Article: Reinventing the Wheel
This article originally ran in the November/December 2007 edition of American Angler and is reproduced here with permission.
EVERY SPRING, you walk into your local fly shop and find out that some of your gear is obsolete. Two years earlier, you probably plunked down several hundred bucks to be the proud owner of the latest, greatest gizmo in the history of the sport. Your rod, reel, or waders had never been equaled; you were the envy of your friends. But now its successor is staring you in the face, taunting you with its crisper action, lower startup inertia, or improved breathability. How did it come to be here? Why is it here so soon? What could it possibly offer that your pride and joy doesn’t already? Suddenly, an intense rationalization process begins, and your wallet hand gets itchy.
Sound familiar? Since time immemorial, fly-fishing gear manufacturers have been engaged in a battle to one-up each other—and themselves—with newer, better, often more expensive products. Along the way, they’ve changed the nature of the pastime itself: breathable waders replaced neoprene, and graphite dealt the death blow to fiberglass, itself guilty of the destruction of bamboo.
"The simple fact is that fly fishers love new stuff," says Tom Rosenbauer, director of marketing for Orvis. "They love it, and they expect us to produce it." Every manufacturer goes through the process of developing new products, but in order to really understand how an idea becomes reality, we set out to trace the paths of two products, the Simms G4 Guide Wader and the Orvis Zero Gravity fly rod, from the initial stages of development, through testing, to production. The narratives are illuminating in the ways they show how innovative ideas, technology, and the realities of manufacturing combine to shape the new products that vie for your hard-earned dollars.
Few new arrivals raised more eyebrows last year than Simms Fishing Products’ price-barrier-shattering G4 Guide Wader: at $699, it was the only new product with its own built-in controversy. Even before the G4 was officially introduced, anglers were burning up Internet bulletin boards—some folks scoffing at the idea of shelling out so much for waders, others pledging confidence in Simms and willing to believe the quality was worth the price. Preliminary planning for the G4 began as early as 2003. There had been neoprene zippers since the early ’90s, and although they were waterproof, these early models were bulky and hard to use. Impressed by the new zippers developed for the dry-suit industry, Simms’s president K. C. Walsh—who takes an active hand in product design—determined that the time was right for a breathable wader with a zipper.
Once the concept was in place, the company’s product developers held an initial roundtable discussion, the main purpose of which was to create what Simms calls a "product brief." This first stab at defining the product isn’t quite what you’d expect: rather than a sketch or computer-generated design, it is a written document that simply describes what the consumers want and how Simms plans to achieve it.
The G4, like most fly-fishing products, stood on the shoulders of the models that came before it. Simms had produced the industry’s first Gore-Tex breathable wader in 1993, and the fundamental alchemy that allowed that material to work had remained unchanged in each model since. (For more information on breathable materials, see "Breathing Underwater" in the April 2006 issue.) But designers had learned much over the years—for instance, that it was possible to strengthen the Gore-Tex cloth by layering it over itself.
The product brief came together with substantial input from the company’s returns department—an unequaled source of information about how their own products could fail. Among the important lessons learned from these data was that the seat of the waders had been a prime failure area and that leg seams along the sides were failing over time due to wear. Therefore, the developers decided to extend the toughest five-layer material up over the seat of the wader for the first time and to move the seams to the front. Finally, the G4’s product brief included new goals: built-in vest-style welded pockets and, of course, the zipper. The product brief conference was about more than the developers’ dream product: they had to agree upon and then hit a target price, as well. With the G4, that proved to be a problem. "We were shooting for $499," says Walsh. "And we went $200 over that. We knew we were going to take a hit on sales, but we were determined to build the best wader we could with the technology we had on hand all the same. We figured some customers would appreciate the differences immediately and others would over time."
Sewing the Seeds
Once the product brief was complete, a designer-in-chief (Simms would not mention names for fear of headhunting in the ultracompetitive breathable-fabrics industry) began by choosing the new wader’s fabric. While some of the cloth came from the "Gore Book" (sort of like the fabric catalog you’d use to pick out curtains), many of Simms’s fabrics are proprietary and developed privately with W. L. Gore. The exploded microfiber that designers ultimately chose is one such material.
Once the designers had picked out the G4’s fabric, they began drawing, using both CAD (computer-assisted design) systems and good, old-fashioned pencil and paper. The G4’s designers rendered three or four models with the computer before prototyping began, explained head of product design Diane Bristol, and once the design was finalized, the developers themselves cut and sewed the prototypes in a separate facility tucked into the rear of the Simms factory. "Despite their advanced degrees," says Bristol, "they’re all pretty fair hands with needle and thread."
