10 January 2009

Interview with Chris Rowlands (part 2)

Do you have a general strategy that determines the direction of your products? How do you determine which projects to pursue? 

It's a combination of factors really. We have an ongoing Product development programme which is influenced from various quarters. We obviously continually assess and reassess our range of products to see where we can improve or where we have any glaring weaknesses or omissions. I'm sure every Manufacturer has half an eye on what other companies are doing and are influenced sometimes by that. Then there are ideas which we come up with, either internally from within our team, or ideas suggested by our sponsored climbers or ideas and conceptions brought to us by independent bodies or individuals. At the end of the day we have to evaluate each idea and treat it on its own merits. There might be fantastic ideas which are just not financially viable, in that we couldn't make them for a price that the market would accept, or they might have such a limited appeal that we wouldn't sell enough to cover the development costs. So I guess the short answer is that we have many more ideas than we can carry forward, and we make a judgement call as to which are the most important in terms of our range and the revenue they will generate.  

Describe the gear design process – from the source of ideas to the finished product. How many people are involved and how long does it take? Is it an iterative process involving prototypes?  

It depends on the product really, some things are very complex, and others very simple. Once a project has been identified, we'd do a feasibility study to make sure it will indeed be viable. You'd consider many angles, target price against manufacturing costs, volume sales, which markets etc. If we still reckon it’s a goer, we'd identify the spec very accurately so that we are all sure that we are expecting the same thing. Once that's done we can draw up different concepts if required, agree our preferred version and then produce a prototype. We are well set up to produce prototypes with the combination of our Solidworks design package and the CNC machining centres we have specifically for this purpose. The prototype needs to be tested in the field and also tested against the relevant Standard. Obviously during the design process this will have been taken into account. After evaluation, any alterations will be made, and the product retested. This cycle continues until we are happy with the final version. It is important at this stage to continually review whether you are keeping to your original brief, as it’s possible to alter things which seem sensible, only to find that you have then deviated from what you originally intended to produce. Once the final version is agreed, we need to make the tooling, and again it depends on the complexity of the product as to how much tooling is required. Sample batches need to be produced to prove the tooling at every stage. We make all our own tooling in house using CNC machines, Spark erosion, and Wire erosion. 
As to how many people it takes, we are a relatively small team but can all have an input, but on average there could be four or five people involved in the design, then three or four toolmakers involved in making the tooling. Time scales are hugely variable, and projects are rarely simple, even if you think they are going to be. A year to 18 months is very common, but it could well be longer!

It could be argued that climbing gear is gradually taking the challenge out of climbing – what’s your take on this? Where do you see climbing gear in 10 years? And in 50 years?  

The advances in climbing gear have obviously helped with the advances in the level of difficulty of some styles of climbing, but in the main we're talking Trad, so Nuts, Cams, Belay devices etc all have played their part in making it easier to protect routes and therefore try them. However, items like Bouldering pads have made some problems safer and more amenable than they were before, so it’s not just Trad where advances have made things safer.

However climbing remains an intensely personal affair. We make of it what we want, and we can always find new, harder challenges at a level that suits us. It is open ended, and that's the beauty. One day we can be climbing really well, and the next struggling on something easy. You still have to get out there and do it. The challenge is still only part of the attraction, the adventure, the friendship, the having a good crack with your mates very often remains a longer lasting memory than the intricacies of the climb. Adventure can be found at all levels of difficulty, so we shouldn't be too obsessed with that one facet of climbing.
Ten years on there will still be beginners top roping easy stuff at Stanage, or being taken up easy multipitch routes on the Idwal slabs, and in 50 years I hope the same will be true too!
Thanks Chris!

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.