MTA: Where we buy marine electronics

Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

9 Responses

  1. Christopher says:

    One thing you didn’t mention is commoditization. From what I’ve seen, as new tech slides across the hype cycle from over-rated and under-performing to a generally reliable commodity, buyers move their purchasing from new tech boutique suppliers to the commodity houses as soon as possible.
    The second aspect of commoditization is the disappearance of end user maintainability. Thirty years ago a local technician with a modest bench could fix a radar. Today one either trashes it for a new one or sends it back to the manufacturer who trashes it and sends a new one or new guts in the old case. $3000-$4000 electronic devices have become no more maintainable than cell phones, so people buy on price and the channel that sells lowest with the best return policy generally wins.

  2. John says:

    Christopher, that’s an interesting comment. I place a lot of emphasis on “onboard warranty” when buying high value items like radar, autopilot and MFD’s. I am technical enough to install myself but often this is not good enough to convince the manufacturer that you qualify for onboard warranty. There is nothing worse than having to remove something, box it up and freight it to a central workshop and wait two weeks for its return. Then re-installing and hoping like hell it works! Without onboard warranty you have to firstly find someone willing and capable and then PAY BY THE HOUR and boy can they take their time with the clock ticking away! Then to add to our problems, each manufacturer has their own version of onboard warranty, terms and conditions.
    Price is king and everyone wants to buy at the cheapest price available but we all expect unconditional warranty and after sales service. I would be happy with the manufacturer who set a pricing matrix whereby you could buy an onboard warranty and extended warranty options.
    I can understand that there’s no need for this when talking small stand-alone products, handhelds etc but when the product like a MFD, radar scanner etc is hard wired and flush mounted into the vessel then it’s a nightmare dealing with “return to workshop” warranty policies.

  3. Christopher says:

    Yep, like you I look for what mfgs will fund “onboard.” In the case of my last faulty item, they told me to box it up anyway (major mfg). I had my lawyer look at the warranty and she pointed out the clause of clauses — “at the manufacturer’s option.” I went back through all my warranties and found this or something similar in all of them. When the mfg sent it back “repaired” they had burned seriously new firmware, and it no longer interfaced properly. I had to upload drivers for everything with which it interfaced.
    Like you I can handle most installs (even with no standards for wiring colors etc) but real repairs darned near require one to destroy the equipment to get into it, and once there, one needs a suite of specialized test equipment and diagnostic software…which is why, after much correspondence, the mfg admitted they had told me to box and ship — none of their representatives can do much of anything with the stuff “onboard” either.
    Occasionally, I feel great nostalgia for tubes and O-scopes.

  4. John says:

    Ah, CRT and O-scopes….now those were the days. In a past life was was a radio communications technician and although I spent only a short time behind the workbench or carrying a tool bag, I have fond memories of those days. A career change in my mid late 20’s saw me leave behind the tool bag and slip on a pair of shiney shoes but I have not lost my touch when it comes to tweaking and fiddling on all things marine electronics.
    Having said that over the last few days I have had two very different boating experiences. First was with a friend of a friend who has a near new 45ft sports fisher with all the mod-cons and gadgetery that you’d expect on a $600,000 boat! The owner spent all day with his head peering into LCD displays and moaning about things that were not working. Being slightly technical and having a fair bit of experience I felt obliged to earn my lunch so there I was fault finding,checking settings and trying to make things work all whist the owner was shouting at someone (the supplier) on his cell phone! It was not a pleasant experience and for his $600,000 I think the owner has added a few more ulcers to his growing list of issues. We hardly communicated about anything other than hearing of complaints about things not working, things that in my opinion are really not needed in the first place!
    Last weekend I was invited to go sailing on beautiful wooden boat. The only electronics onboard was a fixed mount VHF radio and a depth/speed/temp guage with associated sensors and a basic GPS. We had the most wonderful boating experience where we spoke at length about all sorts of topics, took our time to enjoy the surroundings and simply relaxed. I could not help thinking about my previous weeks experience where the owner/skipper was red faced and popping heart pills because the naming of AIS targets was not correct!

