Black Diamond Equipment – a Utah-based company that designs, develops and manufacturers rock climbing and backcountry ski equipment – is best known for its innovation, Vice President of Operations Mark Ritchie says. “We have designed, developed and manufactured more products in our market niches than any other single entity,” he says. “Our product line is extremely diverse, ranging from complex – engineering heavy climbing protection devices – to fairly straightforward products with fairly straightforward supply chains.”
For example, several years ago, the firm introduced a backpack apparatus that allows people to breathe if they are trapped in an avalanche. It was originally invented by a doctor whose colleague had died in an avalanche while on a back country ski trip.
“He researched the notion that snow pack has air in it and looked to see if there was a way to extract the air,” Richie explains. If this air could be extracted somehow, avalanche victims would be able to breathe while buried beneath the snow.
“We took this concept and turned it into a product,” he says. “It is used by a lot of people in the backcountry environment and has saved lives.”
The company strives to continuously upgrade its products. Most of its products have a two-year life cycle, Ritchie says. For example, the company has redesigned this product several times since its introduction and is working on a new design that will debut in 2011, he adds.
“The new version of the Avalung will be more form-fitting and therefore more comfortable to wear,” Ritchie explains.
Black Diamond also recently started hydroforming aluminum extrusions and fabricating carbon fiber components to create the lightest and most technologically advanced ice climbing tools available, says Joe Smith, director of manufacturing and engineering. “We’re the first people in the industry to utilize hydroforming technology for this application,” he says.
“We are currently bringing three new hot-forged carabiner designs to market and, including designs that we used to purchase, will be introducing nine new hot-forged carabiner models into production in the next six months,” Ritchie says.
Black Diamond is focused on making quality products. “We have actively brought outsourced processes in-house and the added control and reduced handling has contributed to increased quality and decreased lead time,” Ritchie says. “As a company that grew fairly quickly, there are still numerous manufacturing operations that evolved fairly organically along the way. We are actively working through legacy product and processes to automate as needed to improve quality and bring stability and standardization to the processes.”
Lean is utilized throughout the manufacturing process. “We initially started implementing lean techniques about 10 years ago,” Smith says. “We have continued to learn from our success and failures with lean tools and philosophies.”
It also takes steps to maintain its productivity. “In order to try and maintain throughput, Black Diamond manufacturing has been actively working to bring currently outsourced work or fabrication of purchased parts in-house,” he says. “Transition from manual/hand processing to more automated and repeatable processing – transition from hand-grinding to CNC machining, for example – that is less dependent on highly skilled and specially trained operators has allowed us to increase productivity and throughput while reducing variability.”
In June 2006, Black Diamond opened its first overseas facility in Zhuhai, China. “We were out of room in our Salt Lake City facility,” Ritchie says. “We were tapped out capacity-wise and we needed to find a way to expand our overall capability. Rather than moving out, we decided to open a sister facility in Asia.”
Its Chinese facility is 30,000 square feet and has 100 employees. This facility focuses on efficient assembly, while its Salt Lake City facility specializes in technology intensive component fabrication. The company chose to build its facility in Zhuhai because of its proximity to Hong Kong, the ease of transportation and its ability to have an efficient supply chain. “Locating our assembly operations closer to the source of some of our components creates simpler supply chains that are more manageable and quicker to respond,” Ritchie explains. “We also found the right people to run it.”
Ritchie is proud of the company’s ability to grow. “Black Diamond started out as a very, very small garage shop operation manufacturing tiny volumes of very specialized climbing gear for a very specialized and tiny clientele,” he says. “The company has been able to help grow the sports that we are part of and our manufacturing operation has been able to increase throughput, quality and capability to the point where we are – at least for an operation of our size – efficient and capable.
“This is an interesting place because the vast majority of people in this company are core users of these products,” Ritchie adds.