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Thread: How kayaks are made - pictorial tour of Native factory

  1. #1
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    Default How kayaks are made - pictorial tour of Native factory

    I had the chance to visit the Native Watercraft factory and headquarters in Fletcher, NC on October 22, 2014. I have owned Native kayaks since 2008 and joined the Native Pro Staff team in 2013. Although I have toured many manufacturing facilities throughout my professional career, I had never before visited a kayak manufacturing plant. John Kiffmeyer, product manager for the Propel drive, took me on a personal guided tour of the factory.

    I expect that most of the kayaks we use are made in ways that have some similarities to the process that Native uses. I post this here as background information for the kayak fishing community.

    This story is long and contains 28 photos. Therefore I had to split it into an initial post and two replies. If anyone wants a copy of the original report in Word format, send me a pmail with your email address.

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    Overview of the Process

    I will start by describing the process in general terms then will go through each step in more detail. Native makes its kayaks by melting polypropylene plastic into custom-designed two-piece aluminum molds. The molds are cleaned and prepared then specific quantities of plastic powder are placed into the lower half of the mold. The top mold half is placed onto the bottom half, and a series of fasteners holds the two halves tightly together.

    The mold is placed into one of the three ovens where it is heated and rotated under closely controlled conditions and for specific lengths of time. This allows the plastic powder to melt and build up in layers inside the mold, creating the kayak. After the heating process is finished, the hot mold moves to a cooling station where it can be rotated and cooled gradually. After an appropriate length of time, the top half of the mold is lifted up, and the kayak is removed.

    It next moves to a station where the hatches and other openings are cut out and the hardware, seats, and other accessories are installed. Final trimming and seam finishing is done to removed rough edges.

    Native sews and assembles its seats and other fabric accessories onsite. All of these activities take place in the same large factory building, which also houses the inventory of raw materials and supplies.

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    Creating the Designs

    While not specifically part of the manufacturing process, the research and development area has responsibility for experimenting with and creating new designs for future models. I was allowed to visit this section of the building but was asked not to take any photos.

    Once a new design is thought to be promising, designers create a prototype. If the company wants to proceed to production, the prototype is sent off to a company that makes the aluminum molds.

    Molds

    The molds are custom crafted by an outside company that casts the molds for Native and other kayak manufacturers. Each mold is made of aluminum with an upper and lower half and incorporates a sturdy frame.

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    Much detail is built into the molds to allow all the intricate shapes that make up the hull.

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    Native has many molds in its inventory. I could see them stacked up on storage shelves.

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    For most of the year, Native produces kayaks to fill specific orders. If they have new orders for Slayer Propels and Ultimate FXs, those are the models they will produce. I watched the guys making Ultimate FXs on one of the lines while I was there. Several other models had been recently completed – they were sitting around waiting for some finishing touches.

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    Preparing the Molds

    The production crew has the orders for the model and colors that will be run during their shift. They place the mold halves on stands and prepare the molds.

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    It is important to have a very smooth surface inside the mold to prevent irregularities in the finish of the kayaks. The crew carefully checks for any residue and wipes the surfaces clean.

    They may coat the molds with a mold-release chemical to avoid sticking and to allow for easy removal of the new kayak from the mold. John told me that they do not always use the mold-release, but base it on their observations and experience to decide when the chemical is needed. I expected that they would spray the inside of the molds with a heavy coating of mold-release (kind of like spraying a cake pan with Pam). But they used very little of the chemical. They sprayed small quantities of the product onto clean rags and wiped portions of the mold, leaving just a thin coating.

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    Next the crew members add the decals like the Native logo and the Native Watercraft wording that go on the bow and sides of the kayak.

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    John told me that these are not surficial stick-on decals, but rather have the designs made of a very thin layer of the same plastic used in the hulls. The decals are positioned carefully and pressed into place using a specialized tool to ensure a good bond to the mold surface. Like many other aspects of the process, this was a manual, carefully-done activity that involved experience to do it correctly.

    Native attaches its handles, gear tracks, and other components using fasteners that screw into brass bases. During the mold preparation, these bases are inserted into place so that the plastic can mold around the brass locking it into place.
    Last edited by J.A. Veil; 10-28-2014 at 08:55 PM.
    John Veil
    Annapolis
    Native Watercraft Manta Ray 11 and Slayer Propel 10
    Member - Pro Staff team for Native Watercraft

    Author - "Fishing in the Comfort Zone" - light tackle fishing techniques for kayaks and small boats

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    Part 2
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    Charging the Molds

    When the molds are prepared, the plastic powder is added. When I visited other plastic molding factories in the past, I recall that the plastic typically came in the form of small pellets or beads that were melted first then extruded into molds. I expected to see the same raw material here. However, the plastic used for the hulls comes in a fine powder (sugar-like consistency). Native has worked with its supplier to develop a high-quality grade of polyethylene that comes in various colors.

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    Traditionally, kayak hulls were made of a single color. A few years ago, Native introduced some new color patterns that incorporate multiple colors in a variegated or camo pattern. I was very curious to see how those patterns were created. I learned that Native has precise recipes for each hull size and color pattern. Exact quantities of each color were measured out into white plastic containers. When it was time to add the powder, the crew member added each color in several piles along the length of the kayak. After all the powder was in place, he smoothed it somewhat with his hand.

    The pattern being made here is called Hidden Oak. The first three pictures show the colored powder being placed into the mold. The fourth picture shows how the finished kayak looks.

