Lithographica

'This is the dream job that I never dreamed existed."

Research and Development // by Jill Macdonald, Photography by Brian Goldstone

MEET THE REAL MEN AT ARC'TERYX: DIVISION Q

What you are about to read is the nuts and bolts that keep the Arc’teryx machine from becoming a caterpillar with one too many legs. Without this Division there would be a lot more carnage. Scrapped designs, abandoned projects and rusted, partially-made manufacturing tools would be sitting out in the junkyard. Meet Division Q: Chris Woollard, Billy Parks and Patrick Fitzsimmons, with factory team members Bill Tso and longtime ninja, Dave Gardiner. The real men at Arc’teryx.

http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/q4.jpg
From left: Billy Parks, Chris Woollard and Patrick Fitzsimmons at the Arc'teryx Design Centre in North Vancouver, BC.

Make something out of materials that don’t exist, with machines that don’t exist and then figure out how to mass produce it – this is the mandate for Division Q. Their mission is to help ideas become realities.

“This is the dream job that I never dreamed existed.” In the shop at Head Office, Chris is honest about how he ended up at Arc’teryx and his story includes beating out a Honda engineer for the position – probably because of his background in bikes and not being tied to a particular system of thinking. As the lights go out and shadows fill in, there is a sensation of reverence and anticipation. What emanates is passion: a passion for product, for making the coolest shit out there. Pushing the limits of materials and machinery, making components and tools and then taking them over to the factory and seeing how it’s integrated into the flow. That is the manifestation of higher level thinking into something that people will notice the first the time they use an Arc’teryx product. The experience is so unique and liberating that they soon forget what they are wearing and just enjoy what they are doing. That is the goal. Let’s admit it; James Bond is only who he is because of the gadgets.

http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Q14.jpg
From left: Dave Gardiner and Bill Tso at the Arc'teryx Factory in Burnaby, BC.

There are a couple of ways that designs end up in the shop. Ideally, Chris is involved at the conceptual stage, where collaboration between designer and machine expert streamlines the process of making a product efficient. Each person brings a wealth of knowledge and experience and where those worlds meet is where the magic happens. Chris can contribute structural concepts into the design from a manufacturing perspective. Similarly, Dave and Bill’s team at the factory brings a vision from the assembly floor, contributing feedback from process into the design loop. Once all of the input cycles through, a beautiful product emerges, true to a primary Arc’teryx value of craftsmanship. Minimalism is the simple expression of a complex thought.

However, the ideal meets reality only part of the time. Arc’teryx is a busy, inventive place and sometimes projects arrive breathless. A product that is ready for production comes with an urgent need to create a manufacturing tool within a short time frame. Chris and his team pool together their resources and brainstorm solutions.

The first step is to conceptualize what is needed. It may be a component and then a tool, or maybe it’s a process of binding one material to another; this team is quick in their minds and light on their feet. Of Billy, Chris confidently states; “He is one of the most talented guys I have worked with. He’s hands-on but he recognizes the higher level ideas within the process.” That’s high praise. From one astute person to another, the bonds here extend beyond professional respect. “Patrick is our sensei. He is keen, positive and will do anything for anyone – which I sometimes have to shut down.” Yes, guys in shops are handy and in one way or another they are all about making things work, small metal parts and the laws of physics. Three more reasons behind their ability to constantly think outside of any box.

http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Q1.jpg
http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Q2.jpg
http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/q5.jpg
http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Q15.jpg
http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/q6.jpg
http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/q7.jpg

For inspiration, there are previous inventions and a variety of machines around the shop: the drop tower; bending tools; welding equipment; lathes; and an industrial pizza oven (it’s not for making lunch). Sometimes ideas arrive in the middle of a bike ride. Other times the solution is an accident, a random association that leads to discovery. If all else proves futile, they call on resources from other industries. The bike business is an obvious connection, but their circle has great reach. As Chris says; “One of our go-to guys is a dentist, who is also a machinist.”
How cool is that? It’s pretty damn cool. Teeth, bikes, commercial kitchens – there is a lot more to the Arc’teryx shop than the casual passerby might imagine. But does it qualify as a man-cave; can we go that far in our description. The space is neat, the tools are organized; it looks well used and well loved. So in one sense, yes, it is a man cave. These tools are cherry picked and fit an engineer’s list of dream machines. There are favourite projects stacked on the top shelves and lots of afterhours tinkering that goes on, but really the shop is a place of work.
What many people don’t realize is that although it is possible to make one of anything, making ten is more difficult and hundreds is an even larger challenge. Aside from the costs of intensive labour, a one-off pattern, and one-off components and/or tools, there is the need to replicate exactly what was achieved the first time around. This is where the caterpillar can find itself with too many legs. To the team’s credit, there has not been an impossible scenario, no product that has died because it couldn’t be made commercially viable. “We are limited by the size of the tools we can build, but usually it doesn’t come to that. We’ll find an alternate path.” Without revealing any company secrets, what they do is extremely resourceful.

http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/q8.jpg
http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Q9.jpg
http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/q10.jpg
http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Q16.jpg
http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/q3.jpg
http://blog.arcteryx.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/q11.jpg

One of the greatest cachets to the Arc’teryx process is having its own factory within the product development loop. Division Q visits the Vancouver facility regularly, conferring with Dave and Bill, talking to operators and putting together equations that make the most sense. For any product that requires custom tooling, those tools are made here and if required, someone from the team will travel to install and train operators elsewhere on how to use them. The right equipment and the right method are that important.

This is something Dave knows well. He arrives at the factory early each morning to enjoy a few moments of quiet. Dave likes to reflect on the many years he has been here, his goals for the day and how hard it is to greet his coworkers with a flawless ‘Josan,’ which is the Cantonese equivalent of ‘Good Morning’. “They always laugh at me,” he says with a grin. “But at least I try.”

There is nothing stereotypical about this place. The layout reflects the factory philosophy, which is one of efficiency and teamwork. Instead of individual tasks, the floor is organized in assembly stations, where a single operator completes several steps and at the end of the day there is a certain quota of finished products. It’s a holistic approach that is challenging and requires a high level of skill. But ultimately, it rewards the people involved with a true sense of accomplishment, contribution and participation on a team. White lines on the concrete indicate walkways and everywhere are banners and symbols of personalized work stations. It feels somewhat like home.

If there is one thing to take away from this experience, it is product excellence. Dave looks forward to the next wacky challenge coming his way and watching his team of operators learn and excel at making it happen. Being on the cutting edge of what Arc’teryx is doing and watching ideas come alive is really rewarding.

Chris locks up the shop. A red glow from the security camera lights up a sign on the door. No IKEA requests.

▲ Top