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Everything you ever wanted to know about snowboard manufacturing!
Snowboard manufacturing is not something you can read a lot about in the snowboard mags or even on the Internet. Strong brands spend a lot of money in marketing, communication, sponsorship, events, and team riders to make sure that when you go out to buy that new board you will choose the right brand with the right image, but sometimes they tend to omit the fact that a nice “Made In the Alps” can also be a strong purchasing argument.
We wanted to know more about snowboard production so we asked John Colvin from the Elan Snowboard Factory, one of the major snowboard production facilities in the world.
In the interview below, John gives us an overview of snowboard production facilities worldwide, and tells us which snowboard brands run their own facilities, and which rely on OEMs. We then discuss the work processes at the Elan Snowboard Factory to better understand how each brand is treated for the production of its boards. John also shared a cool video that details every step of a snowboard’s production at the Elan Factory. Finally we tried to make him tell us what will be the main innovations on our snowboards in the winters to come but hey, he would have to kill us after telling us, so we’d rather wait and see!
It’s a pretty long interview, but you’ll definitively learn a lot about what is happening in the backstage of snowboarding and honestly it’s really interesting to have a better feel of from which production line your board is coming out…think about it the next time you buy a board and maybe you’ll add “eco-friendly factory”, “quality” and “innovation” alongside brand, design and camber profile in your list of criterias.
Hey John, can you give us some background information about yourself?
I am from Canada, most recently Vancouver but I was born on the East Coast in Nova Scotia. I moved to Austria in 2004 to work with the Elan Snowboard Factory. I was the Creative Director with Option Snowboards in Vancouver for 4 years and we had some of the boards produced here in the Furnitz factory. I made some good friends here and the rest is history. I am just turning the corner to 40 years old. I have a BA in Fine Arts with an Art History major as well as a BA in Communication Design. I have been riding since 1995…so 14 years. Damn I should be better man.
Can you briefly describe the company you work for today?
The Elan Snowboard Factory is located in Furnitz, Austria, just minutes away from the point that the Austrian, Slovenian and Italian borders all come together. We are a 100% OEM production factory, meaning that we do not have any house brands. The Elan and Artec Snowboard Brands are managed out of the offices of our Mother Company in Slovenia. We build their snowboards with the same strict guidelines for secrecy of development as we do all our other partners. We are currently the world’s largest producer of snowboards in one location.
What is your current job?
My job here has a few facets. I am our direct contact to the artists / designers of all our partners. I discuss their graphics with them and offer suggestions on finishing techniques, additional features added on to the board, etc. Anything to give the deck the extra shelf appeal that is so important in this industry. I am fortunate to work closely with some very very talented dudes that place a bit of trust in me and from time to time we make some magic happen.
My job here is constantly evolving and in this time it is taking a more “market development” direction. This means looking closely at what is taking place in the industry and determining future directions for our company to focus on. This can mean things such as where will camber lines go next; how do we become even more environmentally conscious as a production than we already are, etc. Taking this info in and figuring out how to best use it and distribute it to our partners that is most suited for it. This is a newer addition to what the company is offering our partners and I think with this service we will be able to relieve a bit of the development stress placed on all the Hard Goods Product Managers we work with.
Could you give us an overview of snowboard production facilities worldwide?
The strongest Snowboard Production facilities are based in Europe. Austria has always held a firm grip on the quality and development of the product. Whether it be Elan, GST, Keil, etc.
We can be proud of the board quality we are putting out there. There are a small number of productions built up recently in Eastern European countries like Poland but the quality has to come a long way from what I’ve seen so far out of those factories. China has developed to what I think is it’s full potential in snowboard production. With the exception of a handful of factories in China most of the product coming from there is sub-par. I think the Shakespeare Factory is doing an amazing job year after year. I also see SBF putting out some great quality sometimes. There are a couple of other smaller factories there that seem committed to doing the job right. It all comes down to the people managing the factory floor. If they have a knowledge and respect for the sport they will see the errors and demand they are fixed. I see China in general becoming less and less of a threat to the European and North American productions. The dollars and cents are coming closer and closer together when evaluating the costs related to Far East production. When you factor in all the costs associated with building in China compared to our factory I think you must see that the extra trips per year, the extra hotel costs, telephone costs, having someone live in China to be at the factory regularly, artwork set up charges, etc… these extras really dig away at the marginal savings appeared to be made on the actual board prices. I think people need to do better math and if you plan on making less than 20,000 decks in China don’t even consider it as an option. The bigger problem with the costs rising in China is that the product quality doesn’t seem to be following it in all the factories. I predict we are going to see the Core Brands make an exodus out of China within the next 5 years. I hope to see the North American productions make a comeback. I think the sport needs the see the “Made in the USA” or “Handcrafted in Canada” text on topsheets again. As long as we still have enough to build that is !