  5. Bill Bishop says:

    John, you’re right about the complexity of some systems, especially when large parts of the systems are custom built, or proprietary. As good as I think I am, sometimes I just shake my head at the lack of documentation available to the end users, technicians, and in some cases even the builders. A sea of tied up wiring harnesses, and endless blinking black boxes buried deep in the barely accessible bowels of the vessel, and not one single wiring diagram. The one thing I can tell you about simple is that it’s always more reliable, and much easier to fix.

  6. Bill Bishop says:

    Oh, one more thing to say about repairing broken marine electronics, 99 percent of the time I can’t fix them, and removing them, packaging, shipping to Mfg, and re-installing them is always expensive to me. Lets look at a typical one. Go to boat (0.5 hour), remove under warranty chart plotter (0.5 to 1.0 hours, if lucky), write letter/get RMA (0.5 hour), take to UPS, wait in line and have it packed, agonize whether to insure, pay to ship (1.5 hour or more), wait, take 10 calls from owner about when it will be done, get unit back, go to boat (0.5 hour) re-install unit (0.5 to 1.5 hours), often having to reload waypoints, and set up the system and test. If it’s easy, just 5 or more hours invested, plus freight, and expediting fees if requested. That’s just a chart plotter, now do the 80lb radar pedestal, aargh. I never end up being able to bill for all of the true costs of the work. From the owners view point I just took it off, and shipped it, why is it so expensive he says? Onboard warranty rarely pays me the true costs either, and has a lot more paper work attached to it.

  7. Christopher says:

    John & Bill,
    I too traded steel toes for shiny shoes. My bench was a software lab in the late ’60s early’70s and then a flight line. In most cases the technical documentation physically out-weighed the devices documented and everything was driven by standards, standards, standards.
    While I am pleased with the suite of capabilities I have on the boat, the only thing that integrates them is GPS (and not even that entirely any more).
    In the course of performing the integration, seven items had four different color schema in their wiring harnesses. [Red and black for power are not even consistent with the addition of yellow.]
    The new AIS which cannot share GPS in (but can out) adds a new schema. Oh, and the wiring schema for bringing in the $GPHDT sentence is, well you can’t actually call it non-standard in the absence of a standard. [It’s instructive to read the current Soundings article on the lack of acceptance of DSC radio technology being somewhat anchored in integration difficulties — and to see industry’s uneven participation in the dialog.]
    Among the eight devices, there are eight menu syntax. There are four switch conventions — “+” on one increases field of view and on the another decreases it.
    And all this is before one even turns the devices on and is suddenly presented with a “well it’s never done that before.”
    I remember the days of a depth sounder, a knotmeter and a handheld GPS that gave nothing but lat and lon. I don’t long for those days, but neither do I remember spending much time with the manuals.

  8. Bill Bishop says:

    On many days, I would gladly trade my “steel toed boat shoes” for “shiny” ones. I can barely remember the days when I came home, and you could still smell the soap on me from the morning shower. Today, not so much.

  9. John says:

    Bill, I feel your pain but running a business even with my shiny shoes I sweat a lot more nowadays…just a different kind of sweat πŸ™‚ That’s an excellent breakdown of time and costs, thank you.
    I love my plotter and could not imagine boating without one. But a good 2D color GPS plotter with decent charts and simple menu is all I need.
    Boat owners expectations are so high (thanks Steve Jobs & Co.) that there’s no more “wow factor”. At boat shows the sales guys demonstrate some very impressive 3D plotting features, complete with radar overlay, AIS target tracking, ARPA, weather overlay, detailed charts with flashing buoys, bathymetric details only previously used my the military, better than 1m position accuracy, built in memory capacity and high definition waterprrof displays and the customer looks somewhat disappointed, pulls out his iPhone and asks if it can “sync” with latest his iPhone app which he downloaded for free! I remember the days when you showed a customer a “birds eye view” of his position on the big blue ocean, a rough outline of the coastline with a few contour lines and half a dozen waypoints and he was ripping open his wallet! Those were the days!

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