When they were furloughed from their Boeing jobs in 1971, Jim Lea and Neil Anderson could have never known the company they eventually built with John Burroughs would evolve into a juggernaut of the outdoor industry. As the abridged story goes, a simple gardening cushion was the flashpoint for the self-inflating sleeping pad we now know and love as the Therm-a-Rest. That one product sparked hundreds more over the next four decades, and in my opinion played a significant role in the popularity of backcountry travel.
If you’re anything like me, your closet is crammed to the rafters with an extensive assortment of well-used possessions sold under the Cascade Designs umbrella. I still have my first Therm-a-Rest from 1982 as well as the MSR WhisperLite stove I bought in college. I’ve got a bag full of PackTowls, a box stuffed with SealLine drybags, and every day I ride my mountain bike I wear a Platypus hydration pack. The list goes on and on.
My fanboy status confirmed, I recently made the pilgrimage to the Cascade Designs headquarters in Seattle to see firsthand where my favorite toys are designed, tested, and in most cases, painstakingly made by hand. As is often the case, I left the visit with an even greater appreciation for the brand and the people behind it.
For the end user, the steps between concept and final product are not something we often consider. We don’t typically give much thought to designers conjuring up great innovations or the team of experts needed to manifest those ideas thousands of times over. I find that journey as interesting as any undertaken in the wilderness.
What makes a Cascade Design product so unique is the tight-knit relationship between designers, engineers, testers, and manufacturers, all conveniently housed under the same roof. These days, it’s all too common for those types of company resources to exist in different cities, if not on different continents. The benefit is huge though, as it affords Cascade Designs the ability to move products from the drawing board to the shipping dock with optimal efficiency.
Although much of the manufacturing is done in-house at the facility in Seattle, Cascade also maintains a factory in Cork, Ireland. I have become so accustomed to seeing “Made in the USA” on their products that I assumed it was part of the company’s manufacturing mission, and to a large degree it is, but they also have a more pragmatic approach to product provenance. While there are some components which can be made onsite, other technologies are best sourced from outside the organization. For example, the process by which hollow-fiber filter elements are made is so complex and expensive, it wouldn’t benefit the end user for Cascade to invest in those capabilities. That doesn’t mean they don’t manufacture their own ceramic filter elements starting from raw materials and culminating in per-unit quality control testing.
Just a few years ago when the Therm-a-Rest arm of the company launched the most advanced sleeping pad ever created, the NeoAir, I had a tough time wrapping my head around the complex engineering required to fabricate it. The space-age materials and intricate welds seemed impossible to achieve. After standing in front of the machines where these pads are made, one by one, I still can’t quite fathom how they managed to pull it off. It’s a marvel of engineering. It’s simply not the type of thing they could commission from a contract manufacturer. They had to create the design, and the machines needed to make those pads, all under their own roof.
For many consumers it’s easy to mentally distill the manufacturing process down to the simplicity of a Dr. Seuss cartoon with raw materials dumped into one end of a machine, the finished product squirted out the other. It’s not nearly that simple. While touring the floor where stoves, water filters, and snowshoes are made, I observed one craftsman inserting a tiny piece of wire, scarcely larger than a hair, into a piece of brass the size of a grain of rice. I quickly recognized it as MSR’s self-cleaning Shaker Jet as used in their liquid fuel stoves. Not a difficult task on its own until replicated a thousand times over.
In virtually every corner of the facility there were engineers crafting the tools required to make the various components for snowshoe bindings, sleeping pads, and water filters. In other nooks, people were diligently torture-testing products to replicate the offenses of the most ham-fisted user, or inspecting each product individually to ensure it met strict quality control standards. Every stove is fired and every filter tested. In another corner of the complex a hulking steel structure houses Cascade’s own cold chamber used to accurately test the temperature retention of sleeping bags and the insulation values of sleeping pads. Nothing is left to chance.
The most mind-bending section of the compound is situated in a small clutch of rooms reserved for MSR’s water lab. I had made my trip to Seattle almost exclusively to solicit information about the brand’s water filters, not realizing the depth of information I was tapping into. I had assumed this was just the place where MSR’s water treatment systems were created, and it is, but I didn’t realize that the half dozen people working in the lab represent one of the most advanced water science resources in the country.
On any given day they’re engaged in elaborate tests, R&D projects, and other heady endeavors on behalf of the U.S. military, universities, and an extensive list of philanthropic organizations. To say their daily mission is to provide the world with clean and safe water is not an overstatement. While speaking with one of the lab’s managers, I quipped that given their level of expertise, it must have taken all of an afternoon to design the MSR TrailShot, a revolutionary and class-leading water filter. He just smiled and said, “More or less.”
The most significant takeaway from my day-long tour was the cohesive engagement from all of the people in the process from top to bottom. As I have witnessed in other visits to successful organizations, happy employees make great products. Whether those employees are growing deadly viruses in a petri dish in the water lab, or punching holes in mattress foam, they seemed equally dedicated to the end user. And it all started with one of the country’s largest corporate layoffs and a gardening pad. – CN
Standard Setters of Service
It’s easy to opine the loss of good customer service as it genuinely is more often than not—a thing of the past. Cascade Designs on the other hand has always correlated good service with repeat business and they have one of the best warranty and repair departments in the outdoor industry. Their staff maintains a shop dedicated to getting your damaged or malfunctioning gear repaired or replaced as quickly as possible. Every year thousands of punctured sleeping pads find their way to the shop where experienced hands make swift work of patches.
In our modern culture of disposable goods, it’s nice to see Cascade Designs actively working to keep damaged gear in the backcountry and out of the landfill. That represents yet one more reason why I favor Cascade Design products over most others.