Which snowboard brands run their own facilities, and who are the main OEMs?
Of the Brands that run their own factories there are very few left. In China you have the Shakespeare factory that is K2, Ride, etc…and a very small OEM program. Burton of course has the BMC plant in Burlington, Vermont. They also have been able to largely maintain exclusivity within the OEM plants they occupy. However, seems that is coming to an end in many factories. Never Summer still does their thing, and they kill it. Their decks are of great quality and this 0910 collection shows that they are still committed to exploring development possibilities beyond their typical freeride bombproof boards. Big props to those guys for hanging in this game so long. Signal Snowboards is The Lodge in So-Cal. That place has been through so many make-overs… I wish them luck with this latest endeavor. Of course you have Mervin up in Washington doing the Lib Tech and GNU thing and doing a great job. Prior Snowboards out of the Whistler area is still making great decks but fairly under the radar.
The main OEMs would have to be the Elan Snowboard Factory, SBF, Playmaker, GST. There are a number of other China factories doing smaller numbers.
Do you believe brands with in-house production capacities have an edge on brands relying on a supplier for production?
I think that if you are having your boards built at a factory that is run by a team with a strong passion and knowledge of the sport then it doesn’t really matter. Our goal is that our partners are represented by each of us within our facility. What this means is that we, being the staff here are the eyes for our partners within our factory. We see an issue we address it… there is no turning a blind eye and pretending not to see it. Sometimes this causes the odd stress between different team members here but in the end everyone always realizes that the request to fix/change/modify something so the product is better is the correct decision. I get lots of feedback from our partners that that isn’t always their experience in other OEM factories. Certainly K2 / Ride have riders within their staffing and all of their development stuff still takes place in the USA. Protos are built, tested, approved and then shipped to the factory in China. That is a solid model to maintain good quality and tech development and still be able to build in China using low labor costs.
How many brands are being produced in the Elan factory?
Including everything we are now involved with 24 different snowboard brands. Some are more “brands” than others. Of those there are maybe 5 of what we would call major industry players. We are very careful about our partner structure and take every ability to keep them individualistic within our factory.
Do you produce full ranges of board collections for brands or specific high-end or entry models?
We do many brands full ranges and we also do only the higher end production for other brands. It is probably a 75/25 split with us doing full ranges.
What are your working methods and processes to guarantee that each brand is treated separately?
There might be a common believe that boards produced in the same factory are the same with different graphics…Tell us how you handle specificities/innovations for every brands.
Antoine and Mario, our Technical Product Managers communicate all tech details with our partners. Everything is defined based on the customers’ wishes in most cases. The Product Managers monitor these details closely to ensure that 2 brands are not un-intentionally biting each other. From time to time it will happen that 2 brands will approach us in the same development cycle with the same concept / idea. Generally…whoever has approached first will see it through. We will inform the other that this is something that is already being developed for another partner and we are not willing to co-develop it for them.
To say that one board from our factory is the same as the next with only a graphic change is totally ignorant. Shapes are brand specific, wood cores (both species and design) are brand specific, laminate materials and configurations are brand specific. We have a flexible and diverse enough factory that we can achieve this differentiation. Clearly we have in-house moulds that are accessed by many of our smaller partners and these can share similar construction methods and materials from time to time. When speaking of the “core industry” brands we are partnered with this is not the case. Each brand has there own pre-defined construction ideas regarding materials, techniques, etc. Clearly there are only so many base materials available to the snowboard world… so these are necessarily shared. Sidewall materials also. What is naturally different is the designs…being a split sidewall or a diecut swap base. These are the visual things that separate the brands in the areas we have only so many options for material choices.
