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Shine bright like a HALO radar: Navico’s investment in NZ R&D pays off with a world first

A bit of Kiwi ingenuity is being allowed to shine in a big way with the launch of the world’s first Dual Range Pulse Compression Radar (HALO radar).

What’s the big deal about the radar, according to the Navico, the company manufacturing it, is turning on the radar is like shinning a torch that shines 72 nautical miles in the dark, in the middle of the ocean. It is a boat owner’s dream ‘torch’, quick to power on, quiet, and rugged in design.

Navico’s New Zealand-based R&D has managed to overcome technical challenges to allow Navico to beat competitors to producing the Simrad HALO radar, deemed a world first.

To the uninitiated, the Navico name does not mean much.  But in the global marine industry, Navico is a big shot, employing 1,500 people, with products sold over 100 countries. The company, headquartered in Norway, is currently the world’s largest marine electronics company, with brands under its belt including Lowrance, Simrad, and B&G.

What’s special about Navico at its R&D core is a bunch of Kiwis living the dream of pushing boundaries in the marine technology arena which comes only when your owners have deep pockets and a long-term horizon.

Power of financial muscle

Chief operation officer of Navico John Scott told Idealog what’s cool about the achievement is that while the knowledge about pulse compression has been available, few in the industry carry enough financial muscle to be able to develop the technology or manufacture it.

Today’s standard radars have limitations around safety, emissions and serviceability and certain physical performance limitations. 

Navico’s HALO radar can power on within 16-25 seconds (against two to three minute warm ups pulse radar normally takes) to produce accurate radar image instantly. Its brushless motor makes it quiet, while the rugged design makes it less prone to wear and tear. The radar is suited for small- to mid-sized boats.

 “When we started developing Halo it was not commercially or technically feasible. However we didn’t let this put us off, we worked closely with our key suppliers to identify what was possible. 

“As our parent is a private company we have the luxury of playing the long game and have been able to employ the best approach.

“Everyone knows Halo is the future, it’s just that if you have something that does an ok job like our competitors did, there was no necessity for people to develop the new technology – now they have it and can see the benefits,” Scott says.

Remnants of Navman spirit?

Another special tie that binds Navico to the local marine industry’s bitter-sweet memory is the sale of Navman by founder Peter Maire to Brunswick Corp in 2004. Brunswick subsequently sold the marine division of Navman to Navico in 2007.

When Navico integrated Navman into its operations then, there were six R&D sites globally, with lots of duplications.

Scott says: “We rationalised the sites to specialise in what they were good at. So here in Auckland we focus on radar and platforms. We are very good, it is no coincidence that all but one of our leading competitors now has an office in Auckland and a number of former Navico staff are employees.”

Power radar, a boatie’s dream

10 years and millions of dollars

It is a technology that took 10 years and $15 million to come alive. Navico spends around 10 percent of its sales on R&D. The company is in the process of applying for R&D tax credits, Scott says.

“It’s (the R&D spend) a massive number by NZ standards. However, 80 percent of our revenue is from products less than 36 months old. The market is ready and desperate for this as we have already seen with our broadband radar.”

Scott says Navico has a large portfolio of products and customers and not reliant on a single product’s success.

“We release a new product every 20-30 days so this is just a normal part of how we operate.  We are looking at a very exciting opportunity for Navico to position ourselves as the market leader in this segment estimated to be worth US $250 million.”

Culture of unorthodox thinking

What has allowed Navico’s R&D centre to thrive, Scott says, is a team that is not constrained by orthodox thinking. “If you look at the team, it’s a total melting pot of cultures, styles and people and as a result you get hybrid vigour.”

Asked if Kiwis have something special to offer in terms of marine technology know-how, he says: “No I don’t think so. It’s not nature, its nurture. The fact that we are surrounded by water helps but the smarts in Navico has little to do with the proximity to water, and is much more to do with our attitude to problem solving.”

The NZ office has 128 people, the majority being R&D staff and those supporting them. This compares with 65 people in 2009, and Scott says he expects this growth to continue as Navico pursues new opportunities.

He adds: “This is an exciting time for Navico. Global marine electronics is a $3 billion plus market and we are poised to take a bigger slice. Over the last four years we’ve outperformed all our key competitors on all fronts, in large part due to our leadership in innovation which leads the industry.”

Navico’s Simrad HALO Radar will be available from authorised dealers from June, 2015. 

Loves peanut sauce, tennis, taichi, stockmarkets, and cool entrepreneurs – not necessarily in that order. In her previous reincarnations, she was an intranet worker bee at Mercer HR Consulting, a Reuters worker ant, and a NZ Herald mule.

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