A Folding Kayak Made of Corrugated Plastic?!

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A Folding Kayak Made of Corrugated Plastic?!
A cross section of Coroplast, the material used in making the Oru.

New uses for existing materials can fuel hardware innovation. Such was the case for Anton Willis who after moving to a San Francisco apartment had to put his beloved kayak into storage. No room for big toys. By coincidence around that same time he met Robert Lang, a physicist and renowned origami expert. The ideas of kayaks and origami fused in Anton’s mind and lead him on a journey that resulted in the Oru, an innovative folding kayak which is now available through a Kickstarter campaign. The campaign has already raised $209,784 of its $80,000 goal.

The idea of a folding kayak became an obsession. He spent weeks experimentally folding paper during idle moments. His origami had to fold out into a good functional kayak with no seam below the waterline. It also had to fold up compactly for easy transport. This exercise took a long time to figure out, but he persisted because he sensed that getting it right would result in a special product.

The idea of a folding kayak isn’t new. Other collapsible kayaks are in the marketplace and he studied them. Most have folding internal skeletons wrapped in fabric skins. They’re good products, but expensive and complicated. The tougher variety of these are heavy; the lighter variety of these are fragile. Anton wanted his folding kayak to be the best of both worlds: tough and light weight. Discovering the right folds and using the right material could help him achieve his goals.

In its carrying case, you can see the Oru folds down to a compact package.

To begin, all of Anton’s experimental folding was done using paper. As he developed better designs he knew he’d need to move into prototyping. That would mean working with some other material that would meet the kayak’s real-world needs. While continuing to refine his design he started to research potential materials for prototyping. He discovered corrugated plastic fairly quickly, but it would take testing and research to gain confidence that it was the right material. I asked him to describe his process.

“Primarily the kayak needed to be made of a material which, like paper, could take creases to form hinges,” he said. “It also had to endure all that flexing while still being seamless and watertight.”

He started looking around to find and learn from other groups which use corrugated plastic. “Hobbyists building custom fairings for recumbent bicycles often use corrugated plastic so I studied their work.” From them and other groups he learned techniques for working with the material.

He also learned from other corrugated plastic products that the material is very durable. “Corrugated plastic is used for building remote control airplanes which speaks volumes since they’re forever crashing. It’s also used to make boxes used by the postal service which receive heavy reuse and they’ve proven plenty strong.” As he persisted he found additional evidence such as its use in constructing shipping palates. It was tough, but tough enough for a kayak? There was mounting evidence that it could likely do the job.

To get started with prototyping he bought sheets of Coroplast, a popular brand of corrugated plastic. Now he had the material in his hands for first-hand testing. Could it fold into the shapes he was asking of it? Would it remain waterproof after years of being folded and unfolded? To find out Anton initially did his own testing, folding samples back and forth hundreds of times. It worked fine, but this approach wasn’t enough. He needed insights into Coroplast’s long-term performance. He turned to manufacturers’ material properties sheets. These revealed that the material was very tough; testing by one company found no evidence of deformation even after 20,000 folds. 20,000 folds! The more he learned, the more he gained the confidence he needed to proceed.

As he worked with Coroplast his appreciation for it grew. It’s a material in very broad use. In the U.S. alone there are over 50 contract manufacturers making products based on Coroplast. Furthermore, manufacturing with Coroplast is not complicated. To manufacturers the process of creating his kayak is similar to the way packing boxes are constructed. He says it’s easy to customize with screen printing  so you can do all sorts of patterns and graphics for branding and personalization.

“These are things that can’t easily be done with other materials and processes such as on molded products,”Anton said.

Oru kayak assembly laid out.

As time went by he got the folding right, locked down his design and build and worked through the remaining product issues. “Getting the last 10 percent took a lot of work,” but finally the product was ready and just this week his Kickstarter campaign launched. It’s an interesting coincidence of timing that his launch coincides with the end of national elections during which millions of Coroplast panels were used for political yard signs. You have to figure that when his Kickstarter is complete he’ll be shopping from a position of strength. Coroplast suppliers and manufactures should hungry for replacement business. Could he have timed it any better?

Anton did what many makers should consider doing. He used an existing material in a new way. In so doing he was able to leverage the benefits that come from broad use and large scale. The material was cheaper due to established production capacity. Coroplast was already used in making many products therefore expertise and manufacturability were broadly available. With so many manufacturers comfortable working with the material he could get competitive pricing. All these factors conspired in his favor. Choosing a well-proven, broadly used material will enhance Anton’s chances that the Oru kayak will be a financial and market success.

A flotilla of Oru heading out toward San Francisco and the Bay Bridge.
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Speaker. Maker. Writer. Traveler. Father. Husband.

MakerCon Co-Chair (MakerCon.com) Maker City San Diego Roundtable Member San Diego Maker Faire Producer (SDMakerFaire.org)

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