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Spotlight - equipment views and reviews from the AK team

Product Guys

By Kenny Stocker | 01, Jan, 2010

A small companies approach to product design and innovation for the outdoors.

Over the past few months we have been introducing you to the way things work inside Alpkit. This month we are taking a look at one of our core activities.. the design of the gear we sell.. and there is no way to do this other than to roll out 'the Product Guys'.

Some companies don't have their own but we do and we have done since we started. Even though we like to poke fun at them when they are drooling over some new fabric samples we like having them around. Product design and innovation is at the heart of what we do here and you should see some of this coming through in the next couple of years.

Now, to be fair our Product Guys have limited resources, and product design isn't all they do all day. They also don't have expensive toys to play with, no 3D rapid prototyping printer like the dudes at Burton. What they do have is Plasticine, french chalk, a sewing machine, a heat press, some tools and one computer each. For the rest they have to beg, borrow or pay for. Pete has some pro Letraset markers, but he keeps those locked up in his drawers. External facilities, such as Dr Mark Taylor's Centre for Technical Textiles at Leeds University or the Climate Chamber at the School of Earth and Environment also in Leeds are luxurious and invaluable resources both in terms of equipment and specialist knowledge they can tap into.

In most cases the odds are stacked against a new product being a success, and the price of failure for a small company can be dramatic so what makes these guys tick? Perhaps importantly the Product Guys tend to use the gear they design, so if it doesn't work like it should they are going to suffer and that is a great reason to get it right first time.

We do not own our own factory so we cobble together prototypes as best we can. The majority of decent factories are abroad, but there are a lot of excellent technical skills still left in the UK which is ideal for small production runs and prototyping. Let's give it up for the product guys..

Fact File: Pete brought the Figfour dry tool to Alpkit shortly after he graduated from Dundee University. Pete is a keen dry-tooler himself and his idea was a fresh approach to the challenge of training for dry tooling indoors. Petes major challenge in bringing Figfour to market was hitting a price point we thought people would be comfortable with.. but without undermining the original design or compromising performance or safety.

Hey Pete, we have seen these curious Figfour axes lying around the office. Just what is Figfour?

It's a hoop on a stick! Well, two hoops on sticks, but they are very nice sticks! Figfour is a training aid for mixed climbing, it allows folk to practice the techniques and develop the strengths required for climbing with axes but in a normal indoor climbing wall. It offers climbers of all abilities something new to try, a fun new way to use their local wall, even if they have no interest in winter climbing!

Sweet, and where did the Figfour concept come from?

I developed the original concept whilst studying Innovative Product Design at the University of Dundee. The first part of the project was a pretty exhaustive investigation into people's equipment, habits, experiences and results of training for climbing. This highlighted winter climbing, and in particular dry tooling, as an area which required a very specific set of skills and physical strengths, but for which very limited training facilities and equipment existed.

This presented an opportunity for a new product which would allow users to prepare themselves specifically for mixed climbing rather than simply rock climbing for 9 months of the year and wondering why they get pumped stupid as soon as they get their tools out in winter!

The eureka moment came when preparing for a dry tooling competition by doing pull ups on a couple of loops of rope hung over the jugs on a finger board, I suddenly thought; 'if I can do this on a fingerboard, why not on the bouldering wall?' Three years, countless prototypes, one degree and an unhealthy volume of coffee later here we are!

That is an interesting story, but who is going to use these axes?

Interestingly Figfour seems to be pretty accessible to most people. In developing the tools initially my core user was definitely a committed M10 cranking sport-mixed climber, but in the course of testing them it's become apparent that they offer just as fun an experience to complete novices, who may never even have considered mixed climbing, as to pro users such as Ian Parnell, Andy Turner and Scott Muir who have also been extremely positive about the project.

How close does FigFour come to simulating the feel and performance of real ice axes?

I reckon it's as close as you can get without actually having picks, and by being crafty with your choice of routes/ problems you can train pretty effectively for a wide variety of winter terrain; short steep boulder problems to build power, long juggy routes to build your endurance for ice or bigger rock pitches, steep circuits to work on power endurance and by using sketchier, slopier holds you really can emulate that delicate hooking 'excitement'. In my experience of tooling it’s not hooking the hold thats the hard part, it’s having the power to get to it then keeping your tool still and stable as you move around and past it, whilst not getting so pumped you can’t even hold you axes! This is all too easy to replicate with Figfours! They also offer a chance to learn some of the techniques specific to climbing with axes such as fig4s/9s swapping hands on tools and so on.

Is there anything else similar in the marketplace?

Nope, Grivel did try to tackle this problem a few years ago, offering plastic 'training' picks for a few of the tools in their range, designed reduce damage to holds during indoor use, but they still cause a lot of the same issues that stop walls allowing tooling in the first place. The damage to holds is kind of a secondary issue as they are relatively cheap, easy to replace and most walls have a stash of old holds that they could use if they wanted to, it’s damage to matting, ropes and humans that can really cause problems and any pick, be it plastic or metal, that is pointy enough to hook with will do the same amount of damage to the soft stuff we unfortunately are made of and like to fall on! They are not in production any more as far as I know.

What influenced your choice of materials, wood is a bit low tech isn't it?

The decision to use wood as the primary material was made at a pretty early stage, I'm a big fan of the aesthetic of plywood and it's hard to beat in terms of its strength to weight ratio, cost and availability. Wood also has a long standing association with training for climbing, having been used in home walls, finger and campus boards for as long as people have been making them. It is porous enough to provide good grip whilst not trashing your skin, letting you train harder for longer.