The company employs a number of product testers, called Simms Pros, who are required to remain about the same size, a "large," in order to customize the fit. These pro staffers aren’t just your usual guides and spokespeople; some of them don’t even fish. "We actually use local carpenters for a lot of our testing," says Bristol. These pros have been chosen not for their technical skill, but for their reliability. "A good tester is someone who will put in eighty hours with a design in two weeks, never fail. They have to be on time, they have to be able to put their feelings into words, and they have to be available." Pretty quickly, the Simms Pros found one critical flaw with the new G4 design: the zipper leaked. Walsh admitted his consternation:
"We’d struggled to find an off-brand zipper to keep the costs down, but with the leakage, we knew we had to bite the bullet." The designers traded up to a YKK model (the zipper industry’s Rolls-Royce), but the new zipper added a cool $100 to the G4’s cost. Where did the other $100 more come from? "A special yoke system and a loaded upper, which add to costs of production," said Walsh.
When the Simms Pros completed testing, the developers turned their draft-model G4 over to the production department. Since it is their job to produce large numbers of waders, production specialists value simplicity and efficiency. Simms’s production staff reduced the number of seams in the boot foot and the number of steps needed to build the upper. Even so, the G4 remains the company’s slowest-ever wader to manufacture, with bottlenecks created by sewing zippers and welding pockets, not to mention building the breathable yoke strap system. "We decided to throw it all in," repeats Walsh. "But that has its consequences, like increased cost and time to manufacture the product."
Whereas the design process for the G4 was fundamentally driven by an idea, the Orvis Zero Gravity fly rod began with a technology. Graphite fly rods have remained more or less unchanged since the mid-1980s. They are, basically, just sheets of graphite fiber glued together with a resin and then wrapped around a mandrel and baked. Graphite modulus has increased since the 1980s, but—with a few exceptions—the material itself remains the same. "All the movement right now is in resins," says Orvis vice president and rod designer Jim Lepage. "They allow us to make a lighter, stronger graphite rod." With a background in the aeronautics industry, Lepage spends much of his research time keeping tabs on developments in the world of high-tech composites and then brainstorming ways to apply emerging technologies to fly-rod design.
Flip through the catalogs of all the major fly-rod companies, and you’ll quickly understand that everyone’s trying to develop rods that are "lighter," "stronger," and frequently "faster." Unfortunately, "high speed" is inversely proportional to strength: the higher modulus graphite that endows a modern rod with its "fast action" is also more brittle and prone to breakage. Manufacturers offset this tendency with strengthening material called "scrim," but this adds weight and can make a rod feel like a pool cue—particularly if the scrim is made of fiberglass. The biggest challenge is thus finding the right balance between speed, strength, and weight.
The series of rods that culminated in the Orvis Zero Gravity were based around a new resin technology: thermoplastics. Thermoplastics—which you’ve probably known in one form as hot glue—are glues that work by melting and then solidifying rather than through a chemical bonding reaction. Their biggest virtue is the ability to convey strength without adding weight. In 1996, when Orvis had just released its Trident series and was looking for the next step forward, they were approached by a consultant in the composites industry who had developed a way use thermoplastics, instead of epoxy, to strengthen the graphite blades on the Army’s Apache helicopter. Being a fly fisherman, he suspected that the technology might have an application in fly-rod design, and he brought it to Orvis.
Making It Work
Lepage and vice president of manufacturing Jim Logan understood that they had a rare opportunity. However, thermoplastic manufacturing is not without its drawbacks. The main problem is price, because building with thermoplastic rather than epoxy increases production costs. Thermoplastic resins require expensive, specialized ovens in order to cure the resin at the proper temperatures—otherwise the resin can become brittle or fail to set up. Also, where epoxy resin is a stable, well-developed technology with established supply chains, thermoplastics can be hard to get in large quantities. Orvis keeps a two years’ supply on hand at all times to ensure their production capacity. Once they decided to pull the trigger on the new technology, Lepage had to design the Zero Gravity from the ground up. As with Simms’s G4, the Zero Gravity followed in the footsteps of models that came before it. The first model to make use of thermoplastics was the T3, released in 2002.
