Every product innovation has its shining celebratory moment, and for Naish’s new Quad-Tex canopy material, I remember it quite vividly. It was April 2016 and the owner of our Chinese manufacturing partner stood next to me at Maui’s Kite Beach as we watched Naish’s pro athletes shred next year’s gear. We had spent the last three years developing a stronger, crisper canopy material, but unfortunately, my Chinese friend did not share my excitement; he questioned the usefulness of this new canopy material and boldly remarked on the inventory challenges and complicated production issues this change would require.
I understood his point of view; he makes kites for other brands using all the same standard materials, but we were asking him to do something different and maintain a special stock of canopy just for us. I have a lot of respect for this self-made man. As the owner of the biggest kite factory in the world, he’s made a career out of making hard yet successful decisions, and henceforth, our conversation was going nowhere. When changing his mind seemed all but futile, Kevin Langeree got out of the water with the biggest smile on his face and delivered us both high fives and a glowing account of how his Torch felt so much more solid and responsive due to the new Quad-Tex material. The apprehension and questioning was over. My Chinese friend looked at me with a smile and said, “well, I guess you were right, it is worth all the effort.”
I’ve been working in the kiteboarding industry since 2002 and back in those early days, we were coming up with new concepts on a monthly basis that were routinely making yesterday’s kites obsolete. We struggled with yearlong product cycles because the stuff we were coming up with was just so much better and waiting for a distant launch date was often agonizing.
15 years later things have changed. Our industry has matured in ways that allow longer development cycles and bigger projects that involve a greater investment of time and money. It’s been three years since the internal debate about the potential of a new canopy material and my first meeting in Japan with Teijin, the major manufacturer of sailcloth. This was my first experience with Japanese cultural communication barriers; at the meeting amongst the Teijin product managers all my questions were answered with a resounding ‘yes’ and a smile, yet when I followed up by email, all I got was a pile of ‘no’s!’ Lesson learned: speak slowly and for future reference, the translation for a Japanese ‘yes’ is more likely a ‘maybe’ and even possibly, a ‘no.’
From high-end fabric for Louis Vuitton clothing to Patagonia’s technical wear, Teijin manufactures and supplies cloth to a multitude of companies throughout a vast number of industries. Unfortunately for us, this meant that whenever we wanted to make a kite from this new batch of material, the lead time would be six months as opposed to our usual 10-day protoype turnaround. Any time you work with a new material, you need to put the canopy through long term durability testing and Maui is a hard place to be when it comes to testing concepts out of sight of prying eyes. From our ‘friends’ at North Kiteboarding to the guys at Wainman and all the other traveling pros supported by various kite companies, it became a long term game of hide and seek to keep the Quad-Tex prototypes out of visual recognition.When the first kite prototype finally arrived, I remember the sound of the wind on the canopy while inflating the kite — it was strikingly crisp and I could barely contain my excitement. On paper, Teijin’s tests indicated that our new material was 30% stronger and stiffer than the best materials out there and up to 70% stronger than most of the canopies used in our industry, but the proof was out on the water. My coworker, Des Walsh launched the kite for me and as soon as the lines had tension, I could hear the sound of a completely different type of canopy.The canopy’s performance on the water is night and day, but the bigger question is whether the material would withstand the test of time. We made a bunch of prototypes, dropped them in the surf and stored them in the back of our trucks with prolonged sun and rain exposure. But ultimately, the real test came when we gave Jesse Richman a quiver to do ‘Jesse stuff,’ and over two years later, his kites still feel out-of-the-bag crisp
As we neared a light at the end of the tunnel, I experienced yet another cultural communication barrier. After all these cloak and dagger efforts, my Japanese friends shared with me that they were planning a sales trip to present the new material we were working on to all of the kite industry. Since we had explicitly agreed on an exclusivity deal with Naish, it was back into crisis control, and after a brief and successful renegotiation, I thought to myself, “my Japanese definitely needs to improve!”
Three years is a long product development cycle, but nowadays, it takes time for such huge improvements. I believe the future of kiteboarding will bring us some ever-innovating products. Each incremental step may not come as fast as it has in previous years, but the results may be bigger and better. As designers, we have more time and resources than ever before to experiment with new ideas, revisit old ones and invent new materials that make the best products. The growth of our sport will only continue with our ability to keep on innovating.
Words by Damien Girardin