Innovation drives growth for canvas and fabrics

The fight over market share among existing players and new products entering the pipeline should make for an exciting year in the marine canvas and fabrics industry in 2007.

Although many manufacturers and distributors predict a stagnant year for new boat builders, they see heightened demand for canvas and fabric products through the customization of new boats, retrofits of existing boats and those being readied for resale as well as sales of aftermarket canvas and fabric products.

“Sales were up considerably in 2006, and ’07 started off very well,” says Richard Hirsch, secretary/treasurer at Manart-Hirsch Co. Inc., the fabric importer, manufacturer and distributor based in Lynbrook, N.Y. “The February freeze put a little crimp in it, but January was up nearly 50 percent over January ’06.”

Manart-Hirsch distributes Sunbrella fabric as well as the Stamoid line of vinyl-coated fabric that’s imported from Switzerland.

Speaking of Sunbrella, Paige Mullis from fabric manufacturer Glen Raven Mills says the company predicts a “quite active” sales environment for its Sunbrella products through at least 2009. “The marine topping market has been good for us,” says Mullis, marine specialist at the Glen Raven, N.C.-based manufacturer. “The boat industry in recent years has brought out new types and classes of boats … and we’re seeing more focus on those different areas.”

Increased variety of boat types opens up opportunities for canvas and fabric suppliers, as does the trend toward a higher emphasis on style and performance on boats in all price ranges, says Mullis. “Boating manufacturers are more fashion-forward in component pieces, but sales on the production side are more toward the neutral,” Mullis says.

Fabric choices, custom colors and differing canvas designs represent some of the ways OEMs are looking to differentiate their boats from competing products, says John Pierce, WeatherMax product manager at Safety Components Fabric Technologies Inc., based in Greenville, S.C. Although the use of imported fabric remains strong, because of financial and quality concerns Pierce says he’s seen a trend toward companies buying domestically produced material that’s shipped to Asia for fabrication.

Syntec Industries, which supplies carpeting to the marine industry, tracks trends in the automotive, apparel and home furnishing industries. Cindy Steele, textile design manager of the company based in Rome, Ga., says those markets are offering what she calls a “new luxury” to the consumer. “Options, looks, fabrics and colors that would normally be used in high-end applications are now finding their way to middle-income consumers,” says Steele. “We believe that this trend will eventually reach the marine industry, which would bring a fresh new look to our market.”

But at the same time, OEMs are looking to cut costs wherever possible through the supply chain, so suppliers are being asked tough questions about textile composition, construction and durability, says Jeff Jimison, vice president of sales at Shuford Mills LLC, based in Hudson, N.C.

Low price is one consideration, but at the other end of the spectrum are innovations such as nanotechnology to enhance water resistance, high abrasion resistance and other performance characteristics, Jimison says. Just as boat buyers sometimes can be too wide-eyed about features, colors and the boating experience in general to ask intelligent questions, Jimison believes that OEMs and custom outfitters sometimes fail to ask tough questions about the performance of any fabric they buy.

“Look at the specifications and ask questions about the claims being made,” Jimison says. “So your fabric passed 1,500 or 2,200 hours of UV testing. What was considered passing? Would you or your customer be happy with this degree of fade?” He also says a company should investigate a weaver’s supply chain and determine whether the weaver or distributor is engaged in private labeling.

The increase in innovation should allow for a better fit between canvas and fabric products and their intended uses, says Richard Yale, vice president of sales and marketing at MarChem Coated Fabrics Inc., based in New Haven, Mo. “Dealers, fabricators and boat owners should take the time to learn the characteristics of each (product) and best match those characteristics to their specific application,” Yale says.

He also sees a rise in solution-dyed polyester fabrics that offer colorfastness comparable to solution-dyed acrylics but with greater strength and abrasion resistance. More imports are entering the market, but those products are at the lower ends of the scale, Yale says.

Canvas and fabric users should recognize the difference between low-priced products that offer value and cheap products that can cause problems, notes Pierce. “The manufacturing of a textile is very automated with little manual labor,” Pierce says. “Therefore, if an imported fabric is significantly less expensive, it is more a function of reducing the construction of the fabric or using lower-quality raw materials than it is a result of low-cost labor.”

Recent innovations in the WeatherMax line include a non-acrylic woven fabric that surpasses a 1,500-hour rating for fade resistance. Shuford Mills recently increased its warranty on marine-weight fabrics to six years and cushion-weight upholstery fabrics to five, which Jimison says are industry firsts. “We use Dolan solution-dyed acrylic fiber, and this, combined with our 9.25 ounces-per-square-yard-weight fabric allows us the opportunity to step out and make a quality statement about our fabric,” Jimison says.

Dowco Marine has found great initial success with its Rope Ratchet Mooring & Trailer cover, says Russ West, vice president of sales. The Lebanon, Mo.-based company introduced the combination cover at the 2006 International Boatbuilders’ Exhibition & Conference.

“Dealers like it because they don’t have to spend much time installing it,” says West, “and for customers it’s a minimal price increase over buying one cover.” The company designs its own fabrics, using its experience in the marine segment to make products that fit well in the market such as ClimateShield Plus, a solution-dyed polyester that’s fade-resistant, water-resistant and keeps its shape.

Syntec Industries has teamed with CMI Enterprises to offer NBT Marine upholstery vinyl, which uses nanotechnology to kill bacteria responsible for mildew and fungus growth. In addition to the self-renewing nanotechnology, the product has a Nano UV inhibitor to keep vinyl upholstery looking new.

“Things like nanotechnology to enhance water resistance, high abrasion resistance and other performance characteristics … will present challenges in educating the boat-buying public about these performance enhancements and to look beyond the label to what the fabric actually delivers,” Jimison says. Shuford Mills expects 2007, its seventh year supplying the marine industry, to be its best yet, he adds.

Although putting fabric on a boat is an age-old practice, West and Mullis agree the technology around fabric and canvas has become much more sophisticated.

“Technology and product development will continue to be a focus,” says Mullis on continuing innovations to its Sunbrella Supreme water performance fabric with acrylic face and acrylic flocking on the underside and its light-filtering Sunbrella Shade fabric.

Companies that continue to fund R&D will find success through greater market share, says West. “Customers demand ease of use and quality. We’re continually introducing new products and evaluating hardware to make sure it’s the best, is easy to use and won’t rattle,” West says.

“New products are the lifeblood of our industry.”

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