Located in Parys on the banks of the Vaal River, slap-bang in paddling heaven, Fluid Kayaks has been helping adventurous water-lovers get their aqua-centric kicks for the last 15 years. In fact, nothing quite says summer than seeing their popular, brightly-coloured craft being paddled around on a bright sunny day. Take a tour with me as I find out how these legendary homegrown kayaks get made.
Recreational plastic kayaks have a lot going for them. They're tough, virtually impossible to sink and affordable. Just as importantly, they can be expected to last for years, require minimal, if any maintenance a
nd, should the worse ever happen, can be easily repaired. No wonder these no-nonsense, practical watercraft are so popular with adventure-loving South Africans.
Speaking of popular, one brand in particular – Fluid Kayaks, manufactured in Parys, Northern Freestate – seemingly dominates the local recreational paddling scene. You find their tried-and-tested designs everywhere, from shooting class 5 rapids and exploring winding rivers, to simply mucking about on dams or hooking lunch beyond the surf zone at sea. The company also has a strong following in the US and UK, and ships container-loads to places like Asia on a regular basis. Curious to see how their kayaks get made, I contacted Fluid's Rusha du Toit and arranged a tour of their factory.
Making adventures happen
As luck would have it, my visit coincided with a production run of the company's versatile Synergy two-seater sit-on-top kayaks (available in both recreational and fishing configurations) – giving me ample opportunity to check out the entire fabrication process from start to finish. Even better, the production staff were clearly motivated, and it quickly became obvious they knew their stuff. Right from the get-go, I could tell this was going to be a fun experience. Confident I was in good hands, du Toit headed happily back to the tranquillity of her marketing office, leaving the guys on the factory floor to fill me in.
Victor Mokhasi, taking over where du Toit left off, starts showing me around. With 11 years handling the roto-moulding process under his belt, he's one of the more experienced workers on the floor. While not going into too much detail (exact temperatures, oven times etc. are closely guarded trade secrets), Mokhasi explains the two most critical aspects of his job – time and temperature control. “If we are out by just one degree, or get the time in the oven slightly wrong, the kayak will have to be rejected. That's because, unless we get it exactly right, the plastic loses its strength and durability. What we want is a hull that's strong, yet elastic enough to bounce back when hitting something hard and not get damaged.”
Achieving the exact 'cooking' time and temperature is a scientific process that includes a number of variables, one being the weather. As temperatures climb throughout the day during summer, oven times become shorter and cool down times take longer. Conversely, in winter the reverse is true. Interestingly, each plastic colour has its own specific 'cooking' temperature too. To easily get around these complications, Fluid painstakingly compiled reference charts, allowing Mokhasi to quickly determine oven temperatures and times, regardless of the weather, size of the mould or colour of plastic being used. Another successful strategy Fluid has adopted, especially in summer, is to start work early, then wrap things up before the heat of the day becomes problematic.
Getting down to business, Mokhasi takes me over to the raw LLDPE (Linear Low-Density Polyethylene) – the tough stuff recreational plastic kayaks are made of. Stored in sacks and coming in a range of bright colours, it has a fine consistency resembling beach sand. It's prepared this way for good reason; not only does it facilitate the even distribution of plastic throughout the mould while in the oven, it also helps make the melting process more efficient.
Next, he shows me Fluid's two gas-fired, roto-moulding ovens; one la
rge and the other small to accommodate different mould sizes. Size aside, both work exactly the same way – continually pivoting up and down along their centrelines while rotating the moulds placed inside around their longitudinal axes. This is done to ensure the molten plastic gets evenly distributed inside mould to produce a consistent thickness throughout the finished kayak's hull.
The moulds – made out of thick aluminium to efficiently transfer a stable, even heat to the plastic – are extremely heavy, so gantries have to be used to manoeuvre them to and from the ovens.
Shake and bake
Moving over to a Synergy mould, Mokhasi first applies a releasing agent to the bottom half, then measures out 30 kg of LLDPE (the weight of a Synergy kayak) and evenly spreads it out inside. While he's busy, a colleague concentrates on the top half; applying the releasing agent, attaching branding decals and threaded brass attachment points that will fuse seamlessly into the plastic when baked in the oven.
