FACTORY PROFILE: Rip Curl

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Rip Curl factory, factory, wetsuits

There’s more involved than meets the eye in wetsuit production.

It’s no secret that wetsuit technology has radically improved in the past five years. The super-flexible nature of today’s suits has made the retail salespitch easier, but prices on some of the high-end models have nudged past 300 dollars.

While you don’t want to confuse your customer with too many details, a basic primer on wetsuit construction might give you that extra bit of knowledge needed to close those big-ticket purchases. Because as TransWorld SURF Business discovered at Rip Curl’s Baja California factory, there’s more to making a wetsuit than meets the eye.

Ultra Primo

For the past 25 years, Ultra Manufacturing in Ensenada has served as Rip Curl’s western hemisphere wetsuit factory. Located incongruously in a mixed industrial and residential neighborhood, it was locally owned until just recently. But when business took off in the late 90s, Rip Curl minimized any potential for a manufacturing hiccup and bought the facility outright.

[IMAGE 1]The inside is clean, well-lit, well-ventilated, and modern-not at all what I expected. “We do a little more than 2,000 suits here a week, depending on the style,” says Production Manager Geoff Hodgson, our tour guide for the day. “If we have a really good week, and the styles are easy, we can make 3,000 to 4,000 suits.”

Hodgson ran Rip Curl’s largest factory, located in Thailand, for four years before being transferred to Baja in early 1999. He says that while the Ensenada facility is smaller-employing 150 compared to Thailand’s 300-it’s much more efficient.

Most of the employees work on a piece-rate pay scale, where their paycheck is based on their productivity. “The employees know that if they go hard, they can earn more,” says Hodgson. “That’s a good goal.”

He first takes us to the shipping/delivery area, which is both the starting and finish line of the factory. The area is two stories high and filled from floor to ceiling with stacks of bulk neoprene, which arrives at the factory in four-foot by six-foot sheets.

The neoprene is shipped from either Japan or Taiwan into the Port of Long Beach. “We checked the possibility of shipping it directly into Ensenada,” says Hodgson, “but for now it’s a lot easier to truck it down from Long Beach.”

It seems like a tremendous amount of raw material, but Hodgson says it will cover only about two months of production. “We do at least a container load of neoprene a month-probably more,” he says. “We’re just now getting our stock whittled down. One of my objectives when I got here was to keep the stock levels down to exactly what we need.”

Preplanning Is Key

In an upstairs office that overlooks the large factory floor, sits a prehistoric-looking computer. But its looks are deceiving. “I couldn’t do my job without this little dinosaur,” says Hodgson. “It’s hooked up to the Carlsbad office and is the main reason this factory runs so well. Enter in a product order and it automatically spits out all the specs on what type of neoprene we’ll need, how much, and in which colors. Then it formulates the different sizes by scaling our patterns. It also tracks our production schedule, so if someone asks when their order will be ready we can give them an exact date. Plus it handles all our invoicing.”

Alistair “Zoc” Zorica, Rip Curl’s wetsuit product manager (who has since left Rip Curl to take on a similar position with Quiksilver Australia. Rip Curl sales rep Stephen Koehne has been named new wetsuit product manager), agrees that the while the system looks archaic, it’s improved the entire manufacturing process: “Things are more accurate, and there’s no error drawing up patterns. There’s a cost of having a person at this computer, but the time it saves on the factory floor is unbelievable.”

A Wetsuit Takes Shape

The first step a wetsuit takes on its journey from raw material to hanging on your salesfloor is the cutting table. It’s here that the sheetsf neoprene are cut into the many individual panels that form a wetsuit.

A large paper pattern is placed on a stack of neoprene sheets. Next, a saw-wielding employee carefully follows the pattern, his free hand protected by a steel mesh-link glove.

“We try to cut no more than thirty sheets at a time,” says Hodgson. “And that depends on the thickness of the material. A lot of people say we should be cutting more sheets at once, but it’s better to do a little bit less and keep the quality and accuracy absolutely first rate.

“Neoprene is the most expensive raw material that goes into a wetsuit,” continues Hodgson. “and if the cut is just a quarter of an inch off, you’ve lost the use of all the material.” With stakes like that, quality control is critical.

Rip Curl employs inline quality control inspectors along each step of the production process. These employees, each wearing a bright red vest, are easy to spot as they walk from station to station. “We want to pick up on any problem before final QC,” says Hodgson. “Because when you find a problem at that stage of the game, it’s often too late.”

Zoc points out that it’s these improved production methods that allow consumers to get far more for their wetsuit dollar today than just ten years ago. “On our high-end suits, there’s really no comparison. Today’s super-stretch neoprene is a revolution. But if you compared our middle-tier suits from ten years ago to those of today, you’d see that prices have remained stable while the quality has gone through the roof. Everyone has been getting smarter with their manufacturing and the neoprene production methods have improved. The end result is that the customer is getting a far superior suit for the same amount of money.”

