Boat Propellers Are Like Prescription Drugs

Several years ago while studying the recreational boat propeller market, I noticed it had many parallels with the market for prescription drugs. Since then, while pondering some propeller safety situations, I have come to see even more parallels.

Significant investment goes into developing a line of propellers (just like R&D teams developing a new drug).

Propellers are designed as a series (several propellers of different sizes with the same general characteristics). Prescription drugs are often available in different strengths.

Each new propeller series has to be tested / proven just like a new drug has to be tested.

Each propeller design targets boats of certain types, sizes, power, and applications. Prescription drugs target certain groups of people (children/adults/elderly) with certain types of diseases, illnesses, or needs.

Deciding which propeller is best for your boat is a bit of an art and requires a very knowledgeable person to come up with the right “prescription”. Finding that “prescription” may involve testing several other propellers and monitoring the results, just like your doctor may have you try a few prescription drugs to see which one works best for you.

Propellers are premium priced far above the cost of materials and labor, and that multiple of cost increases as you get into “high end” stainless steel propellers just like it does in prescription drugs for rarer diseases. High end stainless steel propellers are strongly promoted and very premium priced (just like prescription drugs).

Once a propeller manufacturer sells enough high end boat propellers to cover their development costs, additional sales become extremely profitable. The same goes for prescription drugs.

Prescription drugs are protected by patents. Some propeller series are protect by patents (or the primary characteristics used in that series).

Once established, manufacturing propellers can be a highly lucrative business, just like existing pharmaceutical companies milk a prescription drug for huge profits.

Some companies have been manufacturing prescription drugs for a very long time, some companies have been manufacturing propellers for a very long time.

Generic drugs compete against the older prescription drugs with expired patents. Generic propellers compete for the low end, price sensitive propeller market.

Propellers often have long complex model numbers similar to prescription numbers.

Some propeller safety advocates have said marine drive manufacturers like Mercury Marine and OMC (no longer in business) do not want to use propeller guards because those guards will protect the propeller and put a dent in their multimillion dollar replacement propeller business. Prescription drug manufacturers historically try to fight off generics as long as possible to protect their “cash cow”.

Successful individual cash cows (propeller series or big name prescription drugs) are extremely valuable. They can be worth tens of millions in the boating industry and billions in the prescription drug industry.

Prescription drugs are highly touted on tv, in magazines, and online. Similarly, propellers are strongly advertised in the boating media, and online. The premium prices the market bears allows them to use a portion of those profits to enhance their brand.

Branding is seen as being very important in both industries. Many want propellers from Mercury Marine known for its involvement in boat racing. Many sick people want medications with trusted names.

Some people become addicted to prescription drugs, most of us know somebody addicted to trying to find the absolute perfect propeller for their boat that gets every fraction of a mph out of it.

To get cheaper pills, many consumers turned to Canada, to get cheaper propellers, many boaters have turned to imports.

Warnings are often associated with propellers and with prescriptions.

Prescriptions often come with extensive information for doctors use in prescribing them. Propeller manufacturers provide prop sizing books and online tools to aid in prescribing the proper propeller.

Just as prescription drugs can be misused, so can propellers. Not respecting the hazards of boat propellers can get you killed.

Both industries spend time in court defending themselves (boat and marine drive companies against propeller injury lawsuits, drug companies against people killed or harmed by drug side effects).

Prescriptions often require taking pills on a schedule resulting in a near constant consumption of the product. Propellers can be repaired, but must sometimes be replaced.

While some of our comments may seem whimsical, the two industries do share a lot in common. Corporations viciously defend their “space”, sell at high premiums to manufacturing costs, and have to deal with significant safety issues. Those in either market might learn some ideas from the other one.

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