Fabricator manufactures aluminum snowshoes, earns accolades, wins awards
December 2, 2010
Snowshoes have been used for thousands of years, but only recently have modern manufactured materials come into the picture. These days lengths of bent and welded tube, usually aluminum, make up the frame. Although the market is crowded, Jake Thamm and Tamara Laug thought they could build a better snowshoe and founded a new company in 1997.
You purchase raw material. You cut it, you bend it, you weld it, maybe you even coat it. You make the best components you can, ship them to your customers, and hope to earn an honest day’s wages for an honest day’s work. If you’re an OEM, you do much the same thing, but you ship complete products. Either way, you probably don’t expect to win awards for your work, do you?
Jake Thamm didn’t start his fabricating venture expecting to win awards, but indeed he did. An avid outdoorsman and entrepreneur, he ran across a unique snowshoe several years ago. He tracked down the manufacturer, purchased the design, co-founded the Crescent Moon® Snowshoe Co., and in a few years increased the sales of the product tenfold. And the snowshoe won a couple of awards from outdoor recreation magazines.
A Colorado native, Thamm has been an outdoorsy kind of guy his entire life—a skier, hiker, climber, cycler, and the list goes on. His business partner and wife, Tamara Laug, likewise has an affinity for the outdoors, and the two have been entrepreneurs for years. Educated in geology, Thamm’s first endeavor was a mining company.
Thamm and Laug started a handful of other enterprises over the years, and gave manufacturing a shot when they developed Rack and Roll, a storage rack designed to store sports equipment in a small area.
“My wife designed it and has a patent for it,” Thamm said.
It fits into a standard closet; the user rolls the unit out of the closet, removes a set of skis or golf clubs or a bike or whatever he needs, and rolls the unit back into the closet.
“People with relatively little storage space but a big lifestyle can have all their sports gear in one place and easily get to it and store it,” Thamm said.
In researching the idea that would become Rack and Roll, Thamm and Laug visited quite a few manufacturing plants to see how things were done. They learned about extruded aluminum tubing—how it’s made and how it’s fabricated—and about injection-molded plastic components. Thamm and Laug lined up some suppliers and handled the assembly themselves.
When recreational snowshoeing started catching on in the early 1990s, Thamm and Laug were ready. They had some manufacturing experience and they had designed and marketed a successful product.
Is the U.S. population fit or fat? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 26 percent of people in the U.S. are obese. Judging by the variety of competitive races these days, the other 74 percent are in great shape. The granddaddy of races is the Ironman (2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and a complete 26.2-mile marathon), but shorter races are held for mere mortals. Standard marathons are popular, as are myriad variations, such as half-marathons, mountain marathons, and ski marathons.
The fitness craze started small but got a serious boost in 1977 when The Complete Book of Running hit the bookstores. Jim Fixx’s best-seller spent 11 weeks in the top slot on the best-seller list. According to Thamm, snowshoeing starting to catch on among athletes about 15 years later.
“In the early 1990s, people suddenly discovered that they could run on snowshoes. They could train on snowshoes,” Thamm said. “If you’re a cyclist or if you’re a runner, snowshoeing is a phenomenal cross-training technique. It genuinely does what few other sports do in that it replicates the same sort of muscle use, particularly for cycling.”
Snowshoe use has spread from hard-core athletes to recreational users, and the long-term prospects look good.
“The growth has been steady, 8 to 10 percent annually since the late 1990s,” Thamm said.
“Snowshoeing is a great complement to adrenaline sports like skiing and snowboarding,” he said. “It’s also good for the entire family, especially if they love hiking and cross-country skiing. Snowshoes can go places where skis can’t.”
Probably once used mainly for hunting and trapping, snowshoes date back about 5,000 years. Conventional materials are wood for the frame and leather for the latticework and binding. The teardrop shape is probably the most well-known, but oval also is common. However, modern materials and designs have seriously upgraded this device; if you look closely at a traditional snowshoe and a modern one, you’d readily conclude that they are the same in function only.
Frame. The number of aluminum alloys and heat treatments available today means that fabricators have dozens of choices in aluminum, but only a few lend themselves to sporting equipment. Crescent Moon’s research led Thamm and Laug to choose 6063. Depending on the model, each shoe requires five to seven bends on three axes. Not easy, but Crescent Moon manages with a simple Conrac hand-powered bender.