Secrets Of The Game

After the cutting table, some of the cut neoprene heads to the silk-screening department. The average Rip Curl wetsuit includes five or six silk-screened logos, and each logo is made up of an average of three to four different colors, and each color is applied and flash cured separately. It’s obviously an exacting, time-consuming process.

[IMAGE 2]It’s also one area of the factory that Zoc and Hodgson aren’t eager to explain in detail-especially when I start asking questions about temperatures and cooking times of the large oven that does the final curing.

“When it comes to quality, this is clearly an area where we think Rip Curl has an important advantage,” says Zoc. “The silk-screening on a lot of other wetsuit brands crack almost immediately, where maybe ours will after a couple of years.”

After the silk-screening process is finished, the production line hits a fork in the road. High-end suits designed for the coldest water are glued and then blindstiched on the ground floor, while less-expensive models designed for warmer water get flatlock seams up on the factory’s mezzanine.

With a flatlock seam the neoprene is butted together and then held in place by a wide band of interlocking stitches. The thread goes entirely through the neoprene, so it’s not a watertight seam.

Gluing and blindstitching (dubbed GB) also produces a flat seam, but includes three steps. First, the neoprene is butt joined and glued. Then it’s sewn on one side with a special curved needle that only goes halfway through the rubber, leaving the seam waterproof. Finally, nylon tape is glued to the inside seams to increase durability.

“One of the best things that came out of the Thailand factory was the glue we use over there,” says Hodgson as he shows us the gluing station on the ground floor. “No glue is good, but a lot of the glues we use aren’t nearly so harmful to breathe.” Each employee wears a respirator, although the area is so well ventilated that it’s hard to smell the glue as we pass by.

Before the suits are sewn together, the zippers, kneepads, and Velcro closures are assembled. This helps keep the suits streaming through the sewing and taping stations, where they really begin to resemble the final product.

To make sure there’s a strong bond along each glued seam, employees use a hand-held mechanical clamp along the GB production line. “At a lot of other factories, employees use their hands during this step,” says Zoc, “but these clamps help us get a perfect bond. They produce 40 pounds of pressure, so you wouldn’t want to put your finger in there.”

Next, the completed suits receive a final quality assurance inspection, where any excess glue is carefully wiped away. Then the suits are stored in the warehouse, awaiting the weekly truck that will take the finished product back to Carlsbad.

Never A Dull Time

Hodgson says the factory is continuously busy. “We’ll start production of our winter suits in January for Fall delivery,” says Hodgson. “It just shows how far in advance you have to work, because everyone wants to get delivered on time.”

Wave and weather conditions also greatly affect retailer orders. “That’s one of the hardest things to anticipate,” says Hodgson. “Right now in October, things are a little bit slow because the water is still warm. But once we get the first winter swells and the water temp dips, things start to snowball. So we’re at the mercy of the weather a bit. You can imagine what the El Niño year was like.”

But Zoc says Hodgson is the perfect guy to make sure things keep rolling. “It’s hard to find people with wetsuit experience,” he says. “It’s totally different than the garment trade. Wetsuits are technical and whatever can go wrong, usually does. You can’t afford to stay relaxed.” to resemble the final product.

To make sure there’s a strong bond along each glued seam, employees use a hand-held mechanical clamp along the GB production line. “At a lot of other factories, employees use their hands during this step,” says Zoc, “but these clamps help us get a perfect bond. They produce 40 pounds of pressure, so you wouldn’t want to put your finger in there.”

Next, the completed suits receive a final quality assurance inspection, where any excess glue is carefully wiped away. Then the suits are stored in the warehouse, awaiting the weekly truck that will take the finished product back to Carlsbad.

Never A Dull Time

Hodgson says the factory is continuously busy. “We’ll start production of our winter suits in January for Fall delivery,” says Hodgson. “It just shows how far in advance you have to work, because everyone wants to get delivered on time.”

Wave and weather conditions also greatly affect retailer orders. “That’s one of the hardest things to anticipate,” says Hodgson. “Right now in October, things are a little bit slow because the water is still warm. But once we get the first winter swells and the water temp dips, things start to snowball. So we’re at the mercy of the weather a bit. You can imagine what the El Niño year was like.”

But Zoc says Hodgson is the perfect guy to make sure things keep rolling. “It’s hard to find people with wetsuit experience,” he says. “It’s totally different than the garment trade. Wetsuits are technical and whatever can go wrong, usually does. You can’t afford to stay relaxed.”