In Kevin Inkster's world, plastic skims just above the ground, up hills, over concrete and grass at speeds of up to 15 mph on a cushion of air.
And since launching production of his Airboard personal hover board, the Australian entrepreneur has sold that dream to individuals, theme parks and corporate party planners.
``Kevin likes to do fun things,'' Steve Gates, manager of research and development for Inkster's Arbortech Industries Ltd., said in a March 7 interview during National Manufacturing Week in Chicago. ``Initially this started out as just a fun thing that Kevin wanted to do, to show his kids that he actually could do it.''
The Airboard consists of a fiberglass base a little more than 5 feet in diameter, with two protective Kevlar layers between the rider and motor. A PVC skirt around the outer shell contains the air that provides the board with its lift and riding surface.
The Perth, Australia-based company is considering switching to a rotomolded base to reduce the labor involved from the hand-layup process it now uses for the fiberglass, while also lowering costs and the consumer price, Gates said.
Riders stand on the board, controlling speed through hand levers and turning by shifting their body weight. A manufacturing shift also should cut back on repairs the fiberglass bodies now need following some rough treatment.
``Most people get on and can ride them in five minutes, but we tend to find that if they're in a place with only one tree, though, they'll find it for sure,'' Gates said.
Arbortech may seem an unlikely creator for what it touts as the world's first personal hover board. Inkster formed his 25-employee business in the 1980s, creating tools for the woodworking and construction industries.
He was taken with the idea of a hover board when he saw the film Back to the Future Part II, and its depiction of star Michael J. Fox riding a skateboardlike hover board.
In 1999, he created a prototype using a wooden base, a truck tire inner tube for the skirt and a motor from a leaf blower.
``Originally, we thought we'd run and jump on it to ride like a skateboard, but that turned out to be a death wish,'' Gates said.
As they refined the concept into one similar to today's models, members of the organizing committee for the Olympic Games taking place in 2000 in Sydney asked about using the boards in the organizing ceremony.
Suddenly the hobby was in high gear for development, with four months to build 20 of the boards and prepare for an expected call for commercial copies, Gates said. The company turned to the three-dimensional prototyping software available from PTC's Pro/Engineer, the same system it has used to develop many of its tools.
With the high-speed engineering and development work in hand, the company had the Airboards ready for the opening ceremonies, with Inkster piloting one board.
The boads' appearance garnered the anticipated interest in buying the boards, gained global attention for them and their inventor, and established a new name for Arbortech and its mainline tool business.
``The thing about the air boards is that they haven't necessarily made any money for us, but it's entirely raised our profile,'' Gates said.