How Marine Electronics are Made
This article originally appeared on YachtingMagazine.com
Mechanical rollers guide printed circuit boards (PCBs) down Navico’s production line at its factory in Ensenada, Mexico, toward a pick-and-place machine that houses what looks like a 120-barreled Gatling gun. But instead of hurling hot lead, the machine’s nozzles quickly rotate and momentarily dip down—typewriter-style—to precisely place microchips onto preexisting receptacles on the double-sided PCBs. Seconds later, the machine guides the PCB down the line for assembly, exhaustive testing, packaging, and then random batch-testing before shipping out as finished B&G, Lowrance and Simrad products. This factory and its highly skilled workforce produce up to 10,000 completed boards per day.
B&G, Lowrance and Simrad were founded in 1956, 1957 and 1947 (respectively), but these iconic sailing, angling and cruising brands (also respectively) merged in 2006 in a deal that created parent company Navico, which bases its corporate headquarters in Egersund, Norway, and maintains offices in New Zealand, the UK and the US, and collectively employs 1,800 people internationally. Critically, this merger created beneficial scales of economy and efficiency that allowed Navico to leverage each brand to better serve all three.
One example is the company’s factory in Ensenada, Mexico, which was built by Lowrance in 1993. Lowrance trained a dedicated and highly skilled local workforce, and—following the merger—Navico expanded this facility and staff to tackle global production for all three brands.
While this factory isn’t publicly accessible, Navico opened its doors to give us a better understanding of how its equipment is built, and the rigorous standards to which it’s tested and evaluated—literally thousands of times—before it leaves the factory. First, however, Ricardo Varela, VP of manufacturing, asks me to don a special overshirt that’s woven with carbon-fiber threads that prevent static-electricity buildup.
Varela leads me to Navico’s R&D department, which is populated with open-air workstations that are festooned with miles of cables, tools, analog and digital interfaces, myriad black boxes, and countless screens. Testing stations and benches fill additional rooms. A few steps later, Ivan Garin, R&D manager, shows off Navico’s quality-assurance room, where engineers are dissecting Simrad multifunction displays.
We pass the prototyping rooms that are equipped with 3D printers, a laser cutter, and a temperature and humidity chamber that delivers 12 test cycles at temperatures ranging from minus 40 degrees F to 185 degrees F. Nearby, there is a soundproof chamber housing a machine used for drop-testing equipment.
Back at the PCB production line, a PCB enters an X-ray machine, which ensures there aren’t any solder breaches before passing it to the in-circuit testing machine. Long-fingered probes test to ensure that each node offers the correct resistance. This single machine performs 600 tests before releasing the PCB.
Varela guides us to the next station, where software and cartography are loaded onto each vetted board. From here, the PCBs are sent to final assembly, where they become part of—for example—a radar or an MFD. “The QA people also go out on the water and test the software and hardware on our Navico One test boat here in Ensenada,” Garin says. They also use external evaluators, which include local captains and Navico-sponsored pros.
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We walk past the submersion tanks where sonars are tested to the packing and content-assurance room where workers scan each part number that comprises a finished product (e.g., an MFD and all its cabling, mounting hardware and literature). If a particular product doesn’t include all the necessary part numbers or comes up shy on a weight test, then production stops, core team members are summoned, and the faulty product is taken to the “fish market” (because it stinks) where the situation is evaluated.
Once packaged, wrapped and labeled, Navico then subjects 25 percent of all finished products to random testing. This includes a full unpackaging, bench testing and a system test, and ensures that a faulty product doesn’t inadvertently jump the fence.
As we head back to the upstairs office level, Varela points to a wall that’s covered with photographs honoring employees who have been with the company more than five years, and some as long as 25 years. Counting the names and faces, especially at the 15- and 20-year marks, I realize that Navico’s employee-retention rate represents an important final exam for a factory that generates far more test results than finished products. •
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