Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Changing The Game: Austria’s Elan Snowboard Factory


One thing is starkly obvious when driving into Austria from neighboring countries such as Germany and Switzerland, not to mention Italy and Slovenia; as soon as you cross the border, even when it’s not marked, it’s obvious that a shift has taken place. The designs of buildings and roadways are cleaner, everything has a sense of purpose built in, and even the old structures look new. This is a land deeply rooted in design, efficiency, and alpine sports.
Throughout the history of snowboarding, perhaps the single biggest claim to fame of the country is the quality of the boards produced there and the fact that the majority of the best-made boards have come from Austrian factories. One of the biggest reasons for this reputation was shaped and molded in a small town called Furnitz, at the Elan Snowboard Factory.
Drawing on a long history of ski technology, the Elan Snowboard Factory began pressing boards in 1987 and has evolved into the world’s largest OEM, snowboard-only factory, building nearly a quarter of a million decks last season. Partners of the Elan Snowboard Factory currently include Capita, Arbor, Rome, Bataleon, Nitro, Elan, Lobster, Artec, Dinosaurs Will Die, Academy, Allian, and Amplid, amongst other smaller brands.
We recently had the chance to tour the factory with industry veteran, Canadian rock star and head of Elan’s market development John Colvin, along with Arbor Snowboard Product Manager Matt Patti, to see first hand how the Austrian design ethic and passion for shred have been melded seamlessly into a sandwich construction of quality, efficiency, and environmental ethos, creating a finished product that is a work of art.
Run as a separate entity from its ski production parent company in Slovenia, the Elan Snowboard Factory is striking-not just because you could eat Schnitzel off its floors- but also because of its people. The front end of the house is comprised of an international cast that all ride. With two mountains visible on either side of the picturesque Austrian valley they call home, the Elan crew clearly get it. They’re on the snow testing product all winter and take pride in their “Made in the Alps” motto.

Under New Management

Behind the product lies a long story of continual improvement, lean manufacturing, and process overhauls that has taken the company from an economic precipice just a few short years ago to regaining its place as a thriving mainstay of the local economy and the global snowboard community.
Elan’s factory houses a family vibe under its roof-in fact, many of its 160 employees have been with the company for nearly 2 decades, and the company’s father figure is a baby-faced Michael Kollmann, who began his Elan tenure in the maintenance department at 16, became product manager at 23, and is now CEO at 36.
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Elan Market Development John Colvin
“Michael saw right away that if he is going to make a run as a serious production he was going to have to change the way the work was being done as far as quality and efficiency,” explains Colvin. “But he was working against guys who had been doing the work longer than he had been alive. He slowly moved things a little at a time. Instead of a guy needing to go across the room to get something, all of a sudden the edges were over here. A couple days later the sidewalls were over here and that guy went from making 48 to 65 boards a day without taking notice”
The factory can now produce as many as 1,900 boards per day using a variety of production methods, including four completely different construction types, on presses, molds, and art production machines dreamed up and built in house. This focus on efficiency, engineering excellence, environmental responsibility, and a build-it-yourself ethos has helped Elan reduce the energy needed to make its boards by 55 percent, and cut down time spent producing a board by more than 50 percent.

Changing The Game

Another huge game changer in Elan’s revitalization, which has helped to spur brands such as Arbor and Bataleon to shift their entire productions to their factory has been the development of its Wood Derivative Technology (WDT). This construction uses a low density composite material that incorporates 20 percent spruce tree sawdust particle that is leftover from the timber production industry to increase the strength and reduce the weight associated with traditional composite constructions. WDT now accounts for nearly forty percent of the boards now produced at Elan.
“What it has allowed us to do is provide a construction technique to the industry at the $329-349 price point that is super flexible and really durable - the absolute perfect technology for jib specific decks,” explains Colvin. “That’s the price point where jib boards need to be. It allows our partners to be competitive in that area but still have a killer construction they can rely on. Mold for mold they’re equivalent to a sandwich construction in terms of durability and weight. It’s given us and our partners a serious contender in the jib style riding category.”
As with all of Elan’s constructions, WDT also offers solid environmental benefits including incorporating sustainably forested woods into the traditional chemical soup of composite constructions. Elan uses Forest Stewardship Council certified woods and doesn’t use epoxy in any of its constructions. It has even developed its own gluing material called Envirobond which is Epoxy Free, comprised of 60% renewable agricultural materials, uses no water and leaves very little waste during it’s production cycle, and produces no waste or greenhouse emissions during the production of snowboards. They also use some bio top sheets, 60% recycled steel edges, and computer controls that standardize the bonding agent amounts to minimize waste and achieve consistency in each board in regards to weight and flex specs.
Elan’s technical developments are far from behind the scenes on the graphics front. A mere five years ago the company bought its first large-format printer, now they boast seven. Perhaps the coolest technology they’ve developed is their  Pure Liquid Technology ( PLT ) that finishes the boards with a high gloss finish, reduces weight by 80% over traditional coating or spraying systems, and eliminates cracking that often accompanies a traditional clear coated board. But even cooler are the applications that are possible because of the PLT  Machine. These can include incorporating materials such as leathers, woods, virtually any fabrics, metals, etc by way of seemless topsheet diecutting.
As our thoughts turn to skating and surfing here in the States, the folks at Elan are hitting their busiest season of the year, cranking out decks to grace retailers’ floors next season, and after seeing what’s going into and onto these boards, we’re betting it’s going to be the best season yet.
Check out an in-depth look at the Elan construction process on Elan’s Facebook page.
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