Although Thamm took some welding lessons, he felt that this particular process should be outsourced. Alloy 6063 is suitable for aerospace applications, so Thamm sought a welder with the skill to match the material.
“We have them welded by a certified aerospace welder,” he said.
Latticework. Crescent Moon uses a polymer-coated polyester. Material selection for the latticework is probably more critical than for the tubing.
“The polymer has to be abrasion-resistant and also flexible to -40 degrees,” he said. Snow is fairly abrasive, and snowshoers also have to make their way over fallen trees, traverse rocky patches, and occasionally navigate other harsh terrain.
“Rental snowshoes are often worn across parking lots and generally not treated too well,” he said. “Snowshoeing is popular among college students, so we consider them to be our professional, unpaid demolition experts,” he said.
Thamm himself does some testing. While he’d have trouble explaining it to casual passers-by, he has spent quite a bit of time taking jaunts in snowshoes in and around the Boulder area. During summertime. Without the benefit of snow.
“I am sure the neighbors think I am crazy,” he said with a laugh.
Crampons. Many shoes have claws to bite into the snow, but Thamm said Crescent Moon shoes are the only ones with a claw at the toe. This, he said, is a big advantage, especially when walking uphill.
Binding. This is where Crescent Moon sets itself apart from its competitors, according to Thamm. Laug devised a new binding that Thamm describes as superior to others, called the SPL, or single pull loop adjustable binding.
“It has an anatomically shaped foot plate; it’s the only one that has a closed-toe configuration; and it captures the foot front to back,” Thamm said, ticking off the binding’s advantages.
“Ours captures the toe, and also captures the entire foot, holding it secure in all directions,” he said. “The material is somewhat gummy, so it grips the wearer’s shoe. It provides support and strength, but it’s also flexible so the foot doesn’t feel any hot spots or any sort of discomfort.”
The binding allows the shoe to rotate when the wearer lifts his foot, but the amount of rotation is limited, preventing the tail of the shoe from dragging in the snow.
It is intended to closely resemble normal walking.
What About Those Awards?
It’s expected that Thamm would sing the snowshoe’s praises. What do other outdoor sports enthusiasts think? Many agree. The biggest accolades came from two magazines, Backpacker and Trail Runner. The first called out Crescent for best binding in its Fall/Winter 2009 issue, and the second bestowed its Winter Gear of the Year Award on the company’s Gold 12 model.
So, how does all this play out for Crescent Moon? The publicity helps, and the rocky economy might be helping too. A long hike in snowshoes is a lot less expensive than a day of skiing.
“Despite this recent recession, we have seen 24 to 25 percent growth during the past two years in a row, and our preseason orders indicate that we’ll probably have similar growth this year,” Thamm said.
Not bad for a relative newcomer, in business for just a decade and a half, competing against much larger competitors, and improving on a 5,000-year-old idea.
Crescent Moon® Snowshoe Co., 1199 Crestmoor, Boulder, CO 80303, 800-587-7655, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.crescentmoonsnowshoes.com
Everyone has heard of just-in time (JIT) manufacturing. Jake Thamm, president of Crescent Moon Snowshoe Co., has perfected his own process: JITSO, or “just-in-time, sort of,” as he calls it.
In JIT manufacturing, the amount of inventory is minimal, which allows manufacturers to free up cash and reduce the amount of storage space they need. However, one size of JIT doesn’t fit all manufacturers. Crescent has to deal with quite a few limiting factors that are specific to the company and its industry. The aluminum extrusions require a long lead-time; snowshoeing is a seasonal sport; and the company is small (it has just eight employees and 3,000 square feet of space). But to hear Thamm tell it, the company isn’t necessarily hemmed in by a lot of constraints; rather, it has created a manufacturing system that thrives despite these conditions.
“We bend frames year-round so we’re ready for the season to start, which is in August,” Thamm said. “Then we build to order, usually shipping within a week.”
How many per week?
“We ship hundreds of shoes every day,” Thamm said. “We fill so many orders in such a short time because we’re exceptionally well-organized,” he said. “Credit for that goes to Craig Piper, our production manager.”