Your axes won the Innov_Ex Award, has this changed your life?

The Innov_Ex prize is an annual award supported by the Outdoors Industry Association which encourages future innovators in the outdoor trade, it was a really good opportunity as an up and coming designer to pitch your idea to an audience of outdoor industry professionals and we certainly got loads of encouragement, ideas and feedback from people who have a wealth of experience and different backgrounds across the industry.

How has working in the cut-throat environment of 'Outdoors' been different from academia?

The bottom line! I guess at university my focus was on producing an effective training aid, but also a desirable object and the emphasis was on the process, quality and resolution of the design and less about the commerciality of the project; I designed the tools to meet the brief I'd set myself, and the cost was just whatever it ended up being at the end of the day! In developing the concept further we started with a pricepoint in mind and focussed on designing to that, tweaking processes and specifications and sourcing materials to meet the price we felt the market would support.

What was DryIce? it sounds like fun.

DryIce was a series of 'come and try it' events at held various climbing walls and competitions, spread over the latter half of 2009, and were really an opportunity kill a few birds with one stone. They gave us a chance to test the Figfour dry tools in the environment they were designed to be used in, but almost more importantly allowed us to gauge how climbers and walls reacted to what was something completely new to them.

How have the Figfours developed as a result of the DryIce series?

The initial sessions at Tout a Blocs and Hard Rock Fest flagged up a few issues with durability of the loop used in my original design, which originally used a swaged wire loop and tubular webbing. After these sessions I went back to the drawing board (well, drawing desk) and came up with a new system to get around these problems. The redesigned loops use die cut industrial belting rubber, and are simpler, more robust and easier to replace than the originals, and seem to work with a wider range of hold types, it's just a shame they're not quite as shiny!

Have you had to compromise your design to meet the commercial demands of the market place?

The design has evolved, for sure, but I don't really feel we've compromised much, the current generation of prototypes work better than any of the preceding ones and the final version has a few tweaks which I hope will solve the last couple of niggles I have with the design. I guess the acid test will be whether people are as enthusiastic about the tools when they have to pay for them, time will tell, but I can't wait to play with them and that has to tell you something about how I feel about the final design!

What have been the major technical hurdles you have had to overcome?

The biggest challenge was in the design of the loop part as it needed to be stiff enough to hold it's shape, but flexible enough to mould to different sized holds, strong enough to take the load of a person swinging around on it but still not hard so as not to damage holds. It also had to be reasonably durable, ideally quite cheap to produce and easy to remove/ replace when it does wear out, so a fairly big set of constraints!

What has been your experience of finding UK manufacturers?

It's been great, almost all the parts of Figfour are manufactured within a twenty minute drive of Alpkit HQ, and being able to meet with the guys who've got the technical manufacturing expertise face to face and discuss the options for materials and processes has been really valuable to the project. It has also really cut down on the lead times and minimums involved compared to manufacturing abroad which has allowed us to explore more iterations of the design throughout the process.

What software or specialist manufacturing equipment have you used to develop and manufacture this product?

The shafts and aluminium parts are CNC milled, and I did a fair bit of 3d solid modeling and finite element analysis of parts which was really helpful in exploring design options and spec'ing for manufacture, but apart from that not really, just lots of contact with users, hands on prototyping and old school doodling!

Which aspect of the product are you most satisfied with?

The most satisfying aspect has probably been peoples reactions to the tools; it's one thing to design something and be happy with the outcome, but seeing people really getting into using the tools and having a great time has been pretty ace. The whole thing's been pretty good though, the project has seen me through university, hooked me up with probably my perfect job and now seeing it finally become a commercial reality is really exciting, its been a journey!

Thanks for your time Pete, you can go now.

Right, c'ya guys. I have things to do anyway.

Fact File - Jim is just back from visiting factories in China, he keeps a copy of the latest Screwfix catalogue on his desk.

Sketches are great but 3D models are even better when you are trying to explain a concept. We used 3D software to model a new tip design for our CarbonLite trekking poles.

Our Drydock has been a proven success so you should see some more bags with welded seams during the year.

Fact File - Nick has a special roll of fluro pink fabric he uses to make prototypes from and hides packets of coffee around the warehouse in case of emergencies.

Over the next 12 months you are going to see quite a subtle change in what we do. We are going to make our existing products better, and any new ones class leading. We know that's a bold statement but it is one we can achieve. We want our products to become the default choice. We don't want you to feel that you have compromised when you buy one of our products, in a bizzare kind of way we want to make it difficult for you to spend money.

We have been working hard to improve existing designs, come up with some new ones and ditch ones we're not happy with. Jim was out in Hong Kong a few weeks back, and started work with some awesome new factories. Design wise we are sticking with what we know, which is good solid product design, of course we will spice this up when we get a chance. But overall we want products that work. Jim and Pete are currently doing the calculations about foam density and core samples to try give Thermarest a run for their money.

We are still looking at what we can get made in the UK, and may even surprise a few people with what you will see next year. Our locally made socks will become a tighter knit range (ho! ho!), and it has been really nice to work with Alex and Vicky in developing the range. Jim has got a few bits and pieces he is keeping under his hat but we should start to see these early next year.

Did you find this feature interesting? Put your questions to the Product Guys in our forum.
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