5 January 2009

Interview with Chris Rowlands from DMM (part 1)

I Spoke to Chris Rowlands, the Marketing & Brand Manager for DMM, at their facility in Llanberis and he answered a few questions on gear design and manufacture. The only hardware manufacturer left in Britain, DMM hold an enviable reputation as a ‘quality’ brand and manufacture for several other gear companies, as well as making a mountain bike crank for a top cycle brand. In his words: “They come to us because we are the best, not the cheapest!” Manufacturing in the Far East would undoubtedly cut production costs, and several US and European gear companies have sent their manufacturing abroad, whilst DMM recently invested in more machines in Llanberis. 

Chris Rowlands, Marketing & Brand (and a bit of everything else) Manager. Image from www.ukclimbing.com.

Why do they stubbornly remain in Wales? “We have always been recognised for our innovation and quality, and we are totally committed to maintaining this. Made in Wales means we have total control over the manufacturing process and we are proud of that.” The only process on their carabiners that is not done in-house is the anodising, because of difficulties involved in dealing with the harmful chemicals safely. As Chris puts it “The end product speaks for itself”.

Although it’s very likely still cheaper to manufacture abroad, the recent collapse in the pound means that previously agreed foreign contracts may suddenly seem a lot less attractive. In-house production makes it easier to spot quality problems early on and also allows the control of production rates to match demand. Added to this, justifiably or not, ‘made in China’ is not likely to reinforce the ‘quality’ brand. 

Most gear companies tout innovation as their strong point, and whilst it is undoubtedly a very strong driving force in the industry, there have been few radical innovations in decades. The cam was one of these – whilst most new products make climbing slightly more convenient or more efficient, the cam enabled a step change in the kind of routes that are possible. Will there be ‘another cam’? “Maybe not, but I reckon it could well be new materials that could move things along again, but this would be a very major step.”

From the perspective of a relatively small climbing company this major step is a major barrier, new materials require new expertise – hardware manufacturers have largely been using the same materials for decades. Acquiring skills in new areas and investing in new equipment is time consuming and risky. DMM’s approach is to look for outside help: “We tend to find an expert in that field and trust their judgement and learn from companies who have already been there.” 

Confounding the ‘stick with what we know’ issue – branching into new materials potentially exposes your business to new competitors whose expertise already lies in the new field. Either you work with outside experts or you risk having them compete against you.

DMM has already ventured into new materials with composite Snow Stakes and Deadmen. “[They are] really exciting” says Chris, “the Deadman was half the weight but the same strength. However we have yet to source a manufacturer who can make them for us at a price that would be acceptable. It’s largely a matter of having the time to follow it up.” So far there has been very limited introduction of composites in rock climbing, the only available products being a couple models of ice axe and helmets, but hopefully this will change soon.

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