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    The top half of the mold is placed onto the bottom half and the clamps are fastened to hold the mold together. The charged mold is lifted by overhead crane and moved into one of the three ovens.

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    Heating the Mold

    Native has three ovens to accomplish the roto-molding process. Two are standard rotary ovens that allow control of heat, rotational speed, and side-to-side tilting.

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    The third oven is a different style that moves the mold in three dimensions during the heating process.

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    The kayak is formed by external heating of the aluminum mold. The powder gradually melts into thin layers that adhere to one another, eventually building up to the desired thickness. The molds can be designed to allow faster heating in some areas (results in thicker plastic) and slower heating in other areas (thinner plastic).

    The decals mentioned earlier melt onto the outermost layer of plastic for the hull. As a result they become an integral part of the plastic hull. The plastic builds around the brass bases for the fasteners and locks them tightly in place.

    After the desired length of time for heating, the mold is removed from the oven and moved to the cooling area.

    Cooling the Mold

    During this phase of the process, the mold is placed onto a rack and is slowly rotated. A series of fans with misters blows on the rotating mold to allow cooling under controlled conditions.

    A plastic pipe is inserted into a hole in the top of the mold. An air hose is attached to the pipe to pressurize the inside of the mold to make sure the hull does not collapse or pull away from the mold before the plastic has cooled sufficiently.

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    Unmolding the Kayak

    After the prescribed amount of time has passed, the mold is removed from the cooling station and is moved to a nearby set of stands. The clamps along the sides of the mold are unfastened, and the top half of the mold is lifted slowly by the overhead crane. The finished kayak comes along with the top half. Two crew members are standing by to jiggle the kayak loose from the mold. When I was watching the kayak came loose easily.

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    They moved it to another set of stands for further processing.
    John Veil
    Annapolis
    Native Watercraft Manta Ray 11 and Slayer Propel 10
    Member - Pro Staff team for Native Watercraft

    Author - "Fishing in the Comfort Zone" - light tackle fishing techniques for kayaks and small boats

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    Part 3

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    Trimming and Processing

    The kayaks I observed coming from the molds were Ultimate FXs that have open spaces along the top of the kayak. The product that came from the mold had solid plastic all along the top surface.

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    In the next step, another crew member used a sharp tool and scored around the edges where the open spaces would be.

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    He then pushed on the cut panel so that it popped free. He repeated this process to open up the three main sections of the top deck.

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    He followed up with a scraping tool to smooth the newly cut edges to remove sharp sections. If necessary, he would use a mechanical tool or a heat gun to remove the thin raised seam where the two halves of mold came together.

    From here the remaining metal and plastic components that are not part of the molded hull are attached into place. The previous photos show blue bins that hold the parts to be installed and the needed tools.

    Creating Seats and Other Fabric Components

    Native has a team of specialists who manufacture the fabric seat covers and other fabric components. An inventory of fabric is maintained on storage racks.

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    Pieces are cut to shape using special templates in a cutting press.

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    The pieces are sewed together with padding and spacing to make the final fabric pieces.

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    The First Class upright seats are assembled onsite using metal frames manufactured by an outside contractor. The fabric seat covers, straps, and buckles are added.

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    At the present time, the Propel units are manufactured by a supplier located offsite.

    Finished Product

    Those kayaks that were produced to fill specific orders are placed inside black fabric bags in preparation for shipping. During slower times of the year, like the winter months, the factory continues making kayaks that are placed into a separate storage area.

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    Native’s sister company, Liquidlogic, makes whitewater kayaks in the same factory. As of a few months ago, it sells its product directly from the factory site and online. The factory showroom is shown below.

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    Final Thoughts

    The process was far more complex than I expected. I thought that most of the work would be done by automated machines. While there is some of that, much of the work was done by hand and required a great deal of experience, craftsmanship, and personal attention by the employees. There are many variables that can affect the quality of the final product (e.g., heating time, cooling time, rotational speed, preparatory steps, etc.). Most of the employees I saw were young and energetic. I was impressed by what I saw.
    John Veil
    Annapolis
    Native Watercraft Manta Ray 11 and Slayer Propel 10
    Member - Pro Staff team for Native Watercraft

    Author - "Fishing in the Comfort Zone" - light tackle fishing techniques for kayaks and small boats

  4. #4
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    Very interesting. Thanks for posting!

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    I can see why they are expensive. Interesting article. Thank you.
    Peggy

    Native Slayer Propel
    Cobra Explorer

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    Thanks for the Post! Really cool to see how they are made!
    WS ATAK

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    Did they mention the typical number of kayaks they produce per day?
    ___________________________________

    2015 Viking Profish Reload

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    Neat. Thanks for sharing.

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    John, great article, had no idea what was involved.
    Freddie T

    2016 Hobie Outback LE #236
    Torqeedo Ultralight 403

  10. #10
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    Quote Originally Posted by reel-em-in View Post
    Did they mention the typical number of kayaks they produce per day?
    Sorry, but I did not get a good number. The output depends on orders and could include 1, 2, or 3 production lines as well as 1, 2, or 3 shifts per day.
    John Veil
    Annapolis
    Native Watercraft Manta Ray 11 and Slayer Propel 10
    Member - Pro Staff team for Native Watercraft

    Author - "Fishing in the Comfort Zone" - light tackle fishing techniques for kayaks and small boats

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