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Talkin' Boats - Bob Apple

Bob Apple is the senior vice president of sales and marketing of Volvo Penta North America, based in Chesapeake, Va. Before joining the engine manufacturer, Apple, 50, spent 22 years in the automotive industry, including 11 years for Saturn Corp., where he was instrumental in helping build the new car company.

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He started at Volvo Penta in 1999, leading the Lexington, Tenn., marine engine plant in the implementation of lean manufacturing concepts that resulted in a significant turnaround in business. This opened an opportunity for Apple to be promoted to vice president of manufacturing, ultimately becoming head of global manufacturing for all of Volvo Penta's facilities in the United States and Sweden. He took his current post in October 2008.

Bob and his wife, Ann, currently live in Chesapeake, Va. They have three adult children and enjoy boating and traveling in their free time.

Q: Bob, let's start with Volvo Penta's latest product in the recreational market - the OceanX sterndrive. What can you tell us about this new sterndrive?

A: Our OceanX sterndrive is technology that is leading edge in the world of corrosion protection. We've tested over a number of years a number of different coatings that could help our core product become better in terms of resisting corrosion in salt water, and we've developed this process and product that is a quantum leap for the industry. We're very excited about launching this.

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Q: Why did Volvo Penta move away from using the composite material found in the Ocean Series sterndrive?

A: We haven't necessarily moved away from composite material. We certainly will continue to support that product in the field. At the same time, understand that Volvo Penta is very much known for innovation and having leading technology, so this OceanX product was definitely a continuous-improvement product that we've made that helps provide better protection for our consumers.

Q: Will the Ocean Series still be offered?

A: At some point in time, the Ocean Series product will no longer be available from an OEM [original equipment manufacturer] standpoint. However, we will continue to service all of the product in the field and take care of that for years to come.

Q: The new OceanX sterndrive has two alarms that alert the owner to water intrusion. Can you tell us more about these features?

A: Yes, the first sensor is a water-in-bellows detection sensor. We've taken a look at performance data of our product in the field. If they have a problem with the bellows and water intrudes in there, this is one of those challenges that the consumer may not be aware of in a timely manner. If it goes on for long enough, it can lead to catastrophic failure of the drive, so we think this is an excellent safety feature that will provide an extra level of security and protection. The consumer will be advised and warned quickly. The second sensor is a water-in-oil sensor, which basically detects if there is water that enters the drive system. It more or less provides the same type of protection - early warning of a potential problem if the drive unit is not serviced in a timely manner. Before, when a consumer had a problem in this area, whether it's our product or a competitor's product, there has not been a good way of notifying the consumer that there is a problem in the system that really needs to be taken care of. So this is a very nice consumer-friendly feature that will help raise the bar as it relates to reliability and long-term performance.

Q: Given the anti-corrosion materials and technology, how many more hours or years of service will the OceanX provide compared to its predecessor or its competitors?

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A: When you talk about more hours or years of service, it is difficult to define, because the problem does not happen all that often. But when it does happen it is difficult for the consumer to realize, and if it goes on long enough it can be catastrophic. So it's a more proactive way of protecting the product. So we see it more as being a feature in a preventative maintenance benefit as opposed to it providing hundreds of hours more of service. Yes, it will extend the useful life of the product in normal applications, but it is difficult to put a handle on that.

Q: Tell us a little about one of Volvo Penta's other new products, the Joystick Sterndrive.

A: The Joystick Sterndrive is a product that basically provides IPS-type performance in a sterndrive dual-engine package. The beauty of it is that now we can take that joystick experience and take it to smaller boats - as small as 24 or 25 feet with dual engines - and allow the operator to be able to dock it and maneuver it at slows speeds much like the IPS pods with joystick. We're excited because a lot of people want to move up in the size of the boat they have. And, of course, the bigger the boat, the nicer it is to have features to make it easy to handle and maneuver. You can basically spin it around on its own axis. Docking in high wind or strong current becomes much easier than operating the old dual-stick method.

Q: You launched the Joystick Sterndrive at the Miami Boat Show in February. How has the response been from boatbuilders?

A: They're exciting about offering the product, because it fills some of the product gaps they have. There are more than 10 that have expressed an interest or come forth with a boat package that will produce that solution. Even with the economy being as bad as it is, they recognize the benefits it provides and what it can offer to consumers, so they are extremely excited about turning on the sales and get things cranked up.

Q: Why did Volvo Penta decide to introduce the OceanX and Joystick Sterndrive in a recession? Why not wait for better economic times?

A: Both of those products are ready at this time. After extensive testing, there is a time when the product is ready to be launched, and we've reached that point, and we think that launching new product is something that could jump-start the sales when sales do decide to return and the market starts to grow back. So we're very excited. Fresh product has a way of attracting the consumers who are interested in staying in the boating world.

Q: Joystick and other new propulsion technologies seem to be a bright spot for the marine industry. How big will Volvo Penta's IPS pod drive system go?

A: At this time, we have plans to be able to provide pod systems with IPS that can approach 100 feet in terms of length of boat. It can come in a number of combinations, leading up to and including a quad installation of the IPS2 product that we currently are launching at this time.

Q: What is the largest yacht right now with IPS?

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A: The 92LXS that's built by Lazarra Yachts, which has four IPS 900 systems.

Q: What are marine engines going to be like in 50 years?

A: That is a tough one. You can speculate. Those who are a lot smarter than me say there are some hybrid systems - with the right battery technology and the right controls technology - that may be able to provide some enhancements in our industry. If you really look in the future, fuel cell technology may have some capabilities. But if you circle back there is nothing like internal combustion engines. They certainly have been around for 100 years in the marine industry, and we see that continuing.

Q: Have you taken up boating since you came to Volvo Penta 10 years ago?

A: Actually, I started boating in the late '70s, when I was a teenager, and have been in boating for the past 30 years and have owned a number of boats. Making a change from the auto to the marine industry was a pleasant change for me and my family.

Q: Can you tell us about some of your boats?

A: In terms of size and type, I grew up around a Wellcraft - about a 20-footer - and owned a couple Chaparrals from 20 to 23 feet. Most of the boats have been in size range of 18 to 24 feet. As I get older I want to get into the express cruiser boats.

Q: What can consumers look forward to from Volvo Penta?

A: Without letting too much out of the bag, we are always innovating. There are things I can talk about and definitely things I cannot talk about. I can say that providing more features that enhance the IPS experience and Sterndrive Joystick experience will be at the forefront of what we will be bringing out and focusing on. Certainly the joystick creates a whole new opportunity of what market of boater we can recruit. It sure makes the boating experience convenient and stress-free.

Q: What kind of time frame are we looking at with the new IPS features?

A: You can expect that every year there will be something coming out, an enhancement.