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INTRO – Cape Town is one of kitesurfing's most important hubs in terms of gear development, with many brands spending all or part of South Africa's summer season putting their prototypes up against the regularly testing conditions. Airush relocated their operation to Cape Town a year ago and have now developed a fully in-house working system that includes everything from R&D and innovation to design and art. Jim Gaunt paid a visit to their new HQ in the Muizenberg suburb of town with a particular focus on their Active surfboard construction system
WORDS AND PHOTOS (UNLESS STATED) : Jim Gaunt
Muizenberg lies twenty minutes southeast of the city and just over 30 minutes from Cape Town's kiting epicentre to the north of the city, Table View. At first I was a little surprised to find Airush tucked so far away from Cape Town's most popular kite arena, but spend a bit of time 'north of the border' and you'll quickly appreciate that keeping any development under wraps would be a difficult cloak and dagger affair around there. Prying eyes lurk under many a flapping Ripstop canopy on the beach.
Airush boss and board designer, Clinton Filen, is actually a 'Saffer' himself, having grown up in Johannesburg and moved to Cape Town's southern suburbs when he was 17. 'You're either a southern or northern suburbian.' he smirks. Clinton's done his time up north in Table View but found the added depth in the city and southern areas more to his taste, especially in terms of surf culture. South African surfing was heavily developed in Muizenburg he tells me. The Indian Ocean waters are warmer than Table View, the waves are better and the wind's less manic; it's easy to see why he might also favour the area
Airush's last long term home was in Margaret River in Western Australia, but Clinton explains that a lot of people in the team enjoy influences found in bigger cities. “The challenge was finding a place like this. From a design side you want to have a lot of influences beside kiting and this singular windsurf/kitesurf culture. Even surfing can sometimes be a little bit narrow.”
It's pretty clear that Clinton has a good angle on art and design. In fact on the encounters I've had with him in the past he manages to steer the conversation towards graphically inspired topics, like the history of skateboard art (which is always an education to me). Muizenberg is a popular hang-out for artists and students, with its bohemian cafes and bars and slightly raggedy edge. Airush have set up their offices in an old post house just opposite the beach, dating back some centuries. They've set up camp on the fourth floor and wasted no time in making themselves at home; the nostalgia of the building's old flights of stairs, heavy doors and swinging metal iron windows are mixed with the contrast of their clean white walls and open plan desks, each linked up with the all-important white Macintoch operating systems.
I get the tour and am introduced to the graphic design team, including their in-house apparel designer. The office is also extra busy today as team riders Bas Koole and Alex Pastor are over with photographer Ydwer Van der Heide for the team's 2012 photo shoot. With more geographically roaming roles, kite designer Mark Patterson and product manager Dave Tyburski are also tapping white keyboards and are currently in town for a couple of months development with the team. Pulling the stings and joining the dots on most things is marketing manager, Marc Schmid (who at 26 must be the youngest marketing manager in kiteboarding. He takes no shit though and constantly has his finger on Airush's editorial pulse, believe me).
Muizenberg was growing on me. It was refreshing to not get blown away walking down the street (it's still windy here, but nothing like Table View) and in terms of strategic location, for test warfare it was sounding more and more ideal.
“The development element is critical for us. We need to test as many products as we can in as many conditions as possible. In terms of board development we've got to be very specific to what the conditions require. Out front we have standard cross-on conditions here in Muizenberg. Table View is roughly 30 minutes away, as are the bigger wave spots of Scarborough on the other side of the Cape and Cape Point in the reserve is about 40 minutes. So we've got a nice balance.” he grins proudly.
Duck out of the gate in the front yard of their renovated post house, hang a left, cross the rail track, go under the bridge and cross the road and you reach their shaping facility that Clinton shares with a highly regarded South African surfboard shaper, Dave Stubbs. Covered in fresh board foam dust and looking deceptively inexpensive was the machine I'd really come to see. You read a lot in manufacture's blurbs about 'this and that' being CNC'd. I'd never actually seen one. Having their own on hand means Airush can turn prototype surfboards round in a single afternoon. Clinton gave me a demonstration as he also took me through Airush's patented carbon Active technology. Over to him for the working tour:
First stage is to look broadly at what we have in the market place and try to predict where we see the trends going. We try to get as much feedback as we can from our riders, our distributors and we also scour the web and then try to define the direction the products should be moving in. A lot of what we're selling against is perception, of course; what people think they should be buying against what they'll actually enjoy using. Then, for example, we'd start looking at the 5'6 Compact; we might like to improve the bottom turn slightly and get it to be a little more snappy at the top of the wave. A lot of the assembly of that data comes from having key riders working with us on each product. Bear Karry in California focusses on on the quad, while someone else will be concentrating on the Compact, but all that feedback is then often offset by someone like product manager, Dave and myself, whose job it is to have a really broad overview of the range. We end up with a very triangulated view, which is important, because as soon as products start getting too close together, then we have a problem.
So with that feedback, let's use another example in the Compact range. The feedback on the 5'2 might be that it's a bit small. Even featherweights like Ozzie might say they'd like to try something a bit longer because the 5'2 is nice and loose, but just a bit unstable in bigger surf. He'll say the 5'6 had better characteristics for him, so we'll take some key aspects from both boards and start to make a 5'4.
In my opinion there should always be an evolution in all this. We're heavily influenced by surf here, but we want to take the best of everything, as new sports do. We ride with a kite so we're never going to need that pure surf drive, so we look at the way riders are trying to ride and what they're trying to mix into their repertoire. Young riders, like Ozzie, are doing big airs in the surf, but also mixing a lot of freestyle components into their riding. Ozzie doesn't say 'this is cool', 'that's not cool'. He competes in everything, from racing to freestyle to waves. Watching him bottom turn, come off the top and throw a flat three is fantastic.
