Next generation printers now at work. The generation after that should be surfboard capable, now just a matter of time. And then the entire mass production business will morph into a production model no different then building toasters. Custom builders? Not going anywhere.
#D printing is extending to skis and snowboards recently, and a small company called RAMP
is one of the best examples. The company started out four years ago
building its gear in Taiwan, but last summer it built a factory in Park
City, Utah, and started making skis there. This year, RAMP is completing
the process by bringing the snowboard operation in-house. What’s
interesting about this is that RAMP is relying on the same kind of
nimble, high-tech, low-cost processes as the upstart manufacturers
making everything from DODOcase‘s
bamboo iPad accessories to 3D Robotics’ flying drones. Like these other
manufacturers, RAMP sees two big advantages to the new approach: The
company can prototype quickly, and it can profitably make small batches
of each product.
RAMP was founded by Mike Kilchenstein, a multidecade veteran of
Rossignol, one of the world’s oldest and biggest ski manufacturers. At
an industry press event a few days ago, he told me that the company
plans to make about 2500 units this year—about two orders of magnitude
less than the output of his previous employer. Boutique ski and
snowboard brands have long built skis using what you could describe
either as artisanal or kludgy techniques, depending on your perspective.
But Kilchenstein’s company has a more contemporary approach, using CNC
machining and vacuum molding to prototype and manufacture its skis.
The factory equipment wasn’t cheap: RAMP has two CNC machines, each
costing $40,000, and the oven for baking together the composite layers
costs about $45,000. But the investment is still small relative to the
cost of standard ski-building equipment.
Equally important, the RAMP team can move fast. Engineers set the
parameters on its CNC equipment to quickly cut out ski components, then
bake the pieces together using an adjustable aluminum mold. That enables
them to do rapid prototyping: Theoretically, engineers could dream up a
new ski, try it out on snow, and put it into production in a matter of
days. (In reality, they work a lot more deliberately than that.)
In contrast, much of the R&D expense in the industry has always gone
into expensive presses and long-lasting molds, which determine the
shape of the ski. A single mold can produce multiple models if the
engineers vary the materials, and big companies frequently create lines
of skis that share their shape but have different flex characteristics.
It’s all similar to traditional manufacturing in many industries: Invest
a lot to custom-build specialized equipment, then churn out large
numbers of each unit, gradually driving down unit costs.
RAMP’s methods save “literally millions of dollars in comparison to what
big companies are doing,” Kilchenstein says. And if you’re in the
business of small-batch manufacturing, whether the product is a pair of
skis or a distinctive bourbon, those savings are of special importance.
RAMP’s next business opportunity: building boards for other domestic
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