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Closing a gap in the retractable market

December 1st, 2012 / By: / Awnings & Shades, Markets, Projects

The 2012 IFF Innovation Award winner closes a gap in the retractable market.

The Industrial Fabrics Foundation (IFF) has presented its 2012 Innovation Award to Uni-Systems, Minneapolis, Minn., for a new retractable fabric roof product called En-Fold. The award was presented at the IFAI Annual Meeting at IFAI Expo 2012 in Boston, Mass., in November. Its first installation is a 54-foot roof over an outdoor terrace at Juvia Restaurant in Miami Beach, Fla., that transforms open-air dining into an intimate space, protected from wind, rain and sun at the push of a button.

The company’s second installation was at an event center in Washington, D.C., and they are working on assembly of a third—70 feet wide with 25-foot extensions—on top of the Andaz Hotel in San Diego, Calif.

Uni-Systems specializes in kinetic architecture, utilizing fabric components to transform mechanized structures that can adapt the structure’s purpose or environmental changes. In fact, the company has been involved in six of the last eight retractable sports stadium projects built in North America. But those are very large, custom projects—prohibitively expensive to produce on a smaller scale. In the world of kinetic fabric products, the next closest thing was retractable awnings and other shade products. The company set to work to close the gap, and En-Fold was born.

“For years, we’d been hearing from people in the industry that there’s a need for a product like this,” says Peter Fervoy, business development manager. “That’s really why we decided to jump in and do it. We had done one custom folding product at a place in Miami Beach. That wasn’t an En-Fold, but it was the genesis. Now it’s a repeatable product that’s much more affordable.”

Their goal was a larger-scale commercial product, “above and beyond what is achievable with the other retractable products,” he says. “We want to start where the other products leave off.”

How it works

An automated, motorized system, En-Fold is made of a series of panels that literally fold up as the roof retracts. The relatively narrow strips of fabric are supported by “idler tubes” that run the entire width of the roof. The fabric panels are attached to the idler tubes so the leading edge beam collects the idler tubes and folds the fabric as it retracts back, Fervoy explains.

Because En-Fold is made up of a series of panels, its size is almost limitless, accomplished by the number of panels and how long the panels are. “It’s capable of extensions of 25 to 100 feet, with widths of 25 feet to an almost infinite size,” he says. “We can put as many drive beams in as we need to support it.”

A new installation at the Andaz Hotel in San Diego, Calif., is 70 feet wide. Each strip of fabric is 4.5 feet wide and 70 feet long. “When it’s tensioned out it behaves as a single tensile membrane sheet,” he says. “The water goes right over the tops of the aluminum idler tubes.” Even though the basic product is standard, there are many ways that it can be integrated into existing architecture and attached for a customized installation.

Because En-Fold is engineered to behave like a true membrane system, it can withstand winds up to 90 mph. That demands a strong, durable fabric with a long warranty, but a variety of fabrics is possible. “The premium fabric that we like to use is TENARA® 4T40 from Sefar Inc. It makes a great roof for outdoor dining,” he says, “because it has gorgeous luminosity, folds and drapes beautifully and will last for many years.”

In other projects, they’ve found Ferrari 1002-S2 to be a good choice because of its durability and attractive price point. “We fully intend that [the fabric] lasts for 30 years; that’s what we expect out of the En-Fold,” he says. And because it uses a keder-edged system, if a panel is damaged, it can be pulled out and replaced without having to replace the entire membrane.

Plenty of interest

When the first project was installed, the company began offering an iPad® sales app to demonstrate its features and benefits. There have been about 250 downloads of that app by mid-October, says Fervoy.

“Right now I have over 75 leads that we’ve been tracking, with the vast majority coming just in this year. We’ve been on a pace for at least one new inquiry per week, and it’s accelerating,” he says. “Even when we don’t hear about them, there’s people speccing them into projects.”

The company works with tensile membrane companies and high-end awning companies who serve as authorized value-added resellers, who could actually fabricate the membrane panels or some other part of the project, he says. They currently have just a few resellers, but they are located in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the U.S., so there is clearly a global scope to their business plan.

“Instead of us having to hire dozens of salespeople, we can depend on these resellers to be promoting the project. We get them the iPad app and they can learn anything they need to know about the product and demonstrate it to their potential clients,” he says. “We also have leasing and financing available.”

The size of the prospective project is an important consideration, not because of how big it is, but rather, how small. For a roof less than 1,000 square feet, it would likely be too expensive. But the company is already working on projects that run from 1,200 up to 18,000 square feet.

Referencing the plans for a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings football team, in particular, Fervoy says, “This is something, potentially, we could even utilize in stadiums by grouping multiple units. The applications are almost unlimited.”

The IFF’s commitment

In its announcement the Industrial Fabrics Foundation said, “The purpose behind the innovation award is to inspire companies from all over the world to not only come up with great ideas, but make them happen.”

The IFF is a 501(c)3 organization that underwrites research and study regarding specialty fabrics, provides information and educates the public about specialty textiles and engages in other philanthropic activities.

The award was launched in 2011. Applications for the 2013 Innovation Award will be available in February 2013. Visit www.indfabfnd.com for additional information or contact Andrew Aho at +1 651 225 6907.

Janet Preus is editor of Specialty Fabrics Review.

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