Wing Commanders: Clinton Filen and Dave Kay

A double dose of expertise this issue, as we hear from AK Durable Supply Co’s Clinton Filen and Dave Kay, two designers whose work interlaces daily at their base in Cape Town, making some pretty beautiful and high-performance gear for you and I to enjoy…

Name: Clinton Filen 
Job title: Brand/Design Director 
Years in the industry: 17
Proudest professional moment: There are a few key product breakthroughs, but ultimately developing the products that powered kitesurfers Alex Pastor and Bruna Kajiya to their respective world titles, and sharing their stories.

Name: David Kay 
Job title: Product  Development Engineer
Years in the industry: 19
Proudest professional
moment: Getting a triple crown in 2016/17 which included a kiting freestyle world title, cable wakeboarding world title and the Red Bull King of the Air, all on boards I’d designed.

Could you give us a little background about your experience in the world of kite/foiling? When did your journey begin?

CF: I was designing accessories for a European brand, and while visiting a factory in Asia I met this slightly eccentric kite designer, Don Montague (the Naish designer at the time). He liked the look of my harnesses and asked me if we could swap for a kite, and that was me hooked. 17 years ago, I joined Airush as Product Manager/Designer. I became one of the owners 10 years ago and took on the role of Brand and Design Director.

DK: For me it all started with the development of the Double Agent for Cabrinha, back in 2014. I started learning to kite foil and developing my first foiling product all at the same time. Living in Hong Kong at the time was a blessing for the development, with HK having lots of ‘perfect’ 10 knot foiling days. In fact, foiling more than doubled my number of kiteable days in Hong Kong.

How did you both originally come to work for Airush / AK?

CF: I approached our group CEO at the time as I had some business and product ideas. The company had recently acquired Airush from the Baxter family in Hawaii and asked if I would like to join the team. I jumped at the opportunity.

DK: My wife Su and I left Hong Kong in early 2016 and went on an extended holiday, the end of which had us arrive in Cape Town in late December that year. The day we arrived in Cape Town, Airush advertised for a customer service role which Su was lucky enough to get. With her working here I would hang out and started fixing up some stuff in the development lab, which led onto making some prototypes which led onto some design work and here I am now with a titled role!

So what are your roles are at AK, and what do they entail?! 

CF: I am the Brand and Design Director for AK. I also have a product design portfolio that I am directly responsible for, being the foil boards and certain accessories. I do a fair amount of the testing on surf foils for DK, and work closely on key concepts with him and Craig Thompkins, our newest design recruit.

DK: My job title is Product Development Engineer and for AK that means I develop our foil and binding programs. I take care of these from 3D design right through to the production ramp up.

Where would you consider your main expertize to be within the brands?

CF: Well I really enjoy new brand development, category development and thoroughly enjoy pushing myself (and everyone else) on developing more conceptual product designs. 

DK: Three things for me really…

  • 1. Computational 3D design – a relatively complex type of 3D modeling based 90% in writing code and software that describes objects. 
  • 2. Prototype making – we have our own development lab here in Cape Town with CNC, presses, composites etc, and I spend a large part of my time making development prototypes. 
  • 3. Designing for production – I consider it very important that what I design is well based on the process it will be built in. What I design is always possible to build well in production volumes.

“New developments could come from any direction and the more people working on designs the better we will all become. We have a number of interesting new designs about to hit the market…”

Team rider Alvaro Onieva in full ‘throw-it-hard’ pose…

How important is your current location to your design process, can you take us through how your prototyping process works for boards and foils?

CF: Our location is one of the keys to our brand’s success. We are able to design, build and test within a 5-minute radius for many of our products. Sometimes it is very structured with a defined brief and timelines, other times we just build rough concepts to test ideas. But depending on the category there is generally a lead designer and the team will help where required. For example, I am responsible for surfboards, surf foil boards, wing boards and some of the kite foil boards. DK is on the foils and a bunch of other stuff. Mark Pattison is on the wings.

So once we have designed and built something, we typically have three levels of testing. We have a team of testers who are not pro athletes but are focused and available to do a lot of benchmarking, then we will generally try to test products ourselves and then we have our pro team who are either more or less involved depending on the product. 

