BY CONOR MIHELL
Last summer, when plastics multinational PolyOne announced it would cease production of Royalex in early 2014, canoeists, canoe manufacturers and outfitters gasped. For 35 years, this durable, no-maintenance laminate of ABS, foam and vinyl--mass-produced in a sole factory in Warsaw, Ind.--was the go-to material for tripping, whitewater and recreational canoes. PolyOne claimed there was no money in Royalex, which is labor-intensive to produce and is exclusively used for canoe construction. The material--innovative for its time but seriously lacking in practical applications--was produced on vintage equipment developed by Uniroyal Tire Company in 1957.
With Royalex comprising the lion's share of its sales, Quebec-based manufacturer Esquif Canoes knew that PolyOne's decision would be a death knell were it not to innovate--and fast. Fortunately, owner Jacques Chassé says the company was already experimenting with replacements. Its Taureau creekboat, for instance, is made out of a glossy, single-layer, proprietary polypropylene plastic called T-Form Elite.
The big challenge, however, was introducing a stiffening agent to add structure to the hull of a full-sized tripping canoe--not a problem on the eight-foot-long Taureau. So Chassé added a foam core, sandwiching it between inner and outer layers of ABS plastic. Chassé claims the material is 20 times more abrasion resistant and 10 percent lighter than Royalex, though he's only produced small samples to date. "We bought the equipment and still have to install it," says Chassé. "The R and D is done. We will have a canoe in the water at the end of the month [May]. The plan is to be ready to deliver material by the end of September so new boats will be ready to sell in 2015. Next season is safe."
Esquif will produce raw sheets of the material in its Frampton, Quebec headquarters and solicit investment from canoe manufacturers across North America. Besides being tougher and lighter, Chassé says T-Formex can be used with existing ovens and molds to produce the next generation of canoes. "It's a big investment for just Esquif," says Chassé, who like most manufacturers, is virtually sold out of Royalex canoes for 2014, "so we're counting on the trade to follow us.
"We are introducing material we know we know will expand the canoe market," adds Chassé, who says the T-Formex price-point will be comparable to Royalex and plans to debut it at this summer's Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City. "Royalex sales have been shrinking for the last 15 years. Our new material is more durable and lighter. Because of that, we believe numbers will grow."