Inside: Navico

Inside: Navico

Keen boaties will recognise the Navico brands Lowrance, Simrad, B&G – but most won't know the marine technology used by these companies is engineered on Auckland's North Shore.

(A mock up of a boat's helm used by engineers to test on)

Navico builds radar and sonar systems, marine safety equipment and dashboard displays and last year earned US$256 million in revenue. The marine manufacturer has factories and offices in Mexico, the US, UK and Norway. Despite being internationally owned, the majority of Navico's research takes place in New Zealand where it has around 60 of its 130-strong global engineering team.

Navico's chief technology officer Andrew Corbett is the Kiwi leading the company's R&D strategy. I talk to him about what makes New Zealand a good place for engineering on a global scale and how the likes of Apple and Samsung are edging in on his patch of water.

(Navico chief technology officer Andrew Corbett)

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Why is Navico's largest R&D lab in New Zealand?

A lot of the people here, including myself, were from Navman. We stayed on after Navico purchased Navman Marine and it just made sense to stay where the engineers were.

New Zealand's turned out pretty well for us. It's not as inexpensive as Mexico, but the guys here are more highly skilled.

(There are 58 engineers, electricians, developers and testers working at Navico's Auckland lab)

What kind of technologists do you have here in Auckland?

From New Zealand we mostly work on radar and chart plotting, MFDs (multi-function displays) and building PCBs (printed circuit boards).

The bulk of the team are [Bachelor of Engineering] or [Master of Engineering] engineers if they work in the software or hardware group. The mechanical group have mechanical engineering degrees... We've got good strong engineering schools in New Zealand producing some top graduates.

(Top: Equipment to measure microwave radiation, used in testing radars; Bottom: Science happens wherever there are microscopes)

How many women are in your engineering team?

Around ten percent of the team. I think that's about normal in engineering companies. We also have five dedicated project managers, one is a woman.

Is that an active consideration?

We are absolutely looking for the best person for the job. [Corbett later clarifies he hires solely on skill and character, but there are far fewer women applying than men in this field.]

This is kind of my go to question, but what's your experience been hiring engineers and developers to Navico in New Zealand?

We've been growing moderately over the last couple of years. There's always some kind of recruitment going on and at times it's reasonably hard work. If you're looking for the right people it takes the effort.

We do a lot better than the other sites and try to stay mostly local, we don't usually advertise internationally.

This isn't Sillicon Valley stuff... It would be nice if the industry was a whole lot bigger, but we do really interesting stuff that you can't really do elsewhere. We develop embedded ARM-based products and there aren't many opportunities for guys in New Zealand to do that.

(A printed circuit board mounted on a multi-function display)

Are you doing any work towards bringing Navico technology onto a wider range of consumer products, like tablets and smartphones?

Absolutely, it's inevitable. Everyone has a cellphone and most people bring theirs onto the boat. It gives you connectivity which brings all sorts of opportunities for us. We have a Go Free Strategy which is about providing connectivity systems on our boats using marinised wifi routers.

(A signal shielding room used to test for unwanted radio emissions)

If people use iPads instead of your MFDs is that a risk for a core part of your business?

There's a threat of people just replacing their marine instruments with iPads or iPad successors. Our response to that is it's inevitable.

However we're also a company selling technologies that allow people to get more out of their boating using sonar and radar. There's a technology barrier in manufacturing that, which is why we're investing in that kind of research.

Apple could produce a waterproof and daylight readable phone, but [it's] unlikely to produce a radar.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Navman Marine is a Navico brand, which it no longer.