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Interview with Raymarine's Grégoire Outters

by Mark Jardine 10 Oct 2023 14:30 BST
Alpha 9 © Raymarine

We spoke to Grégoire Outters, Managing Director of Raymarine to find out more about the marine electronics company, his role, the challenges faced, and where he sees development being concentrated in the decade to come.

Mark Jardine: Could you describe your day-to-day role as Managing Director at Raymarine?

Grégoire Outters: I'm responsible for the Raymarine brand as well as the FLIR Thermal maritime cameras for any commercial marine applications. We also acquired ChartWorld earlier this year. ChartWorld are focusing on anything related to navigation for commercial applications, whether they are shipping vessels or cruise liners.

So, it's really difficult to describe what I'm doing day to day as it changes almost every day! But the main line is, I'm in charge of the short-term and long-term strategy. That's probably the biggest impact I have really: defining where we want to go in the short term (next 12 months), but also in the next five to ten years. Obviously, it's also managing the operations, managing the sales team, the marketing, making sure we've got the right skills in the organisation. And it's making sure we also have the right engineering support or the right technologies to be able to serve our customers today and tomorrow. It's really a mix of a lot of different things.

Mark: That is quite incredible scope, and you've been there for over a decade now; there have been huge changes in marine technology. What would you regard as the greatest challenge to date?

Grégoire: I joined after the financial crisis. So, I've been fortunate not to go through that pain. The biggest change, which I guess has been kind of the same experience for everyone in the industry, was the Covid pandemic. If I look at the market, Covid impacted us strongly, in the early months, between February and July 2020. We had to rescale the organisation to adapt to the lack of demand, especially at the peak season time. So instead of having a boom in our sales, as we normally have then, we saw a strong drop in demand. Having to rescale was a big challenge and a difficult time, obviously for everyone. But our employees really understood that and we took that as an opportunity to reshape and have a more efficient organisation.

That's one thing. But what was most disruptive after that was from July 2020 when the demand started to explode! We actually saw a much larger increase in July than we'd ever seen before. And that continued into 2021 and 2022. We saw not only our customers coming back, but we also saw newcomers in the market. Some younger generations, but also customers of my age that never owned a boat, and now wanted to take their family on the water; it was easier to take them on the water than travelling abroad. That was quite interesting and some of our products had to adapt to fit their needs. At the same time, we had this heavy supply chain disruption that prevented us from finding components anywhere in the world. We had to modify products to fit replacement components to the ones that were no longer available.

All the focus for the past two and a half years has been on how we can deliver the products to our customers. How can we mitigate the disruption in our production, driven by the lack of components? How could we really make sure that our customers were still getting the products they wanted to get at the time they wanted to get them. So that was the greatest challenge that I have seen in my ten years at Raymarine.

Mark: This brings me on to working with marine industry partners, not just on the supply chain side, but integrations. It is becoming more and more important for people to have a connected boat. How do you work with your partners in the marine industry to deliver that?

Grégoire: We've been working with partners for a very long time. If you look at our products, they've always been quite open. If I look at the cartography, for example, we were the first ones to integrate both Navionics and C-MAP. We want to continue to remain open with our partners as much as possible. Back in 2017, when we introduced our first Axiom displays, we chose Android, because we wanted to make it simple to be able to integrate apps, to integrate partners.

Of course we had Netflix and we had Spotify, but we also started to partner with players in the industry, like SeaKeeper, for example. We were among the firsts to integrate SeaKeeper in the United States, because we wanted to make it easy for partners. We recognised that we cannot develop everything ourselves. If we want to be stronger, if we want to provide a stronger offering to our customers, we need to find the right partners. We need to find the partners that can be complementary to our systems.

You've mentioned connected boats, and that's more and more what we've done. Our chartplotters are integrating with more and more partners. Over time, we've also introduced more products like YachtSense to be able to connect to everything you have on your boat. Even before YachtSense, we were one of the first in the industry to integrate digital switching with Empirebus. I think we introduced that back in 2014 or 2015. It was the first digital switching solution. Now in 2019/2020, we've introduced our own digital switching solution, YachtSense, to offer connected solutions to partners.

Mark: I remember when I first saw YachtSense at METSTRADE, what really struck me is how modular it is. You can just expand it and add on the extra parts, as and when they're needed. A great modular approach to vessel automation and remote monitoring. How has that been received by yacht manufacturers and customers looking to upgrade?

Grégoire: It's a good point. I like the fact that you're highlighting how modular it is, because we've designed it, targeting the larger boats, so you are able to fit what you need and optimise your system the way you want. You won't have tens of different modules that you're trying to fit; you just stick with the ones you need to be able to serve you.

It's been received extremely well. It's been really successful with a lot of our customers on a wide variety of vessels. Obviously the yachts were the first ones to adopt it, and then we saw the centre consoles in the US for the fishing guys - they've been keen on using it. If you look at bigger sailing boats, they love the modularity because you can customise it and choose the modules you need. It's been extremely successful.

Mark: You're having to work across sail cruising and racing, power, fishing, and commercial. With these kinds of modular systems, from the word go, you're trying to think, 'how do I make this work across the entire market?' Is this something that you are drumming into your team the entire time, making sure that a modular system is going to deliver to all of your customers, where they might use just a small part of it, but making sure that they've got the module for their sector?

Grégoire: Yes, that's what we've been doing for many years. If you look back, our business is 100 years old. With the first sonars that were developed, we've always tried to serve as many customers as possible, because the application is kind of the same - you're on the water - so everything that is coming with the environment, water, vibration, are the same, so we are designing our products to survive the elements. This is the experience we're bringing.