For the T3, the Orvis team focused on the resin in the graphite flag (after all, the majority of the material in the rod) rather than the scrim. The result was lighter, but because the rod continued to use fiberglass with epoxy resin for its scrim, the step forward was incremental. For the Zero Gravity, the design challenge lay in reducing the weight of the rod and the diameter of the blank—by switching to a scrim of unidirectional graphite, rather than fiberglass mesh—without sacrificing strength or power.
Lepage started with something called a rod profile—a set of numerical figures that describe how a rod will behave under various strains, illustrating "load" (measured in grams), as well as "flex" (measured in angles). Among other things, this profile describes whether a rod is to be a 5-weight or a 6-weight and whether it will have a full-flex, mid-flex, or tip-flex action (according to the Orvis Flex Index). The idea behind spending a lot of time using a computer and calculator at the front end of the design process is to cut the costs of prototype development. The Zero Gravity entered the world as a prototype in a small room cluttered with barrels of broken rods and materials in the back of the Orvis facility in Manchester, Vermont, where three developers sit rolling, wrapping, and testing tomorrow’s designs.
That prototype was rolled and baked on new mandrels specially machined to match Lepage’s rod profile. (A mandrel is a steel form, resembling a car antenna, around which the graphite is rolled.) The need to have new mandrels made for each prototype is one of the factors that can drive up costs in the development phase. Once the Zero Gravity prototypes came off the mandrels, the developers began trying to break them, employing several tests designed to measure the new rod’s impact resistance, deadlifting strength, and susceptibility to repetitive-motion stress. These tests are always lively and often result in shards of graphite flying through the air. (Eye protection is not optional in the testing facility.) As the Zero Gravity prototype was put through the wringer, the developers noted the rod’s various points of failure and success and adjusted the design accordingly.
Because weight can be critical to the rod’s performance in these tests, the proposed final components—cork, guides, and reel seats—were used even on prototype rods. That means each broken rod sported the same spendy appointments that would eventually be used on the final product. During the testing phase, designers realized that the proposed reel seat added too much weight to the butt, so it was replaced with a lighter one.
The testing phase represented the last "hard science" component of the Zero Gravity’s design process. Once the numbers were within tolerances of a given rod weight’s profile and the prototype had proved itself able to handle the stresses of extreme fly casting and fish fighting, old-school craftsmanship took over. Orvis’s talented product-development staff began casting the prototypes themselves, rather than relying on machines and measurements. "Few anglers care whether a rod is likely to break when they buy it," says Rosenbauer, one of the main casting testers, "but they all want it to feel right."
Logan, Lepage, and the other designers are all excellent casters, so it was their subjective sense of what Orvis customers wanted that fine-tuned the rod. Keep in mind that the design team went through this entire process for every rod in the Zero Gravity line, some 28 models. And when everyone agreed that they’d achieved the feel, action, and power they were shooting for, it was up to Logan to figure out how to produce thousands of rods that performed as well as the prototypes.
The Ultimate Test
No fly-fishing product survives unless the public decides it is a success by voting with their wallets. Product developers—whether from Simms, Orvis, or elsewhere—know that each angler will do his own cost-benefit analysis before buying any product. With the Zero Gravity, Orvis stayed within the price range of its competitors’ rods, so customers weren’t asked to make too much of a stretch. However, Lepage held back on his ultimate goal: a rod that used thermoplastics in the graphite flags and the scrim. The Zero Gravity still employed epoxy for its scrim resin. For 2008, Orvis will roll the dice when it releases the Zero Gravity Helios—which employs thermoplastic scrim—at a higher price. Orvis’s marketers express confidence that anglers will be able to feel the difference. In a sense, Simms is on the other side of the curve. They rolled the dice in 2007 with the G4 Guide—at $699, the most expensive wader the market has yet seen. For 2008, they are adding the G4 Pro, which lacks the zipper, high-tech suspenders, and belt loops (and which sells for $200 less). Only time will tell which two of these four products have the most success.
Thus, in a sense, anglers provide the final step in the development process. By choosing which products best meet the critical costto-benefit balancing act, and by providing detailed feedback through the returns process, anglers are participants in designing tomorrow’s new fly-fishing products. The good news is that all the responsibility and risk remain with the manufacturers, while anglers have the best jobs of all: end-user product testing, preferably in the nearest tolerably damp spot with a few eager fish.
Zach Matthews is the editor of The Itinerant Angler and a frequent contributor to American Angler.