DK: Having quick access to prototypes and testing locations is the key to the success of Airush and AK. I’ll start with some feedback from the testers and sales teams and then dive into my custom-written foil design software to play with a few concepts. Once I have a design that looks like it will meet the needs of the team and the design brief, I’ll export out all the CNC control files for a complete ‘build’. It’s then into the lab to get my hands dirty. Turn around on the bigger 1600sqcm+ wing is around a week to 10 days, with hours of machining time – molds, cores and support jigs etc. Once the wing is done, I’ll either test ride it myself or hand over to one of our local testers. After a week or so of testing the whole process will start over again.

We’re starting to see a few more “experimental” foil wing designs on the market and from amateur designers. Do you think there could be any more revolutionary swings in foil design? And do you have any plans for larger or higher aspect foils? 

CF: There has been a steady march of design evolution more than a single revolution in foils and I expect to see efficiency and ease of use moving forward in leaps and bounds. I think we will see some major revolutions in areas such as eFoils and pump foils, as these areas have the most technology and pumping is on the fringe of human capabilities… This space could blend quickly. We have also developed a range of high aspect foils and bigger wings this year as we see increased demand for faster and bigger wings.

DK: New developments could come from any direction and the more people working on designs the better we will all become. We have a number of interesting new designs about to hit the market…

AK Durable Supply Co began as the technical accessory wing of Airush Kiteboarding. Clinton, when did this occur and why did you see the need to create a separate company?

CF: It actually started more independently as we had been developing an accessory brand within the group (Starboard, Airush Kiteboarding and Severne Designs) for some time, but we seemed to always have our hands full. I believe Graham Wiles (our Art Director) had been playing with some logos and AK just stuck with us as it had an association to Airush but ultimately developed into its own brand name that did not constrain us to a sport. I have always been a multisport, interested-in-everything designer. 

Wing foiling is obviously the big story right now. Have you been surprised by how quickly it has taken off and is it tough to keep ahead of the curve when things are moving so quickly?

CF: We went through a process around seven to eight years ago of intensively developing the wing concept. Ultimately, we put it on ice as we could not generate enough power from the wings compared to a kite. Once larger foils emerged (basically through SUP) this really opened up the whole sport. I was surprised at how quickly the category emerged and the scale that it has grown.

So you have now released the FreeWing into the market. How big do you see this category growing in the coming years, and does AK plan moving into the world of boards as well as foils?

CF: We expect huge growth within this category based on the feedback we are getting from new entrants to the sport and retailers. I think the low barrier to entry is key and if the sport continues to evolve it will keep the participants engaged, which is something we have really seen in kiting. AK is set to launch the new Phazer foilboard as it fits perfectly into the crossover space, with the larger sizes being great wingboards but taking on the mantra of a single range covering kite, pump, surf and wing.  

Clinton, you’ve been really key in driving the direction of both AK and Airush. Would you say you’re content with where things lie currently with both brands, or is there more to strive for?

CF: If I zoom into what we are doing I am extremely stoked with the direction we are taking, the quality of what we do and the team we have. If I zoom out, I see so many things we are interested in and could push much further, but we want to take our time to focus on doing things really well and build slowly from there.

DK, you are very open about posting your latest designs and prototypes across your social media channels – more so than any other designers we know – do you like getting feedback and comments, and does this sometimes feed into your design process?

DK: I think my approach to showing the ‘inner workings’ of the development lab is well balanced – I like the people that follow my #digitalmfg world to see that new things don’t just drop from the sky – that there is a LOT of hard work and mess that needs to happen before the general public get these amazing new toys. I’ll show the process, warts and all – the broken machines, the days and days of sanding molds as well as the special stuff like custom carbon boards for the team riders.

Can you both pick the two products that you are proudest of designing and explain why?

CF: Right now I would say the new AK Phazer foilboard and the AK Surf Foil. The Phazer has been great to work on because it is a culmination of my interests in all the aspects of foiling, wind and water sports into a single product and I am going to really enjoy pushing it further.

The AK Surf foil range falls into a similar space in terms of versatility. This was one of the first projects I did in conjunction with DK when he joined the company. He is an incredible designer and engineer, I was very involved in the testing and a bit less in the pure design side, where Dave CNC cut and hand-built every prototype.

We have been on this quest to make foils that are easy to use and maintain high performance for the everyday rider, I felt we really achieved this with the Surf Foil. I also worked on the new FreeWings at the same time, which was another exciting project, all within such a rapidly evolving experimental space. 

This feature originally appeared in Foiling Magazine #6. To subscribe, head here.


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