Let's have a look at the software. The nice thing with this Shape 3D software is that you can overlay what you're doing - you can literally put boards on top of each other and compare them. Here I've got the current 5'8 Choptop and the new 5'8 Compact. When I overlay them I can see everything, from where we're putting the wide points, rockers and the rail differences. These boards are both 5'8s, but the sizing differences are big. Look at the wide point - we've moved the hip all the way back on the Choptop, giving it that real looseness, which is great when you just get going in sloppy waves for example and you want to start turning; you want some drive. The negative is that if you're gunning down-the-line and you put that thing in the water, you just get the wobble from hell as the tail is massive.
The great thing about our set-up here is that we can go out the front here in Muizenberg in cross-on conditions, or go over the hill to Witsands for bigger down-the-line waves or up past Big Bay to Kamers for a more regular cross-shore ride and instantaneously you'll feel the difference and what works for what. There's a big push for us to consolidate what we're doing, so any time there's ambiguity between products, we'll cancel one.
Once we're happy with a base model we'll put all the parameters in to the sytem which are sent to the cutter that regenerates a 3D model. We can either feed the numbers in here through the computer or, if we have an existing shape we like, a measurement wizard captures all the info for us. The objective is to control the information as best as we can to generate the information in production. For surf specific gear this is a very powerful tool. The big strength of this machine is that because you can pivot it, you get a much more precise top and bottom. The software goes into the CNC controller and runs through the tool paths, which are like X,Y and Z co-ordinates, telling the tool part what to do. It's quite specific and these tool parts work quickly. It takes about half-an-hour - 15 minutes top and bottom – to cut a surfboard. We come from a technical background, so every board still gets put onto a rocker mould to make sure that it's 100% correct. The advantage of this is because it's so specialised we can just make some changes and it keeps everything else the same and it cuts in a lot less time.
A twin-tip would take five or six hours of CAD work to do all the intricate steps and the tapers etc. The level of detail is quite different and, because it's a small item, we're really looking at the flex on another level. Alex can test two boards and the difference in thickness might be half a millimetre and he'll say he won't like the one that's half a millimetre thinner, saying it's too flexible. We then measure the boards on a deflection test and he'll be spot on. It's amazing.
Anyway, back to the surfboards: In foams you have a choice between EPS, XPS and PU. EPS is your expanded polystyrene - generally a lower density foam that comes from a steam process that sticks it all together. PU is a traditional surfboard polyurethane core. XPS is an extruded polystyrene - a closed-cell foam that doesn't take in water, but the disadvantages are that it's a little bit heavier and more expensive. As you can see, we've actually already built the stringer into the foam blanks. We use a straight EPS foam core with a wood stringer to start with and then as we get them more dialled in we'll build them with the full Active composite stringer, which I'll explain shortly.
At this stage in the development process, we don't do a full sandwich construction which means we can change things as we go along. We might want to cut into the board to change the tail or nose rocker, or to move the fin boxes around. So until we've done a lot of the board development and got the base shape right, we'll just glass it. It's actually still relatively durable. I then finish all the rails by hand. The main thing for us is to keep the thickness, rockers and V lines 100% consistent. We're getting way more precise shapes than even the best shaper could do, so it's very easy to duplicate. The amount of error is so minimal that we can make sure we get a very precise In the last five years the development of super-lightweight biaxial carbons has been a big thing for us. There's still this misperception that a carbon board is very stiff, but we found that we were able to use carbon, but still make a very flexible board. In surf design, one of the big challenges is building flexible boards. A few companies like Firewire and Salomon S-Core are really pushing it and the advantages are really good, but the problem is they have a tendency to over flex and then the laminates buckle. The Active system inside the boards consists of carbon 'I-beam' stringers. If you look through a section of the board, you'll see a vertical composite component with carbon on each side of a high density core with double layers of carbon on the ends. For us the innovation comes from having a board with a stringer that's still flexible. From a surf side, stringers traditionally make the board stronger – we accept that. The problem is they stiffen the board up, especially as you go towards harder shells. So the boards aren't as soft as they used to be and you run into the challenge of ending up with stiffer boards. What we were able to do with the Active system was build a really exotic low weight stringer with flexible components on each side connecting to the skins, allowing the top skins to move independently from the stringer.
As you flex the board to a certain point, the stringer contributes more and more. However, within a working range of about 20 – 30mm, the board is using purely what's in the skin, so the way we design a board now is different in terms of the way its reinforced. We're not using the skin to stop the board buckling; we're using it to deal with people standing on it. The best material for that is carbon which means we also end up with a really light board. The whole thing for us in the Active range is that we can build a board that you can really surf and kite. The weight is that of a traditional surfboard and the durability makes it something you can kite on properly, no problem. The EPS core contributes to the strength, but not as significantly. You could pretty much bend an EPS core all day long. It's not really going to contribute a huge amount towards the stiffness. What it does do is help to stabilise the distortion of the deck, so we were able to develop a system where we could optimise the board for flex. The whole skin is made from biaxial carbon running along the length of the board making it way more flexible than it would normally be. Furthering that, we stopped the sandwich construction on the rail as sandwich rails add more stiffness. Sandwich rails act like another stringer, removing flexibility. Instead we've doubled the glass layers on the rail to keep the strength, as you're most likely to drop your board on its rail.
One of our test riders here, Tony Shrimpton, still has one of the first Active prototype construction models, which has now gone soft under the heels, yet the board is still in one piece, so we can rebuild it. You would never get that from sandwich construction. All the strength is in the skin and the Active stringer is essential to what we're trying to do in surfboard development.
Check out the rest of Airush's range at: www.airush.com
This feature is in issue #53