- Buyer's Guide
Maybe I’m just lightheaded from already having snowshoed to the top of a frozen British Columbian mountain with the Arc’teryx team, but as I walk down the crisp clean white hallways of this high-tech design and manufacturing laboratory complex, passing by custom-built then-modified six-figure machines that exist nowhere else on earth, room after room containing ten-person teams of the leading professionals in their respective fields working on classified technologies which maybe, just might, see the light of day in 5-10 years… I begin to think, where am I? Is this Area 51?
Customers, fans, haters, industry professionals, we’re all curious. What’s going on with this pioneering, highly secretive, Canadian powerhouse who produces arguably the most expensive outdoor gear in the world? How can one jacket cost $750.00? Are they hiding tiny platinum bars in the seams?
Well, no. What they’re doing is way more innovative than that. They’re rewriting the playbook of how a brand develops and builds product, by the way they research and develop, to how they manufacture. And now I’m here in Arc’teryx Headquarters, The Promised Land, with a single mission: to immerse myself in it all, and to discover the real value of an Arc’teryx product. And the genius that lies behind it.
Jo Salamon, Arc’teryx’s Media & Communications Manager of North America, leads me through the futuristic headquarters down to a seemingly hidden away and restricted access area. We pass several doors and she mentions that not even she is allowed in these areas, as they’re working on classified projects. We approach two closed double doors and I hear what sounds like an angle grinder cutting away behind them. She knocks. The cutting stops. Silence.
“They’re rewriting the playbook of how a brand develops and builds product.”
The door swings open, revealing what I can only describe as a mixture of machine shop, meets science laboratory, meets NASA engineering facility, meets the dream space of every tinkerer who ever has tinkered. There’s CNC mills, metal lathes, tensile testing machines, ultrasonic welding rigs, unrecognizable prototypes and parts, and piles of fresh machined metal shavings that look like chrome chiffonade basil. This is a secret room where much of the magic and invention of Arc’teryx happens, all thanks to the genius rock star engineers and fabricators inside.
As a six-figure heat sealing machine is brought into the laboratory via a forklift, I lift my camera to capture its awesomeness. Jo requests that I not photograph this, as it’s actually secret Arc’teryx intellectual property. I’m not even quite sure I fully know what I’m looking at, or at the very least, which aspect might be the confidential culprit. One of the guys comes over and explains. He tells me that they order the finest manufacturing machines on earth to use down the road at their manufacturing facility, ARC’One. He laughs. “And then we rip them apart and modify them like a hot rod right here in this shop. Even though they’re the best, they’re just not up to par to what we need. So we improve on them, voiding the warranty the second it arrives.”
Jo taps me on the shoulder. She has us on a dialed-in timeline so I can see all the magic of Arc’teryx, but I admit, I don’t want to leave this room. Ever. But alas, time is running short and Jo promises me what’s next will be worth it; ARC’One, Arc’teryx’s new cutting-edge manufacturing facility (opened in 2016).
We drive 20 minutes from Arc’teryx HQ in North Vancouver to a small suburb of Vancouver called New Westminster. This tiny geographic distance is critical. Personally, whenever I need to visit a factory, I usually fly about 10,000 air miles, each way. Here, designers can make the drive if they need to. This keeps projects agile, and teams ultra-connected. Each hand knows what the other is doing, always.
Unlike most brands, they have control of the entire process, from A to Z, and push every moving part to the absolute apex. Every time. Because the way they see it, perfection in execution could mean the difference between having hot cocoa back at the lodge after an epic ice climb versus calling a rescue helicopter to save a person in your crew from a mountain top.
When I arrive, it’s a remarkable sight. ARC’One is massive; 243,610 square feet to be exact. There’s an obvious and apparent flow from start to finish at ARC’One. Personnel move methodically and quickly. Beautiful products sprout to life, layer by layer, in rich Ember reds and Deep Cove blues.
Jo tells me that Arc’teryx strives to constantly find ways to improve on this efficiency on a daily basis. Every system and process assessed and reassessed. The floors are spotless like an operating room. Every single machine is the newest of the new, state of the art. This facility is a complex flow of information and materials, made to somehow look simple, like looking inside of a microchip.
“They order the finest manufacturing machines on earth to use down the road at their manufacturing facility, ARC’One. Then they rip them apart and modify them.”
This facility is the home of nearly 500 workers who come here every day to construct the most technically advanced outdoor products on Earth. By the numbers, they produce just over 500 units per day. At first, this number might seem low. But the level of detail and thoughtfulness that goes into each and every one of these products is truly astounding.
For example, Jo leads me to a work station building the LEAF DryPack 25L backpack. Each one of these packs takes 238 minutes to create via 160 unique operations completed by 16 different employees. When they are running a production batch of these, they make a mere 16 units per day and they only get shipped after passing 20 minutes of on-site Quality Control inspections.
Their flagship adventure jacket, the Alpha SV, takes even longer, utilizing even more steps. Taking twice as long to make as any comparable breathable shell – and that’s not counting the time it takes to develop and design it.
Jo tells me the personnel here are trained for 12 weeks and then pass a final test before they can begin their first shift making production products. Once they have some serious experience under their belts, they can apply for some of the coveted positions, such as Seam Taper.
Why is this position so exclusive? Well, this is the absolute final step of manufacturing. After the patterns have been cut from GoreTex, water-resistant zippers and hardware attached, then assembled via tiny stitched seams, it goes onto seam taping. And one minor lack of focus or slight movement of the hand, and the entire product will not pass by Arc’teryx’s extremely meticulous Quality Control team. Watching these operators make 2-3 foot passes with the permanent seam taping machine is like watching a suspense film. They do it with ease. I’m asked if I want to give it a try on a piece of scrap and I politely decline, saving myself from embarrassment.
“The personnel here are trained for 12 weeks and then pass a final test before they can begin their first shift making production products.
We stop at a specialized embroidery machine, precisely adorning the logos of GoreTex and Arc’teryx onto large panels of fabric.
Though GoreTex has humans visually inspect every meter of fabric they send to Arc’teryx for production, Arc’teryx has a small team of employees that re-checks every single massive roll for the tiniest imperfection. One giant roll of fabric goes into the machine, and it transfers to another roll, as the inspector marks any issues with a pen. This is before they even lay out the fabric onto their computer guided laser cutting tables the width of football fields.
Absolutely no expense is spared here. ‘Luxury’ isn’t considered. The focus is making products that will keep humans alive in the harshest conditions our planet has to offer, without a single compromise. Arc’teryx isn’t just making the most durable quality outdoor products on Earth, they’ve designed and redefined the way to manufacture this type of gear in ways that no other sane brand would dream of.
I’m happy to say, being shown behind the veil and fully understanding Arc’teryx’s obsessive manufacturing methods, I’m a convert. Everything that Arc’teryx does here is performed three to fivefold above any other brand. If a jacket of your known outdoor brand takes 15 steps to build, an Arc’teryx jacket takes 40. If its R&D time was six months, you’d better bet that Arc’teryx had spent three years just testing and developing the fabric for the underarms. This is what is so surprising: zero compromise, and delivered at a level of detail and consideration that’s mind-blowing. Every day. Every product.
And the peace of mind that comes with that, as an end user wearing their gear in the wild? It’s something that, for me, has value above and beyond a price tag.