For a lot of manufacturers, simply figuring out how to make a product is challenging enough. At Seattle Manufacturing Company, located just north of Ferndale, the challenge is to also figure out how to break the product and understand how it broke.
The company, called SMC for short, is in the business of making carabiners, pulleys and anything else needed for working with ropes. Their customers often put their lives on the line in mountaineering or rope rescue situations that test the limits of SMC gear, so the company needs to find those limits before customers do.
“Breaking stuff is probably the most fun part of designing a new product,” said Don Enos, global sales and marketing manager. “You have to understand not only how it broke, but how do I keep the user from breaking it. It’s somebody’s life hanging on the end of that line.”
SMC was founded in 1967 by Jim Clark, an aerospace engineer with a knack for making things. One day he approached REI, which at that time was still a long way from becoming the large retailer it is today, to see if the company needed any equipment. Clark came away with a purchase order for 10,000 oval-shaped carabiners.
In the 1980s, once the company had made a name for itself in the climbing industry, SMC began making rope rescue equipment for firefighters and people in the search and rescue field. Now the company primarily caters to that market, company president Kathy Hughes said
Though many of the products appear simple and have one specific use, the manufacturing process is often lengthy and has very little room for error. Making a carabiner, for example, can involve a dozen or more operations — and each one has to be very precise.
“A lot of our tolerances are about as thin as a strand of your hair,” Hughes said. “And every carabiner goes through several tests. We put a lot of time and energy into making sure we produce a quality product.”
Such attention to detail is what has helped SMC build a loyal customer base all over the world. Although it’s tough to compete internationally with overseas companies that have cheaper operational costs, SMC’s reputation and word-of-mouth referrals keep sales up.
“We’re one of only three manufacturers in our market that is still in the United States,” Enos said. “It’s difficult to compete globally being based in the U.S., but we’ve been around a long time and build a quality product. “
Besides competing in the global marketplace, SMC also competes with regional aeronautics companies for raw material and skilled labor. So with economic pressure on all sides, the company has designed its 19,500-square-foot facility to be a very lean operation that produces little waste.
One way that SMC stays ahead of the competition is by investing in new products. One product in particular, a portable anchor system called the TerrAdaptor, has been a big seller. It looks like a giant tripod with extendable legs, can hold up to 8,000 pounds, and is the first such anchor system to be certified by the National Fire Protection Association.
Since the TerrAdaptor can be used in all kinds of rescue situations, demand is coming in from fire fighters, industrial safety crews, and even the military, Enos said.
For years, SMC has made specialized gear for specific rescue situations. The TerrAdaptor is one of the few products that has universal application and for the company, it represents the culmination of years of research and development.
But it is by no means the final word from SMC. The company is planning to release a few new climbing-specific products next year.