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Talkin' boats October 2011

Wolfgang Schmid - President and GM of ZF Marine

For six years, Wolfgang Schmid has led ZF Marine LLC as its president and general manager. If you’ve never heard of ZF, you probably haven’t been to a boat show in a few years. ZF Marine is part of the ZF Group, which was founded in 1915 by airship pioneer Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in Germany.

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Under Schmid, ZF Marine has stepped into the spotlight as a major player in marine propulsion and helm control systems. ZF provided the transmission for the Zeus pod-drive system (2007), introduced technologies that allow a conventional inboard to be controlled with a ZF joystick system (2009); worked with SeaVee Boats to bring to the market the first single-pod-powered recreational boat (2010) and this year debuted with Seven Marine and Intrepid Powerboats a 557-hp outboard with joystick helm control (Soundings, May 2011).The Miramar, Fla., company — the American headquarters for the ZF Marine Group — is no longer just a transmission company, says Schmid, who started his professional career in 1989 as an automotive design engineer in Germany. ZF engineers, manufactures, installs and maintains pretty much every piece of machinery and electronic technology needed to propel and control a boat, except for the engine, says Schmid, 49, a native German who lives in Fort Lauderdale with his wife, Corinne.

In this interview, Schmid — now a U.S. citizen — laments cramped engine rooms, describes the newest pod from ZF, predicts the role of the joystick in recreational boating and weighs the pluses and minuses of electric-powered marine propulsion.

Q: How did you get involved with ZF Marine and propulsion systems in general?

A: I am from south Germany and started my professional career in automotive. I am a mechanical engineer and automotive engineer by trade. I got involved in this business before I joined ZF. I used to work for Voith in Germany, which makes the sophisticated commercial propulsion system VSP — Voith Schneider Propeller. I always thought the marine side was intriguing. When I came to the U.S. on assignment for ZF in 1998, I liked that aspect of the business since the U.S. is the single biggest marine market in the world. I had the opportunity to take over our marine business unit for North and Central America in 2005 — I didn’t hesitate a minute to grab that opportunity. It’s small, but international, and it’s a fun industry. All of that the automotive industry cannot provide anymore — it is no longer a fun industry. I thought it was time for a change.

Q: What should boaters know about ZF Marine?

A rendering of the Viking 50 convertible ZF bought as a test platform for its large pod system. The system will be on display at the Ft. Lauderdale and Miami boat shows.

A: First of all, we’re probably the largest unknown company in the world — unfortunately, not publicly traded — but about $20 billion in sales and 70,000 people with some 130 production sites. So we’re a pretty big outfit. We see electronics taking over more and more — on the passenger-car side, on the light-truck side, heavy-truck side. On the marine side, we want to be a full provider of propulsion systems and components — from the steering and the controls, reduction gears, shaft line, propellers, struts — you name it. We started out as a transmission manufacturer and, over the years, watching the industry following other businesses in this country, we figured we could do more to grow our marine business. The number of boats produced seems to be stagnant, so we said we can only grow if we bring to the table a higher value per boat. We know about electronics, switch gears, power transmission, hydrodynamics and fluid dynamics. So that is how we got into creating full propulsion systems — transmissions, controls, props, electric steering, pods, joystick-operated standard drives, surface drives, bow thrusters — whatever there is to make a boat move forward, backward and sideways.

Q: You mean ZF can manufacture, install and maintain every component except for the engine itself?

A: That is correct. One of the things we bring to the table because we are so diverse in driveline technology in all facets, like helicopters, trains, trucks, cars, buses, off-road machinery, motorcycles, etc., is that we have great capability for technology transfer. What I mean by that is we take that knowledge and apply it to marine and boats. An additional component we could provide to make a propulsion system even more complete is the elastic coupling, which we might consider getting into. We have a unit that is in tune to the clutch and coupling areas. We have everything in-house. We understand everything about damping, about natural and synthetic rubber, about torsional dynamics as well. That is something down the line maybe. We would then be able to supply everything from the flywheel back — the elastic coupling included.

Q: You have a lot going on during a rough economic period.

A: People question our timing and ask: How can you spend all that money on new technology at this time? Our timing couldn’t be any better. Now is the time when the market is soft to develop the products, validate them, test them, and when the market picks up — hopefully we will see that in our lifetimes — we will be ready. We feel good about the future.

Q: Can you tell us about any new projects you will be introducing, with other companies or on your own?

A: We typically leave it up to our customers to reveal the projects. Seven Marine is a good example. We were right behind them, supplying the transmission and the helm control system. We don’t have to be at the forefront. We want our customers to be in the spotlight and we’ll just make them look good.
But I certainly can talk about one project of our own we’re working on. It’s with our large pod system. We bought a demo boat from Viking. And we are currently demonstrating the capabilities of our large pod system on that 50-foot convertible.

Q: Tell me more please.

A: Well, it can handle up to 1,200 hp. What’s different from current large pod systems is that the pods basically sit on the stringers of the boat, so the forces are pulled through the stringers, not the hull surface, as we see with other systems. That is why we can handle higher hp ranges. We call it the ZF Pod 4000. It was introduced as a prototype in 2009, so it is not a new product, per se, and we were still fine-tuning the system. We’re definitely going to have it on our Viking demo platform at the Fort Lauderdale and Miami shows. We’ll be introducing it to boatbuilders and custom builders and customers in the market. It will really be a showcase of our technology. We supply everything from the coupling back — pods, joystick, SmartCommand control and SteerCommand steer-by-wire. Another difference, compared to other pods, is that it operates with a transmission bolted to the back of the engine. So the reduction ratio is within the transmission, not the pod itself. Power gets transmitted from the engine through the gearbox into the pod drive and to the propeller.

