORAN and GPS have their roots in military applications, which led innovation partly due to their specific needs and partly because at the early-adopter stage, no commercial market could afford the new technology. These technological advances led to the creation of recreational marine electronics companies like Magellan, Garmin, FLIR, and Navico (parent of Simrad, B&G, and Lowrance) that eventually brought these cutting-edge technologies to our boats.

Did You Know?

Think that PLB or multifunction display you have aboard your boat was all the company made? Think again. For some manufacturers, the recreational marine market is a drop in the ocean, comparatively. You might be using their products in airports, hospitals, or at home walking the dog, without ever realizing it.

Photo of a hotel minibar

Dometic makes cooling and heating products for boats, but also manufactures hotel minibar systems, electronic safes, and computerized, temperature controlled containers for the transport of blood.

Photo of the National Christmas tree

Dr. Shrink, which wraps everything from boats to buildings, once wrapped the national Christmas tree after the 74-foot white spruce was cut down in Michigan and was readied for transport to Washington, D.C.

Photo of airport runway lights

Hella Marine sells interior and exterior boat lighting but their core business is in automotives where they manufacture headlights. They also make lights for runways so pilots can land safely.

ZF Friedrichshafen sells a variety of marine-propulsion systems including transmissions, pod drives, joysticks, and thrusters, but they also sell gearboxes for commercial wind generators.

Sea-Fire, maker of marine fire-suppression systems, also mounts its extinguishers in professional stock cars while ACR, which makes personal locator beacons (PLBs) for mariners, is also heavily invested in military and aviation-survival products.

Jeppesen, a division of Boeing, got into marine software and charts with the purchase of Nobletec in 2000 but has the core of their business in aviation including airport planning and passenger baggage simulations to increase terminal-layout efficiencies.

Photo of dog with leash

Soft Lines, maker of docklines, also make pet leashes and horse leads.

Photo of a shower head

Recognize Whale, a U.K. manufacturer of pumps, from your onboard freshwater system? They also make pumps for in-home applications such as showers and heating systems.

Photo of arcitectural staircase railing

Many rigging companies like Eastport Spar & Rigging and Navtec are taking advantage of a popular architectural trend by providing wire railings for outdoor decks and interior staircases.

"Early days for FLIR were all about the Department of Defense and large and expensive equipment," says Lou Rota, vice president of maritime sales at FLIR, a worldwide thermal-imaging company. "As the size and costs decreased, we expanded the technology to law enforcement, aviation, search-and-rescue (SAR) organizations, the U.S. Coast Guard, and now the recreational boater." FLIR also builds cameras for nighttime vision enhancement for the automotive industry. "Getting the costs down [to meet that market] has always been a challenge," says Rota. "That and working across different cultures because doing business with government agencies is a completely different mindset." FLIR acquired Raymarine in 2010, a recreational marine electronics manufacturer that had been spun out of another defense supplier, Raytheon, a decade earlier.

Next on the horizon for FLIR is building surveillance cameras for industrial and home security. "As costs decrease, the technology suddenly makes sense to more and more markets," adds Rota.

Garmin, another marine-electronics manufacturer, may have leveraged GPS technology, but the company didn't evolve out of the military. Founded by pilot Gary Burrell and engineer Min Kao (hence the name Garmin), the company's focus in the 1980s was on general aviation. Today, Garmin sells navigation products to the auto industry and handheld topographical mapping devices to hiking, biking, camping, and hunting enthusiasts.End of story marker

Writer Zuzana Prochazka is a USCG 100-Ton Master, and has cruised, chartered, and skippered flotillas in many parts of the world.


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