In November 2017, Alpkit held an open day at their newly opened factory in Newthorpe, Nottinghamshire. We went to take a look...
Over the past few years Alpkit have progressively been expanding their UK Made range, initially focussing on bouldering mats and bike packing products; however, the success of both led to an increase in demand and an increase in demand required an increase in output - hence it was time for an upgrade.
Conveniently a facility was being built just around the corner from their HQ, allowing them to greatly expand their capacity to manufacture here in the UK and demonstrating a clear commitment to their vision for expanding and developing their UK Made range.
We thought we'd interview Alpkit Director David Hanney about his reasoning, and the motivation behind the investement:
"We're following in the footsteps of legends like Rab Carrington and Pete O'Donovan in making innovative technical outdoor products on the edge of the Peak District. Over the years we've established a significant production room in Nottingham. The investment in a new factory will bring the total jobs we'll create to more than 30. The team we've got is a great mix of climbers, paddlers, outdoor enthusiasts, experienced designers and experienced machinists.
By manufacturing as much as we can ourselves we're more innovative, we can use short runs of specialist fabrics and construction materials and most importantly we can offer all our customers the kind of personal service that only the highest profile sponsored athletes get from the bigger global brands. We make custom products specific to your design or can repair your old kit to make that last longer. Making our own products keeps our supply chain short and without distributor or retailer mark-ups to pay we are very competitively priced."
Alpkit's Factory Manager Ben Meakin started out in the warehouse when he was 18. Since then he has worked his way up through the ranks and is now in charge of the Factory, which involves a lot more than just making products - there's the design, the ordering of the fabric, the cutting patterns, and a whole lot more. We asked him a few questions to see what his hopes are over the coming year, now that he's got more space play with:
Many climbers will be aware of the bouldering mats and packs you produce, but what else does the 'UK Made' range include?
The very first products we started making in the factory were the bouldering pads and they're still going strong. Other than that, the main thing coming out of the factory is biking luggage. We began by making a custom frame bag, with customers sending in a cardboard cut-out of the shape they're after. We're still doing that, but we've also grown the range to 21 different bags you can attach all over your bike.
Now that you've got more space, have you got plans to expand the range? If so, how?
We're always looking into and planning the next product idea. With more room and a bigger team, we can now not only meet demand for our current product range, but develop new and existing products. I can't tell you everything that we are working on, but I can tell you we're updating the Bouldering pads and our bike luggage. Watch this space: 2018 in the Alpkit factory is going to be an exciting one!
How many people have you got working at the factory, and do you foresee this number growing in the months to come?
When we started the factory, a grand total of two people churned out the bouldering pads (Me and Anna) and we have always been very keen that the factory team grows organically.
Over the last four years Alpkit has come a long way. We've continued to design and make exciting products, have opened two new shops in Hathersage and Ambleside, and created Sonder bikes. Now we have a team of 14 in the factory making 41 different products and counting! We have some big plans for the factory next year to meet those demands so we will certainly be needing some extra help.
How long does it take to create a) the Mujo b) the Chamois and c) the Ibex? It'd be interesting for our users to have an idea of the time frame for each, just to provide a little context
It's hard to put a number on it! Aside from the time we spend actually making the products in the factory, we invest huge amounts of time in the development. To begin with we have to weigh up fabric options, work out what our customers want, and come up with a design – and that's before we've even started sewing!
Having our factory just next door to HQ gives us the luxury of being really hands-on with our products. Each new product we make sees its fair share of prototypes as we tweak them until they're just right, the factory team are really creative and have a diversity and a wealth of experiences of machine work and adventuring, which makes this process effective and enjoyable. Throughout the process we work with our buying team to keep an eye on costs: we want our gear to be excellent, we also want it to be affordable.
Once we've got a product how we want it, it undergoes testing and review from our athletes and staff, it's a pretty great feeling when you take out a pack or mat that you've poured so much time and consideration into creating.
Is there a specific product that you're proudest of having made and/or designed? I know you had a lot to do with the Burro, but I'm sure there have been other things along the way.
My role has changed over the year and these days I spend very little to no time on the sewing machine.
If I cast my mind back, some of the most rewarding and exciting things I have made have been custom products. The El Packer began as a custom storage bag for Andy Kirkpatrick for one of his big walling trips; and we helped out Pete Whittaker with his Yosemite trip, designing and making a belay seat and sorting him out with packs, including a very 'special' bag for, well, number twos.
I'm now hugely involved in the design and development of all the factory products, but the one product I'm most proud of would be the Ibex. We had a dream to start making technical packs like the Ibex in the UK and with a lot of hard work we got there. The Ibex was recently shortlisted for best product for the TGO awards; it would be brilliant if it won, fingers crossed!
Finally - the big question - when are you going to complete all the 8s? (if you could name the ones you've already done that'd be great too)
I like to think I'm an all-round climber and completing the three 8s has been a climbing goal of mine. At the moment, its lingering on my mind: I have climbed font 8A, French 8a and E7: so near yet so far! So hopefully this winter I will tick off the E8 on the grit somewhere.
Ed: since the interview was conducted Ben went on to climb End of the Affair on 7th Jan and complete the 8s Challenge.