With high Alpine peaks reflecting in the town’s central boating lake, Annecy has the atmosphere you would expect from a chic French outdoor center. And as a regional commercial hub with a population around 100,000 it seems like an obvious place to locate a major outdoor sports brand like Salomon.Founded by a local family in 1947, Salomon now has 22 international subsidiaries, which, combined with parent company Adidas, has more than 12,000 employees. Yet many of the company’s functions have remained right here in Annecy. Move beyond the town’s medieval center of narrow, winding streets, canals, and bridges, past smart apartment blocks to where the houses give way to lush farmland, and you’ll find clusters of factories owned by Salomon spread along the margins of the town.Tobin Teichgraeber, U.S. director of snowboarding; Chuck White, (former) product information officer; Judd Feingold, Salomon’s Northwest U.S. rep; and I are almost an hour late for our meeting at the Rumilly snowboard factory. Perhaps we have all been infected by the French mentality that makes it a sacrilege to hurry a good meal. Or it could just be that the guys are flagging after several days of intense international marketing meetings that convulse the whole of Salomon four times a year.For the past days, upwards of 200 people from all Salomon’s divisions and subsidiaries around the world have been gathering in town. Snowboarding is part of Salomon’s Outdoor group, which also includes product for Nordic, Alpine, hiking boots, and general outdoor footwear. Teichgraeber and crew have spent two days listening to presentations on the results of the different divisions within their group, followed by two more days in their snowboard division for presentations by Salomon’s development and marketing teams (covering boards, Bonfire, boots, and bindings)”It’s the gathering useful,” says Teichgraeber. “It brings us all together to see how Outdoors as a group is doing, and then it allows all the individual snowboard subsidiaries to see how the brand is progressing in each market. At the same time, we hear the rational and technical aspects of product lines planned for the season after this one. That would be ’01/02.”Of course everyone in the whole snowboard division is in regular contact,” continues Teichgraeber, as we drive to the factory, “but this is the best opportunity for subsidiaries to give their input into the new lines, which, up to this point, have been largely a product of the team riders and the France-based designers. Every subsidiary has equal input. The Finnish subsidiary has just as much input as we do.”He points out that Salomon has now taken complete ownership of all its subsidiaries, with a stated goal of no more than three-percent price deviation on product across the whole of Europe. Until this winter’s sales season arrives, it is uncertain how the dramatic collapse of the Euro-zone currencies will affect this.Teichgraeber is tight-lipped about the content of the meetings, but admits much of the focus for next season will be on widening options for specific user groups. Next season’s line is likely to include more rental products, more women-specific products, and more kids’ products.Suddenly, a large posse of Salomon employees sweep into the lobby of the factory building, where we have arrived seconds earlier.The tour is being led by Production Manager Michel Deschamps, who lifted the almost-blanket ban on media visits and gave SNOWboarding Business a glimpse into the heart of Salomon’s snowboard manufacturing. I am informed by several people of the “absolutely no photography” rule. (Pictures on this pages come courtesy of Salomon.)Also joining us is European Snowboard Marketing Manager Emmanual Krebs, recently moved from Canada—who does an excellent job as translator—plus several other R&D and development managers. We are also joined by European team riders David Pitsh, Minna Hesso, and Valerie Bourdier.
The ProcessThe 12,000 square-meter manufacturing area is divided into two halves—shipping and assembly, and production. We start in the shipping area where raw materials are unloaded and distributed to their respective factory areas.The rolls of pre-resin-impregnated (pre-preg) fiberglass, which are subcontracted to a local company that does most of its sales to the aerospace industry, must be immediately dispatched into cold storage. The fiberglass has to be kept permanently at between eighteen and twenty degrees Fahrenheit. If it goes any higher, it can spoil and has to be used more quickly. If it goes below, it becomes hard and unmalleable.We move along the catwalk to another diagram that explains edge manufacturing. At a station below us, piles of full 360-degree metal edges are laid out.Several years ago, bike-rim manufacturer Mavic perfected a method of making seamless rims using a form of electronic arc welding. The company is now a subsidiary of Salomon, so the technology has been expropriated and applied to making seamless full wrap snowboard edges.Our entire phalanx of people now descends onto the shop floor where a sublimation machine, a press apparatus that looks a lot like a regular snowboard press, is pumping out top sheets through a heat-pressure process.An inked negative is placed against a clear plastic sheet made up of three layers. The top sheet is porous, so the ink passes through it to the receptive middle layer. The bottom layer helps bond the other two to the fiberglass it will later be pressed on to.The inks on the negatives are notably different colors from the ones that emerge, changing and brightening under the transformative heat and pressure. I’m getting used to the general sense of secrecy, so I’m not surprised when no one wants to tell me what sort of heat or pressure is used on the grounds this knowledge will enable some competitor to deduce the composition of the top sheet materials.Once the top sheets are printed, they’re united with an assemblage of bases, fiberglass sheets, edge, and wood cores which have all been pre cut. Enough components to make 40 boards are assembled onto trolleys, ready to be wheeled to the other side of the factory for pressing.This is where Salomon’s all-encompassing chain control system really kicks in and allows high levels of quality and manufacturing control. Each trolley has its own code according to type of board, which details the exact components assembled. The bar coding at this stage means not only that the actual production stages flow seamlessly into one another, but that every component of any Salomon board can be traced back to the individual batches of their composite materials, including who worked on them on which particular day.We traverse more catwalks to the production side of the factory where a row of presses and lay-up stations are lined up. Salomon’s sixteen presses, built and designed by the factory, are usable for both skis and snowboards, although this facility only makes snowboards. Each press is heated by oil that is cooled and heated as required, and constantly recycled. The presses are in operation 24 hours a day, six days a week, year round. Deschamps declines to tell me what this means in total board output.Each station has two presses manned by two workers. Each is laying up one board in a mold, while another mold is in the press.A huge difference between Salomon’s pressing technique and just about all other manufacturers is that boards are pressed flat, emerging from the press without a nose or tail. As each board emerges from the press, it is instantly tagged with a bar-code sticker generated from a wall-mounted machine that tracks each board. Once the board is coded, a quality-control engineer runs it through a series of laser measurements to check camber and flatness.Next, the boards are introduced to the trimming robot that runs the board’s edge closely against a stationery grinding wheel. After a quick stop for piercing and cleaning the inserts, the board is sent to the base-grooving machine.The base of each board is microgrooved for the specific conditions it will be ridden in. For example, a pipe bo
