Maretron's N2KBuilder, better than sliced bread?

... written for Panbo by Ben Ellison and posted on Aug 2, 2009

Actually I like to slice bread myself these days, but, man-o-man, Maretron's latest gift to the world of NMEA 2000 is one brilliant invention.  N2KBuilder -- which is free, and downloadable right now -- would be handy if it just let you easily mock up a proposed network.  But it does much, much more than that.  As you drag and drop cables, connectors, and devices, the software keeps an eye on total cable lengths, amperage loads, and the resulting voltage drops, and alarms you if you're over the limits.  It also keeps track of backbone integrity and plug genders, and all the while builds a system database from which it can produce various valuable reports, and even a bill of materials (BOM)...

Not surprisingly, the BOM is Maretron specific, but you certainly can add non-Maretron devices to an N2KBuilder network design.  You just need to input their LEN (or amperage) values so the program can do the complex voltage drop calculations.  Maretron devices already know their own LENs, naturally, and in some cases like the Switch Monitor seen below, the property dialog covers all sorts of details that will flow to the BOM, the actual physical install, and finally the system set up.
   My guess is that N2KBuilder will rapidly become indispensable to installers and do-it-yourselvers who are involved with anything more than rudimentary NMEA 2000 networks.  I was able to create the Gizmo file seen above in just an hour or two, and it's immensely better than the Visio drawing I once started (but procrastinated on, thank goodness).  It represents gear that's already on the boat (and hence colored white or light gray to indicate that I've excluded it from the BOM) and things I hope to add, including a MID-size backbone (N2K power issues discussed here).  I was able to set the input voltage at 11.5 -- worst possible case, I think -- and see that the design still delivered well over the minimum 9v to the furthest reaches of the system.  It would be nice if a simple command could switch all the Mid cables to Micro size for a comparative analysis, and maybe that's a feature Maretron will add.  In fact, I dare say that several Panbots (like "dual backbone" Dan) will have suggestions for N2KBuilder improvements, but further guess that they'll come with lots of 'wows' and 'thanks' attached. 



Most surprising: the app is written for Adobe Air. I have it running on my MacBook already. Good stuff.

Very simple interface. I would like to add icons for MFDs, AIS transponders, radios, etc., which I suppose the "picture" box would accommodate for now.

Posted by: Jay Sellers at August 3, 2009 9:23 AM | Reply

Actually N2KBuilder can already switch all MID cables to MICRO etc, at the push of a button. Select any cable on the backbone, right-click to bring up the Cable Properties Dialog, and then select the Network Functions, Change Cable Size to Mid command.

Posted by: Alex Polmans at August 3, 2009 10:15 AM | Reply

Jay, For non-Maretron devices, you'll want to use the "?" icon to the left of the picture and text facilities. That's because the "?" can be attached to cables, and has manufacturer, name, LEN, and amperage properties.

Alex, Thanks for the tip. I found that I had to make my backbone cables all the same size (I had one micro segment) to get that Network Function to work, but I was then able to see how changes in the cable size affect voltage. Well done!

Posted by: Ben at August 3, 2009 12:57 PM | Reply

Come to think of it, it would be neat if there was an N2KBuilder element that combined the "?" device and picture attributes. Then you could add any device both graphically and with name and power needs.

Also, thanks Jay for pointing out the program's multi-platform nature. PC guys like me tend to be obnoxiously blase on that subject.

Posted by: Ben at August 3, 2009 1:20 PM | Reply

It's a great piece of software. I documented my network in about an hour - and then spent another hour adding in Maretron "wish list" items, which is one good reason for Maretron to give us the software.

There are quite a few bugs in this initial version. The worst, for me, is that an image placed underneath your network (a floorplan of my boat in my case) goes wonky after you save the file. Though it's not a bug, I agree that the ability to add more details (especially a picture) of non-Maretron nodes is important.

Posted by: Jeff Shukis at August 4, 2009 10:59 AM | Reply

Jay - how did you get it running on your Mac? I installed Air without any problem, but the N2K builder doesn't install and I can't find the .air file.

Posted by: Russ at August 4, 2009 9:10 PM | Reply

Jay - Never mind - downloaded again and found the .air file.

Posted by: Russ at August 10, 2009 11:58 AM | Reply

By the way, Maretron now has an update that solves the "images placed behind the network don't work" problem I described in the 4 August post above.

Posted by: Jeff Shukis at August 13, 2009 10:31 AM | Reply

How can you share with a novice getting this n2K builder onto my mac?

Posted by: grandsoleil at August 14, 2009 12:45 PM | Reply

How N2K specific is the tool? I.e. is it useful as a generic documentation tool for electrical or NMEA0183 for example, or is it completely specific (but understandably so) to the problem it's trying to solve?

The reason I ask is that I've been working on my on-board boat manual and systems/wiring diagram (which EVERYONE should have and make). I've used a number of various drawing, CAD, and schematic capture programs, but they tend to either be unwieldly, or not allow output in a nice usable format (like png) to import into an OpenOffice document.

Posted by: ScottE at September 16, 2009 1:25 PM | Reply

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