CONTROL OF ALL THINGS ELECTRIC AND ELECTRONIC ON BOARD IS CHANGING — QUICKLY.
ROCKER SWITCHES AND BUTTONS ARE BECOMING LESS COMMON, ESPECIALLY ON NEW BOATS, AS DIGITAL SWITCHING CONTINUES TO PROLIFERATE THROUGHOUT ALL SEGMENTS OF THE RECREATIONAL MARINE MARKET. BUT WHAT IS THIS BEAST, AND SHOULD WE BE THRILLED BY OR SKEPTICAL OF ITS RISE OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS?
WHAT BENEFIT IS DIGITAL SWITCHING FOR BOATS?
Simply put, digital switching replaces standard mechanical contacts, fuses, wiring harnesses and bus bars with electrical impulses sent over an NMEA2000 or Ethernet backbone. With a simple interface via either a standalone display or a multifunction display (MFD), a boat owner can command and monitor systems such as lighting, climate control, wipers, stereo, security systems, bilge pumps, generator starts and more. This generally eliminates most of the switches on a dash or in a dedicated circuit panel. Digital switching is networked control and monitoring that’s programmable —conventional circuit breakers can’t be programmed — and users can interface with it from any point on the network or via a remote tablet. “The holy grail of digital switching is simplification and integration,” said Dave Maryanov of CZone, a leading digital switching provider. “It’s an easy way to manage complexity.”
THE PROS OF DIGITAL SWITCHING
Digital switching builds in elegance and simplicity that are appreciated by boat builders and boat users, and it’s not entirely new. “The technology has been around in aviation, automotive and industrial applications for a long time,” said Raymarine’s Jim McGowan, “and it’s coming to boating.”
Why is it so appealing?
1 It makes an electrical or electronic system easier to monitor and troubleshoot. Software updates and system upgrades are possible, problems are more easily diagnosed and repairs become faster in some cases.
2 Less wiring with smaller gauge wire, fewer bulky switches and shorter wire runs reduce the cost of materials and simplify installation with fewer holes drilled and connections made. Boat builders can build boats more quickly and affordably.
3 The reduction in components also makes the boat lighter. Depending on the size of the vessel, that may translate into better fuel economy.
4 The systems are more flexible and expandable, and though there’s more initial planning for the boat builder, once a template is set, it’s easily replicated.
5 Digital switching is ideal for boats that have multiple helms. It significantly reduces wiring complexity and cost.
6 Overall system reliability increases simply by eliminating or reducing the number of mechanical switches and corrosion prone connections.
7 Digital switching systems can incorporate dozens of sensors to monitor the health of just about every aspect of the boat. Batteries, bilge pumps, tank levels and engine temperature can be monitored with sensors, which increases safety, right down to the ability to turn on courtesy lighting before you step aboard.
8 Digital switching systems are scalable, which is why these solutions are now migrating down-market into smaller and simpler boats.
9 The reduction in components also makes the boat lighter. Depending on the size of the vessel, that may translate into virtual timer.
10 Digital switching enables dimming capability.
11 Alerts can be built into the system to highlight a circuit that isn’t working properly. For example, when you turn on a bilge pump and it isn’t working on the correct voltage, a warning can flash on the display, alerting you to a potential problem.
12 Groups of switches can be combined into programmable modes activated by a single touch. If you’re going fishing early in the morning, you can program a Fishing mode that turns on the baitwell pumps and running lights and starts the A/C. If you’re heading to the river on a pontoon boat, Beach mode can turn on the lights and stereo, cool down the refrigerator and even deploy an electrically activated swim ladder.
13 Fewer switches have led to cleaner helm consoles and cleared room for larger MFDs on the dash.
14 Garmin, Raymarine, Furuno, Simrad, Lowrance and MFDs from other brands can turn into touchscreen switching interfaces. You know what’s going on with aspects of the boat right from the helm.
15 Key virtual buttons can appear on multiple screens, so you don’t have to hunt for them in the menus. Icons and animation make the interface more user friendly and personalized.You can now see how far
down your hydraulic swim platform is as it lowers.
16 System control can be taken off the boat via a Wi-Fi or cellular connection on a tablet or phone. So if you forgot to activate the security system when you left the marina, just do it from home.
17 In case of catastrophic failure, critical systems retain a mechanical override, so running lights, bilge pumps and genset starts are still operable. “Redundancy is built in,” McGowan said.
18 Digital switching reflects the way we live today. Our cars have had digital switching for years, and smart homes that can turn on lights, the A/C, alarms, entertainment and more are based on similar technology and are more prevalent. The change is being driven by expectations. We want boats to be similarly equipped with apps and interfaces that we already use and recognize.
