Luring the Asian board manufacturers back home with kinaroad
Recently the mainstream press has run a slew of articles about robotic automation, how it'll steal our jobs and toss working folk on the scrapheap. So chalk the following story up as a counter-weight to those dire portents.
kinaroad (stylised with a lower case 'k', don't ask me why) is a New Zealand-based robotics company who believe current machine shaping is archaic. Their robotic system, which operates with both Aku and Shape3D software, delivers faster and more accurate boards.
Recently they merged with Selsurf, a laminating factory on the Gold Coast, to create end to end surfboard production. Asia has the labor cost advantage, but by eliminating inefficiences in the process, kinaroad are adamant they can lure offshore production back to our shores.
The lads at kinaroad sport modern monikers such as Disruptor and Problem Crusher. In that vein, Scott Fenton is the CEO and Rule Breaker. He recently spoke to Swellnet about using high technology to make Australian surfboard production great again.
Swellnet: Tell us a bit about kinaroad?
Scott Fenton: kinaroad began about ten years ago, and the whole ideology of the business is to embrace the advancement of software, automation and robotics, so it shakes up the current manufacturing paradigm. We can optimise manufacturing to the point where Australia manufactures boards for Australia, California for California, or Europe for Europe. No need for Asian manufacturing.
The first piece of the project was to create a machine that could cut blanks more accurately than the current systems on the market.
How did you do that?
Firstly, we created a machine that could rack up twelve blanks and the robot will take a blank, cut the top, turn it over, then cut the bottom, and put it back on the rack and grab the next board and carry on. What that means is that once you've got a set up like that you can run 24 hours without the need for people to be overseeing those machines all the time.
Turning the blanks has proven problematic in the past?
Manually turning the blank is extremely hard to do accurately. It’s why supposedly identical boards turn out different and it takes time for a finish shaper to correct the faults, match the rails and so forth.
Is there any finishing required with your system?
Much less. It also routs the fin boxes. Our intention right from the beginning was to bring efficiencies to what we see is an outdated manufacturing process.
Scott with a finished board
I was told you’re looking to double the existing workforce. How is that possible if you’re automating the process?
You have to look at the process in its entirety. What happens is the big brands mostly go to third party laminators for laminating, so the decision to acquire Selsurf was accelerated by the fact that we don't really have the epoxy laminating supply here on the Gold Coast. A lot of the manufacturing was disappearing to Asia because there just wasn't the capability here to finish the product.
We were waiting for the market to sort itself out and to provide that service, but we realised it wasn't gonna happen so when the opportunity to merge with Selsurf arose we jumped.
Tell me a bit about Selsurf.
Run by Sel and Hylton van Wyk, it’s a small epoxy laminating business with huge experience. Most importantly, we can scale it to serve the whole industry, not just our machines but all the machines on the coast. Bring production back to the Gold Coast and Australia.
How many people will be working in the laminating side of the operation?
That's a little bit unclear currently, but I think probably we're gonna need at least another ten people to get to the scale that we need to get to. Currently the combined businesses have nine people, so maybe twenty people in total. Maybe a few more.
Why do you think epoxy boards will increase in numbers?
We just look at the trends. We've looked at data the last four or five years and there's been a significant shift, particularly over the last three-to-six months, towards epoxy. Whether this will continue is open to speculation but for us the growth is as much about bringing production back to Australia. There’s probably ten thousand epoxy boards...you know, high performance epoxy boards, being imported into Australia from Asia that we feel should be made in Australia.
Are their other benefits from companies bringing manufacturing back to Australia?
If you look at the brands that are importing from Asia, there’s a cost advantage, but there's also a capital outlay. There's a lead time and a shipping time that you've got to consider. And probably the most important thing is being able to predict the type and number of each board you may need and because of that at the end of each container load there’ll be a portion of stock that gets discounted and dumped on the market. That’s inefficient and counter-productive to everyone involved.
If we can create a just-in-time manufacturing platform where we can deliver boards in two or three weeks after they’ve been ordered, it’s much more efficient and brands aren’t going to have to dump product.
There's always gonna be those that will import boards directly but at the high performance end of the market we think this is a real opportunity for Australia to take control and repatriate production here.
Response from the industry?
We've had a great response from everybody in the industry including other companies that cut EPS - you know, our competitors on the cutting side. It's a positive thing for the whole industry if we can increase the supply and capability of epoxy on the market and bring work back to Australia
I've had contact from most of the major brands who are all interested in what our plans are. A lot of them will wait and see because it's not an overnight thing that you can repatriate manufacturing and it has to be done in a very structured way if we are to maintain quality.
So some of the interest is from companies that are currently manufacturing in Asia now?
Yeah, some of the interest is from them. We've got a lot of work to do before we can get two hundred high quality epoxy boards done each week. That's a pretty ambitious goal. But if we can hit the quality and the price point that's required, then the Australian-based brands have indicated they’d love to see production back in Australia.