How do you handle the innovation and R&D process?
We have an extensively equipped in-house R&D Department using all state of the art testing equipment and techniques. Generally the process has been that our partners will concept their ideas and wish lists, communicate them with us and R&D will make them happen. From my experience it seems that we rarely have failed at finding a solution to a request…even if the solution wasn’t identical to our partner’s thoughts. It really helps that we have a couple of serious rippers in that department. It is a great thing that the R&D guys can sit in a meeting or out at dinner and really understand what someone means when they say they are loosing toe edge on hard chop or when someone talks of buttering they aren’t handed a dish with a yellow block on it.
Is the factory also selling technology and know-how to brands or does the brand always give the input following its research?
I would say we provide solutions to technological issues our partners are faced with…but we aren’t really selling these solutions, they are just part of the development process of putting the collection together.
What is the impact of snowboard manufacturing on the environment and where does your factory stand?
I would say that the impact has in the past been fairly abusive. I also believe that has changed in most countries and productions. I can’t really comment on the Far East productions and their methods to maintain a more eco-friendly factory. My only experience has been from visits of people that have toured Far East factories and there comments. Seems we here in Europe are somewhat out in front in that area. From our standpoint we have been heavily investing in running a more environmentally friendly production since the late nineties. We abandoned epoxy glue back then knowing it was very harmful to the environment and the workers that had daily contact with it. We co-developed an exclusive gluing system using a bonding agent that is 100% non-intrusive to the environment. That would normally be enough, but, this system also allows us to produce a board using 53% of the time needed for traditional epoxy as well as using temperature that is 60% less than that of epoxy productions. These are two major advances in regards to the building of the board.
On top of that we have developed our exclusive technique of achieving a higher end “spray coated” finish to snowboards… without spray coating! With traditional spray / curtain coating you have inherent problems that have always been there. The lacquer is thick so it adds too much weight, plus it can crack often. We knew we had to avoid these pitfalls when we decided to develop our own technique. Plus the process of spraying boards is not really that rad for the eco system. We developed PLT… Pure Liquid Technology. I can’t tell you exactly how it’s done but I can tell you it serves its purpose in weight reduction and avoiding lacquer cracking brilliantly. Plus the system uses the same non-evasive gluing system we use in our Sandwich X and Sandwich departments. Those are a couple of board production things we do that are more eco friendly.
There are also things we do as a factory to be better. We recycle all the water used in our grinding line many times over. It goes through a huge cleansing process and back out into the line so we can cut down on the amount of water usage and water waste. Another thing we do is incinerating scrap production material and use the energy to provide power or heat to certain areas of the factory. There is more but even I am getting bored reading this .
Lets just say we are 100% committed to being the world’s #1 eco friendly snowboard factory… and we believe we are.
There are initiatives by some brands to produce customized boards. It can concern graphics only or like surfboard shaping, the whole board construction. This practice seems to remain marginal. Why do you thing it is in a production point of view?
It is marginal because it is a complicated thing to do within a production cycle. We do it on a model for a partner of ours and I gotta say it looks sick in the shops. I understand why they want it. The trick is finding the best balance of customization and atomization possible.
If you can share, what are the main innovations you are working on introducing with brands in the coming years?
I can’t really say too much here but clearly camber lines are a hot topic. As well as any other eco-beneficial production materials and tech that is out there. We are also playing with fiber materials…but that is like Pentagon secrecy level. Plus there is always the lighter, stronger and cheaper all in one requests… but no one will ever find this Holy Grail of Snowboards!
How do you see snowboard manufacturing evolving in the years to come?
Dude… if I knew that there would be no other factories running in the years to come. Just shittin. For sure there must be a general push to be as eco friendly as possible. Plus, as the world economy is about as predictable as Axl Rose, board manufacturers will need to continue to try and lessen costs on development wherever they can. I think we have put ourselves into a solid position in the years to come because we have already made the necessary big investments to allow us to run a top notch, consistent and efficient production.
Thanks a lot bro!