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.
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.
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.
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.
Much detail is built into the molds to allow all the intricate shapes that make up the hull.
Native has many molds in its inventory. I could see them stacked up on storage shelves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.