After joining the two halves of the mould together, Mokhasi uses a blowtorch (and handheld infrared thermometer) to pre-heat specific spots around the cockpit area where heat from the oven takes longer to penetrate. Once placed inside the large oven, the new Synergy-in-the-making 'cooks' for its pre-determined time and temperature (between 20-30 minutes at 270-300 degrees), rotating mechanically around all axes the entire time.
Once removed from the oven, the mould is first cooled to a specific temperature by continually rotating it in front of a bank of fans. This is a critical step, explains Mokhasi. “If the kayak remains too hot, it won't release from the mould. However, if too cool it'll shrink too much, causing it to be rejected.” When the temperature is just right, typically after about 30 minutes, the mould is opened and the kayak removed. The still-hot Synergy is then placed on a purpose-built jig, where it can cool to a manageable temperature without distorting.
Finishing what they started
When the 'freshly-baked' Synergy hull is cool enough for further processing, it moves along the production line to Gladwin Mohono's domain – namely final assembly and quality control. Mohono, another trusty old hand, has been with the company since its inception back in 2002. His team's job is to attach the myriad bits and pieces (think watertight hatches, attachment points, rod holders, grab handles etc.) that transform bare hulls into complete, functional kayaks.
While watching his team kit out a line of incomplete Synergy hulls 'cooked' earlier that day, Mohono explains his role. “Every boat gets quality tested before leaving the factory, and I'm proud to say we have a very low rejection rate, maybe 0.1 percent. Whenever I find a faulty hull it gets cut into pieces and returned to our supplier for recycling. We do this to prevent it from getting used by mistake.”
To determine if each hull has the required strength and elasticity to survive real-world use, Mohono performs a drop test. Although low-tech, it's a proven, highly-effective method of transferring brute force onto a small area. It involves dropping a long, narrow-diameter 5 kg iron bar 2 meters onto a piece of plastic cut from the hull. Mohono elaborates: “When assembling the kayaks we have to cut plastic out of the hulls to accommodate things like watertight hatch covers or rod holders. It's these offcuts that we test to establish if the plastic has been processed properly.”
After positioning the plastic to expose its outer surface to the test (the side that takes the most impact abuse), Mohono drops the bar and inspects the results. “If I get a clean round hole, then the plastic's good and the kayak can be readied for distribution. Cracks around the hole indicate that the hull was 'undercooked' in the oven, while small bubbles in the plastic means it was 'overcooked'. When I see either of these two results the kayak gets scrapped immediately.”
More fun to come
Over the years Fluid Kayaks has gone from strength to strength, and the company has no intention of slowing down. That said, messing with proven, established designs and procedures can end up a costly exercise – especially if something unforeseen goes wrong. As a consequence, design changes at Fluid are few and far between. At first, this cautious mindset might seem overly conservative, but it's not. You'll find it throughout the boatbuilding and aviation industries, were input cost are high and the safety of end users is paramount. In these fields, any new development trying to supersede “what works” is viewed with scepticism until proved otherwise.
“Before implementing design changes we always have to realistically weigh up the benefits between spending serious capital re-engineering our moulds and what advantages we actually pass on to users,” explains du Toit. “Apart from it being a cost game, the last thing we want is a new boat that ends up being less safe or functional than the original. Getting the research and development right takes time, anything from 18 to 24 months, and requires a considered approach. To make sure we get it right, we rely heavily on our team of pro paddlers and Team Fluid Ambassadors, who rigorously put all our prototypes to the test.”
However, just because design changes are rare, doesn't mean they can't happen. Fluid's new Buddy Angler fishing kayak, now kitted out with a rudder (for better control) and redesigned footwells (to accommodate the rudder pedals and give your feet more space), is a prime example. Du Toit elaborates: “Redesigning our Buddy Angler was an easy decision for us to make. Customer research indicated that enough fishing enthusiasts prefer the convenience of smaller kayaks for us to invest in changing our original moulds, so we did. By adding the extra hands-free control a rudder brings, what we've done is turn an already-popular compact fishing platform into something better.”
Other plans Fluid has on the cards for 2017 include the introduction of a new two-seater sit-on-top, along with the launch of two new recreational kayak designs.– (c) 2017 NavWorld
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