FEWER SWITCHES HAVE LED TO CLEANER HELM CONSOLES AND CLEARED ROOM FOR LARGER MFDS ON THE DASH.
THE CONS OF DIGITAL SWITCHING ON BOATS
Nothing is perfect, so there are a few drawbacks, most of which are relatively low hurdles.
1 Due to the high level of integration and interconnectedness, a failure in the backbone can take the whole boat system down. However, see point 17 above: critical systems remain hardwired, so you can still get home.
2 If the entire system is connected to one display and that MFD goes down, the interface may be gone (or you may be able to retain control via a tablet).
3 If you have a dead ship with nothing left in the batteries, you won’t have a system interface and will need to turn on the genset at the device, unless it has a dedicated start battery.
4 Integration challenges remain, because not all devices are “smart” and they don’t have the same capability to become a part of a digital switching solution.
5 Menu-driven interfaces can be intimidating and it’s easier just to reach for a nav light switch than to learn a new system. Old salts have been especially distrustful of virtual switches and have a fear of the black screen. That said, most of the interface is structured into menus like on phones or tablets, so systems aren’t difficult to learn.
6 Digital switching is really a new-boat game. You can rewire an existing boat, but it will most likely require tearing out old systems and furniture. It will be costly and time-consuming; unless you’re rewiring a superyacht, it will probably not be worth it.
BOAT BUILDERS THAT ARE USING DIGITAL SWITCHING
The basics of digital switching functionality on boats have been around for about 10 years. What’s changing is the reach of the technology into various segments of the market. Once the domain of superyachts, digital switching has shot down-market into owner-operated cruising yachts, sailboats, center console fishing boats, towboats and even pontoon boats.
“We expect that within five years, 80 percent of boat builders will offer digital switching,” said Garmin’s Dave Dunne. “In 10 years, it’ll likely be 100 percent of builders.”
Boat builders such as Jeanneau, Prestige, Sea Ray, Scout, MasterCraft, Ranger and Boston Whaler all offer their models with some level of digital switching. Some manufacturers charge a premium for this whiz-bang technology that early adopters love. Some folks just live for the sleek Tesla-like dash interface. Other manufacturers just make digital switching mandatory, since they don’t build the old-fashioned way with switches anymore, and that’s likely to be the wave of the future.
ALL MARKET SEGMENTS, REGARDLESS OF HOW SMALL OR SIMPLE THE BOAT, ARE EXPECTED TO OFFER DIGITAL SWITCHING SOON.
Another facet that has changed besides market proliferation is the service network to support these systems. More electronics dealers are becoming certified to diagnose and troubleshoot digital networks, so the fear of being stuck without support is decreasing.
Basically, all market segments, regardless of how small or simple the boat, are expected to offer digital switching soon. A variable that offers room for improvement within the technology is the user interface, as icons get better and menus become more friendly and reflective of the real world.
“You can get a visual representation of critical fluid levels, battery health and even how far out your SureShade awning is,” said Ely Bates of Navico, which purchased superyacht switching provider Naviop and is trickling it down-market. “It’s likely to become a cloud-based technology in the future.”
DIGITAL SWITCHING PROVIDERS FOR BOATS
Europe has quite a few digital switching providers, and the U.S. is behind in this respect. Here, there are a few key players, with the lion’s share going to CZone, which falls under parent company Power Products (BEP Marine). CZone was first seen on large yachts, but it has captured the business of much smaller boats now. CZone does interface with tablets but doesn’t like to put the system on smartphones due to the small size of the screen.
“We don’t want someone to accidentally deploy their anchor rather than turn on their nav lights when they’re underway,” Maryanov said. Speaking of the smaller end of the market, before you think digital switching is complex technology tha thas no place on a small vessel, know that PowerPlex is working with multiple bass boat models. Lake fishing is about to go really high tech.
Swedish company EmpirBus was first distributed by Raymarine but is now a part of Garmin. Another manufacturer is SeaStar Solutions, which seems to target smaller vessels, and Simrad runs off Naviop, the Italian brand that was purchased by Navico, parent company of Simrad, B&G and Lowrance.
DIGITAL SWITCHING IS HERE FOR YOUR BOAT
Whether you love it or feel trepidation toward new technology, digital switching isn’t just coming, it’s here. Chances are any new boat you inspect at a boat show or dealership will have some form of it, because boats, like cars and homes, are growing more complicated, integrated and connected.
“Boats today are simply being asked to do more in the same real estate, and digital switching helps with installation in tight spaces as well as on the dash,” Maryanov said. “And boaters are willing to pay a premium for the elegance and the simplicity. They love the one-button wonder.”