And yes, we cannot afford to develop dedicated specific technologies for each of the markets. But what we do have are common technologies, whether they're radars, autopilots or chartplotters, and then we've got expertise in in the various markets: if you take the sailing market for example, we've got people here that have won international races, so they know what the customers will want to do. We optimise the technologies that we have for these different markets. That's our strength to be able to do that, and that's coming from the expertise of the people we have in the company.

Mark: This brings me on to visualisations. In sailing, what you want to see on your display is often very different to fishing. With your chart integrations, you're now able to create some really advanced visualisations which will mean that people can see information in a way that becomes far more readily understandable. How much work goes into these visualisations?

Grégoire: It's pretty cool. So, in 2018, we decided to acquire a few small companies to sell our own charts. One of the reasons is that we wanted to sell our customers different charts to what they could find in the market. But, also a key aspect of that was to start owning the data, to come up with different visualisations. It's still quite difficult to navigate on a boat because you need to interpret the charts, and at the same time you need to interpret the radar, and also maybe you're getting the video feed. That's a lot of sensors coming in and you need to quickly make decisions based on that. When you're navigating in difficult conditions, whether you've got fog, whether it's at night, it's even more difficult. What we want to do is integrate all these sensors together, and merge the data to provide it in a way that our customers can use to make a decision quickly.

Being able to develop our own charts, having the capability to develop our own radars, having the cameras also in-house (whether they're thermal or visible) gives us the ability to really merge the sensors and provide the right information to our customers.

Mark: A topic which is heavily in the news at the moment is artificial intelligence. Now, decision making on board is usually down to the skipper, but are there any actions which you're now trusting to artificial intelligence? One thing I'm really thinking of is autopilots. There are a lot of boats, especially the race boats, where the autopilot is actually reacting quicker than a sailor ever could.

Grégoire: Artificial intelligence covers a lot of subjects! When we introduced it, already 10 years ago, we had the first auto-learning autopilot. Basically, the more you sail with your autopilot, the more your autopilot learns, and the better it will react. So we've done that already quite a few years ago, and we've kept improving that.

We're also putting a lot more artificial intelligence in other technologies like cameras, for example, where thermal cameras can automatically detect anything on the water. So when you navigate, you get alarms based on what the camera will see. Furthermore, the camera will tell you exactly what it is so that you can make a better decision. We introduced DockSense, three years ago, which is basically rebuilding everything around you. Using cameras, with intelligence, the system is able to detect any objects, any risk on your boat, and take control of your boat. So there is a lot of artificial intelligence, there is a lot of learning in our systems that we've built. We will continue to add more, and we'll combine data together to provide the right information to our customer, with the idea eventually to go into more autonomous navigation, which is really what we're working on with our partners.

Mark: When you do software updates, can you do them over the air? This way when a customer buys a product may find it has more functionality a year later?

Grégoire: Yes, that's been a focus for years. We introduced the Axiom platform back in 2017, and since then we have had a lot of software updates. Actually, if we come up with a software update today, the customer that bought Axiom back in 2017, so six years ago, will benefit from these updates! Basically, you can have a six-year-old product and still have new features. What we're doing every three or six months, depending on the type of features we want to introduce, is creating updates, whether they're for fishing, sailing, cruising or other applications.

Mark: YachtSense, for example, integrates with your phone, so if something happens on your yacht, you can be alerted on your phone. What other integrations are you doing with mobiles and with apps?

Grégoire: YachtSense is a big one. We've got YachtSense Link, which is the router that won the DAME award at METSTRADE last year, and that enables you to take control of your boat when you're at home, but also to monitor your boat, so you get alarms if anything happens on your boat. Or you can start something, if you want to start your air conditioning an hour before you get into your boat, you can do that. There are a lot of functionalities that we bought into that.

With the app, you can also update your charts, you can choose the charts you want to use. So if you decide to sail somewhere, if you want to update your charts, buy a new chart, you're able to do that through the app.

Mark: Mark: Finally, I'm going to look back to what you said at the beginning about your role. A lot of it is that you are looking at what you're going to do in a month, a year, a decade... What do you see (and I fully understand you might not want to give away exactly what you see) as the next big change in marine electronics?

Grégoire: I think there are two main impacts, and we've started to work on them, so there is no secret on that. The first one is autonomous navigation. And that's really what will drive the electronics for the next five or ten years - not necessarily to take full control of the boat, because I'm still a firm believer that a sailor / cruiser / fisherman will be proud of driving or being at the helm of the boat - but what is really stressful is potentially hitting something. Anything can happen on your boat, as we know very well, so you want the system to be secure enough to take control when you need it the most. If you are at risk of hitting something, if you are at risk of doing something wrong with the boat, then the system will take control of that. That's what I call autonomous navigation in the leisure industry.

We've partnered with Avikus - part of the Hyundai group. They're really advanced in terms of autonomous navigation and have been able to integrate a lot of sensors. We're working with them to really build the best autonomous navigation system in the market. We're going to be using all the sensors that we've been developing for the past 80+ years, and they will put their intelligence into that, also the intelligence we've been building together. That's really where the market is going to go when it comes to navigation.

The other part is obviously sustainability. There is more and more focus on how we can reduce our footprint. We're working with boatbuilders and engine manufacturers to reduce the overall consumption of the boat, but also how we can reduce our footprint when it comes to manufacturing, when it comes to logistics, when it comes to packaging, when it comes to developing our products. There are a lot of efforts internally that are being done here, but also in all the industry overall.

Mark: Thank you so much for your time and insights.

It's an exciting time for Raymarine with the recent launch of the Alpha™ Series display, new Smart Wind™ Technology, and performance sailing upgrades to the LightHouse operating system for Axiom chartplotters.

Read more about the range here...

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