Q: The joystick has become a big selling point for boatbuilders. Will we see joystick control on most boats someday?

ZF's Joystick Maneuvering System

A: The short answer is yes. It allows anyone with little experience to maneuver a boat and dock a boat safely. I think it will slowly make its way on boats from a small cruiser to a superyacht. When it comes to pod technology we will face limitations, relative to horsepower and drag. Right now, the ZF Pod 4000 is the most powerful pod drive on the market. If you want to achieve roughly 40-knot top speeds, you are in a 50-foot boat range with a twin installation. With a quad installation, you are getting into the 80-foot size maintaining that 40-knot range. Higher-horsepower pods require an increase in size of the main power transmitting parts, which means an increase in size of the pod leg. A larger pod leg means higher drag, which will compromise speed. Everyone in our industry should consider making boating more fun, less expensive and more convenient. That joystick technology provides a tool to do exactly that. Here’s an interesting number from our sales projections of controls products. If we look at the year 2016, our new products — JMS, controls for hybrid systems and pod drives — will grow to about 40 percent of our total control sales. That is a good indication of where we are heading and where the market is heading.

Q: What are marine engine and control systems going to be like in 20 years or so?

A: We won’t see any drastic changes and it’s going to depend largely on legislation. That drives technology. Look at Europe and the way diesel technology has developed over the years. It’s not necessarily because Europeans enjoy driving diesel cars so much, although they are fun to drive. That development was driven by legislation. Lower taxation of diesel fuel and diesel vehicles drove demand and further development. Today, diesel cars basically dominate most European car markets and we see clean diesel technology setting foot in the U.S. It is just amazing what legislation can drive if it is put in place. I believe the marine industry is about 20 years behind the automotive industry, technology-wise. Hybrid technology is another great example. The technology started out some 12 to 15 years ago and look at the hybrid engine population in some areas of the world. We should see some dramatic growth in certain areas — battery technology, for instance. The market is looking for more battery power, higher power density. Hydrogen power might be a viable option for boats. Will we see fully electric drives on a boat? Yes, but it is not going to happen in the next 20 years. We are developing hybrid technology for yachts and we already have speed-sensitive electric steering or steer-by-wire on boats. Those are all derivatives from our automotive technology. But will there be any leap-frogging with engines and control systems? I don’t see that happening in the next 20 years.

Q: What are the challenges of engineering and installing a single pod in a boat?

ZF installed its smallest pod drive on a SeaVee center console, the first single-pod-powered recreational boat.

A: There are quite a few. When we look at single-pod boats we are talking about replacing outboard engines. Outboard customers are used to going fast. And that is simply something we can’t compete with. We do have some limitations: hp, weight, propeller diameter. But we do have something that looks pretty good when fuel prices go up to five-fifty and 6 bucks a gallon. Fuel economy is critical and a single pod provides that. If you think of center consoles, a lot of people just can’t afford a sportfish yacht anymore, but they are still avid fishermen. They still want to get out there, so the next best thing is a big center console, but fishing off a boat with four big outboards on the transom is not as convenient as a pod boat or an inboard. The fishability is phenomenal. We are fishing that boat in a couple tournaments, and people are watching that boat and can’t believe what they see. We can put that boat on a spot and just fish that spot. We push the iAnchor button and the boat stays right there.

Q: You were saying that the single pod cannot compete speedwise with outboard power. Were the guys at SeaVee disappointed with their boat’s speed?

A: No, they are not. The speed of the boat, equipped with a 480-hp diesel, was clear from the get-go. Our naval architect team in-house does a good job with calculations. And we calculated the speed and we met the calculation head on. The boat is currently running over 40 mph. The same outboard-powered boat with 600 hp has a top speed of 56 mph, so it’s not a huge disparity, given the significantly lower horsepower.

Q: What parts of the new Seven Marine 557-hp outboard system is ZF responsible for?

A: The transmission. We also provide the joystick system. It is the first outboard with joystick control and station-keeping capabilities.

Q: Which ZF product or technology is the most exciting for you, gets your blood flowing?

A: The Joystick Maneuvering System for a standard shaft-line boat. When we introduced it to the market on a 63 Bertram a couple years ago for the first time, people really saw there are no boundaries if you use the right components and a smart electronic brain. You can maneuver a boat of this size in ways not thought possible. You get the same maneuverability of a pod system for a fraction of the price. That, to me, is a piece of equipment where I say: This is great. It doesn’t require a whole lot, unlike the pod systems, which do. All you need is a bow thruster and two shaft lines and our smart JMS and Smart command controls, and off you go. That, to me, is ingenuity at its finest. Our competition has a similar system coming to market, which opens up a whole new customer base and confirms that we were on the right track when we introduced the technology.
One of the drawbacks, or I should say factors, in a JMS system in a boat like this is you have a number of variables that play into the performance. And you have to dial it in carefully. There is a fair amount of calibration required. If you make changes to the boat and put on a tower and increase wind resistance or add weight to the boat, then it will need to be recalibrated.

Q: How can boats of today be improved?

A: Boats today are not built for maintenance anymore. Due to space for accommodations, the engine room gets compromised more and more, to the point where it’s packed to the ying-yang. And if you really have to get in there and work on a transmission on a yacht you have to remove many components — exhaust systems, gensets, etc. — to get to our product. That is a problem whenever we are called on a boat for a service job. You’re typically not dealing with a happy customer if you have a high labor charge because your technician has to spend three hours digging to get to your system. That is something that is concerning to us.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue.