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17th May 2018, Chonburi

Riding a 40-year wave

Inside Composites talks to Danu Chotikapanich, CEO of Cobra International.

Hi Danu, in introducing your company, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, I would refer our readers to a previous article on Cobra, here. As a key part of your business let’s first talk generally about composite sandwich products in watersports. What are the biggest markets globally and how big is the market approximately, in your understanding?

Danu Chotikapanich: You’ve certainly started with a tough question!  With such a mix of construction technologies across younger and more mature sports, it’s always difficult for us to be completely precise on overall market size.  Probably the best summary I could give you is that we see the overall watersports board market (circa 1.5 million boards per year including soft and inflatable boards) still being dominated by surfing, with these products making up around half of the total number of boards built. Cobra are very pleased to support our customers in surfing, standup paddle boards (SUPs), windsurfing and kite surfing and currently supply a very significant market share of the non-inflatable composite boards.  

Danu Chotikapanich, CEO of Cobra International. © Cobra International

Here is a very simple question – what do composites actually contribute to windsurf, surf and stand up paddle (SUP) boards?

DC: I would summarise by saying composites allow us to create strong, light and beautiful equipment for watersports.  Historically, surfboards came first, with solid wooden boards said to date back to 6th Century Polynesia.  Hollow wooden boards didn’t really appear until around the 1920s and 30s with the first composite boards following just after WW2.  These early PU foam-cored boards used polyester resins and fibreglass fabrics – a technology that is still used today.  Cobra began production in 1978 producing hollow windsurf boards for Windglider and very quickly moved to epoxy sandwich composites and expanded polystyrene (EPS) cores for its boards.  Developing this lighter weight core technology, as windsurf and surf boards were joined by new products such as SUP and kite surfing boards, allowed more material to be used in the outer sandwich layers of the board, producing tougher and more durable boards with no weight penalty.  Lighter equipment is easier to handle, faster, more responsive and ultimately more fun in the water.  

With its composites know-how and industrial scale facilities, Cobra has been a highly attractive partner for designers and builders of many types of many types of marine craft including yachts, catamarans, dinghies, kayaks and even ground effect seaplanes. © Cobra International

And what are the key considerations that users are looking for?

DC: Users are looking for a challenging blend of light weight, strength, durability and in some cases (such as a surfboard) a degree of flex in their boards.  Buyers are also looking for quality and competitive pricing. As a result Cobra has developed mass production techniques and efficient production lines, but we also work very hard to maintain the highest levels of quality and consistency in every component we manufacture.

More frequently, a lot of buyers are also looking for a sustainable board that is manufactured in an enviromentally friendly manner using sustainable materials.

With the recent launch of the Windsurfer LT windsurf board, you’ve spoken of taking this sport back to its roots. What are its key features and advantages?

What we were aiming for when we started the project was to get more people into the sport and also to keep them in the sport.  We decided to create a true multi-use board, suitable for SUP, beginners and One-Design racing.  It was shortly after we’d started that the Italian Windsurfer class association asked us about an updated board design and we were able to say we already had something in mind that would be perfect.  As I said, this board really opens up access to the sport because it’s fun to use in much lighter winds than some modern designs.  It’s great for learning, freestyle, racing and if there’s no wind at all you can even take it for a paddle.  We’ve used modern composite construction to make the new board significantly lighter.

The sandwich-construction windsurf boards produced by Cobra revolutionised the sport of windsurfing. © Cobra International

What are the other areas you are involved in in the composites market?

DC: Throughout our 40 years in composites we have been involved with a staggering range of composite products.  As well as our involvement in all types of watersports, we’ve built stadium roof structures, parts for paramotors, folding boats, a new design of ground effect aircraft and more recently we’ve been developing some really beautiful hi-tech carbon fibre furniture pieces too.  In 2005 we decided that automotive composites were a key part of our growth strategy and I’m very proud of how we have developed Cobra Advanced Composites (CAC) since then.  We won our first OEM contract for carbon prepreg parts in 2006 and have gone on to create a truly world class manufacturing facility that supplies, tooling, parts and complex assemblies to premium automotive OEM brands in Germany, Italy, Japan and the UK.

In October last year you founded the new Cobra Composites Structures (CCS) business unit. What led to this development and what are its aims?

DC: CCS was formed in response to strong demand from our customers for Cobra’s product development expertise, production efficiency and quality focus to be applied to large structural composite parts such as roofs, facades, bridges and large vehicle components for rail, bus and truck applications. With lightweight advanced composites delivering design freedom and faster installation in architecture, as well as providing fuel savings and efficiency gains in transport applications, these are composite applications with significant growth potential, and we feel that Cobra is the perfect partner to support customers from initial design concept through to finished composite structure.  Cobra Composite Structures is currently working on a several interesting projects including components for a specialist vehicle project to support airport ground operations and some light weight architectural façade systems.

With continuous investment in R&D, technology and facilities, Cobra continues to innovate; testing and researching new material solutions and even lighter constructions. © Cobra International

You are also very active in moving composites to sustainable production. Can you list a few of your achievements to date in this area, and your goals going forward?

DC: This is an area that the whole Cobra team is very passionate about.  We formally added our commitment to sustainability and corporate social responsibility to our code of conduct in 2007 and we’ve been expanding our sustainability activities relating to products, processes and the workplace ever since.  We’ve been working with biocomposites for more than 10 years now – both in terms of sustainable reinforcements such as cellulose or coconut husk fibres and also by using bio-resins with an increasing percentage of sustainably produced plant-based carbon content.  We’ve worked alongside our suppliers to develop robust manufacturing processes with bio-based resins and have now switched the majority of our production to these greener resins.  Independently certified Gold Level Ecoboards are already produced at Cobra but we’d always like to do more.  Ultimately, we’d like to be able to match the current boards’ performance with a fully recycled EPS core and a 100% plant-based resin and hardener.

Building on 40 years of composites experience, Cobra has successfully extended its core value of Strong, Light, and Beautiful into the Automotive market with the creation of its Cobra Advanced Composites (CAC) business unit. © Cobra International

Finally, tells us a little about the special publication you are planning to mark the 40th anniversary of Cobra in 2018, ’40 Key Projects and 40 Key People’.

DC: In 2017, we decided to mark our 40th Anniversary year by bringing together 40 key projects, and 40 of the people that have been instrumental in delivering them, into a book that captures all aspects of Cobra’s history.  The research stage was absolutely fascinating as I was learning some things about the company for the very first time from when my father set up the business.  

I don’t want to give too much away but you’ll be hearing a lot more from us during our 40th year as we release some of these 40 year projects and technology updates on our website and social media channels, as well as through the press.

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