Speedland is a paying sponsor of Freetrail. While publishing this piece is certainly a plug for one of our partners, it is also a wonderfully written tribute to the manufacturing process and the factories that bring products to life. If you’ve ever wondered how trail footwear is produced, this is a great place to start.
Where The Magic Happens
By Kevin Fallon, Co-Founder of Speedland
When you think of magic you might not immediately associate it with factories, but let me tell you a little about the magic I’ve witnessed. I have been to Asia roughly 100 times in the 26 years I’ve been in this business. Although the travel itself can be tiresome, the experiences at the factory never cease to thrill me. I’m in Vietnam currently, and it’s the first time in four years I’ve traveled to Asia. It is also my first time traveling to Asia for Speedland, the mountain footwear brand Dave [Dombrow] and I co-founded a couple of years ago. It feels so significant to be back here that it made me want to write a few thoughts down about just exactly what it means to be at a factory, and how this place means so much.
So how does magic coexist with something like a factory? The word factory likely conjures up images of dark, dirty environments or thoughts of child labor and other malpractices that have been widely publicized in recent years (I am not going into those topics here). Yet most people have never actually seen the inside of a factory. For those of us in the footwear industry, the factory represents quite a special place. A place where the rubber meets the road, both figuratively and literally. Where the grind happens. The factory is exactly where concepts jump – or stumble – from the computer screen into the cold, stark light of reality.
The truth is, there’s a long stage between final designs and factory production, and this phase is typically called product development. In a large brand, this is a frenzied period, heavily structured around gates and dates, leaving little room for mistakes. It’s a wicked, unforgiving cycle that can make or break any given design. It is during this physical development stage where designs get pushed and pulled by limits of machinery and operators, altered by weartest results and biomechanical testing inputs, and sometimes changed completely by market response – before anything is approved for production.
Samples are made, adjusted, and remade several times. Some things work, some don’t. Materials will fail, substitutions will be found, and the cycle continues until you either run out of time or you’ve cracked the problem you set out to solve (or both). If you’re talking about a good process and building a performance product, the rhythm should go something like that. But ultimately, whatever it is you set out to accomplish, the final product that can be sold to a customer can only be created if you can get things made at a factory. At this point you may be saying, “Duh, what exactly is so magic about that?”
1997 was my first trip to a footwear factory, and remains something I’ll never forget. The first time you see the scale of a stitching room, or sit in a conference room with six tooling people looking over your shoulder as you red-line a drawing, they are mind-altering, rite-of-passage experiences. When consumers look to find the cheapest pair of sneakers out there, most don’t understand that shoes are largely hand-made products. Somewhere between 80 and 150 pairs of hands touch a typical pair of athletic shoes as it goes from raw material delivery, material preparation, cutting, stitching, bonding, molding, stock fitting, assembly and boxing. Just the setup of a factory – accounting for that many processes, facilitating the smooth flow for the product and room for that many people – takes a tremendous amount of space and planning. The logistics are staggering, though in a well-run factory, it appears nearly effortless. But when things go wrong, it’s a domino effect that can be disastrous.
Now imagine all of this efficiency lined up around something that you are a part of, something connected to you. Your project, running through the gauntlet of development and actually making it to production. Hundreds of people neatly arranged, working hard every day to contribute to making that product. It is both humbling and insightful, to be sure.
The first time you see someone trying to stitch on that tiny detail you insisted upon can hit you like a ton of bricks, and recalibrate in your mind just how important something like that really is – or isn’t. Understanding what your design requires to actually execute is a forever learning curve that makes you a better designer, a better product person. When you try to do too much (and we all do sometimes), and ask the factory to execute at a high level of precision on too many components, efficiency can go down. Or quality can suffer, if the efficiency stays the same. These are the balances you can only learn in a factory. And there is magic in this type of learning that you simply cannot get any other way.
Sometimes these insights even help you solve problems before they become one. Experience leading to anticipation is a huge asset. Once in a while you may even be able to contribute to solving a manufacturing problem, too, which is just about as rewarding as it gets. Good problem-solvers don’t shut off when they are in a factory, they observe, absorb, ask questions, and ponder better ways to get to a great product. Problem-solving opportunities exist nearly everywhere at a factory.
The reality is, I consider myself a maker, but I am not the maker of the Speedland product. Dave and I conceive of the product, we spec every single piece and we obsess over all the details from development to production. But ultimately, our product is put together in a factory. Anyone with a physical product idea needs to get comfortable with the fact that your dreams and visions are going to go through the filter of a factory in order for a consumer to be able to experience it. Dave and I have high standards for what the product must be in order to make it into the box, but the process of getting it there – the magic – truly happens at the factory.
If you follow our social accounts, you’ll know that Dave was here in Vietnam a few weeks ago. This was the production trial. A production trial represents a significant milestone late in the process. It is the first time the factory is set up for your product specifically, and the first time the product is made on a production line rather than a sample line. During this process of running trials with new people, a new line, and a full size-run of product, weaknesses are revealed. The whole point of a production trial is to stress-test the process, find the issues, and make adjustments before you start running the full order. If a brand were to cut corners and jump right from a confirmation sample (this is literally a single pair of shoes that the brand and the factory agree to as THE standard, and this pair is autographed by by both teams and held in perpetuity for reference) into production, you run the risk of finding many b-grades and wasting materials. Think of the production trial as the warm up to your run. There’s no glory, it’s not particularly fun, and it is often awkward, but it’s a critical part of being able to turn up the speed while minimizing risk.
I’ve been in Vietnam nearly two weeks now during full production. It feels really good to be here, back in a factory, back where the magic happens. Since it’s the first time we’ve been at the factory for Speedland, it’s especially meaningful. While we have made two production runs for Speedland previously – the SL:PDX and the SL:HSV – due to Covid, Dave and I were unable to go to the factory. It’s hard to convey how stressful that was – not being on the ground when your baby is being born. That’s what it felt like. We had to lean heavily on the trust we had built with our factory partner over the years. Never have I been more grateful for those relationships than during Covid and the launch of Speedland. It would have been impossible to do this without great relationships with amazing people. We thank them for making the magic real.
Now, with production of our third commission and second model – the GS:TAM – almost finished, I couldn’t be more excited about the future for Speedland. We will be busy packing boxes and fulfilling our pre-orders starting March 20th, and a big thank you to those who took part in our pre-order and who have been waiting so patiently. I can speak for Dave when I say we could not be more fired up to get the product out to the people for whom we do this whole thing, and to be able to pass along a piece of the magic to you.