ard that will encounter wetter and slower snow requires virtually diagonal base groves to help it shed the water that would otherwise create suction against the base. On the other hand, big powder guns need far less grooving because of the drier conditions they are ridden on.The base machine has a couple of grinding wheels and a speed-angle diamond cutter. Different settings allow ten different parameters to be controlled. The board is shot twice through a blur of rotating wheels and cooling water jets in just a couple of seconds. Then the board gets another re-heating to close up the pores in the top sheet and add a sheen. Finally the board goes into another press where it is heated once again and the tip and tail are pressed into shape.We start discussing the implications of the production method. I point out the addition of a curve must put pressure on the bonding between the layers of the board that have already been bonded in the initial pressing.Pierre Alain Porte, the snowboard division technical manager, agrees. But he adds that this is the desired result because it means the tip and tail end up with an internal tension between the layers, which translates to extra spring on snow. He also mentions that at the initial pressing, the layers are not totally flush with one another, so when the curve is added they move into alignment.The newly finished boards are now standing in long racks, waiting to be shrink wrapped, so we move out of the factory and into the testing area.
A Little R&DI’m hoping to see some boards smashed to pieces by the array of testing machines that sit behind metal cages, but it turns out the testing area’s role for post-production quality testing is probably less important than its role in initial board design.Chief Tester Philippe Rozand explains the first twenty boards of any new model get tested until they are destroyed, and another five boards a day are randomly selected for a similar fate. But by making testing a function of design, quality control can be done effectively before a board ever goes to production.For example, a consecutive deformation machine tests the amount of abuse a board can take while still returning to its original shape. The machine bends the board 25 times to 90 degrees using 185 kilos of pressure and then releases and times it as it returns to flat. Another machine does a slap test where a board is literally whacked against a hard surface until in delaminates, in a loose simulation of conditions in the pipe.”Boards have to be designed not just in the shape, but in terms of the materials we are using, and then how they’re joined together,” Rozand says. “Materials all have different properties relative to each other. If we use more of one thing and less of another, it will affect all the other variable aspects of the board and its production. For example, if we use more resin, we may have to use a slightly different amount of another material, but this might then have implications either for shape, the production measurements, or for how the board rides.”By constantly testing the properties of prototype boards,” Rozand continues, “we can constantly build up a database of these variables so we know as far as possible in advance the result of minor changes we have made or how best to make the changes we need to obtain a specific result.”Equally, we can reverse the process,” continues Rozand. “We can take a board that rides incredibly well and analyze the elements that make it so good, and then try to replicate that performance in other boards.”I’m not allowed behind the mysterious green door where prototype models are actually being developed. But this area is also off limits to anyone at Salomon without a compelling reason to be there.Instead, we head upstairs to where the board designers sit at computer terminals drawing on the database built up in the testing room.Jean Philipe Guex has a board on his screen that is revolving through its various axis. A few mouse clicks and he changes its shape, selects new components from a list of materials, and even does a few cosmetic color changes. While the existing test database means he has many existing design parameters previously enumerated for him, his job is mostly dealing with the human element.”Everything starts with the pros,” he says pointing to the three riders that have been shadowing the tour. “They are the ones on snow 270 days a year. Their job is not just winning competitions, but designing and testing the product.”By sending instructions down to the workers behind the green door, Jean Philipe can have a rider on an updated version of a prototype within two days. Or he can call up a prototype of an entirely new board design within three weeks.
ReflectionsIt all seems so technical and proficient. Computers, bar codes, databases of materials properties, secret areas, testing cycles where the end of the process is really the beginning. The production floor itself is spotlessly clean, the air is notably free of toxic smells, and fluids used in production are recycled. This is big-time factory production. (And I’m seeing just a part of it. In fact, most of Salomon’s more mass-market boards requiring less specialized production, about half of all Salomon boards sold, are now manufactured at a North African factory owned by Nidecker in Tunisia.)But why would it be otherwise? Salomon is already one of the world’s major outdoor sports brands, and, combined with its parent Adidas, is the second-largest sporting-gear company in worldwide sales. I ask Teichgraeber about whether being part of a vast corporation and offering multiple product to all parts of the snowboard market weakens the ability to develop as specific market identity.”I’m not sure we even have a market position in the snowboard world in the same way some other brands have, or at least they attempt to have,” he says. “We have only been in the snowboard business four years now and everyone knows we come from a ski heritage, so there is no point in pretending we don’t. But we have seen some pretty amazing growth. I think that is because our strength is our production knowledge, and we have a substantial development budget compared to other brands.”So we have elevated our overall product experience as perhaps the key aspect of our market identity,” Teichgraeber continues. “This is especially effective with retailers. They care about consumer image yes, but also they also see how advanced and innovative our boards are—for example the way we introduced the fastest base in the business.”But of course, we need to sell boards, too,” he adds. “We’re probably going to be most buyers’ second or third board. But that buyer still wants to see themselves as a ‘rad snowboarder dude.’ The question now is how we present our innovation and experience as an image that will appeal to that particular buyer.”