If you’ve ever stopped in to Patagonia HQ in Ventura, California, you’ll know it’s a pretty laid-back place. We’re a bunch of surfers, not suit-and-tie people, and we’re always happy to give visitors a glimpse at what goes on behind the scenes. But there’s one room we keep under wraps—the one we call The Forge.
A few steps from Fletcher Chouinard Designs—and, conveniently, right beside the cafeteria—The Forge is our fully equipped R&D facility. Named in tribute to our company’s origins as a small blacksmith shop, it’s where we fire, shape and hammer out futuristic projects like our new Yulex® wetsuits, kiting drysuits and our Portable Self-Inflation Vest.
“Essentially,” says product engineer Casey Shaw, “it’s where we question the status quo and come up with alternative solutions and technologies to assure that Patagonia is the leader in our industry. Behind every project lies a pile of experiments and iterations, and The Forge is where that invisible work happens.”
Half materials lab and half do-it-yourself manufacturing space, The Forge is the engine that drives Patagonia forward, giving us the ability to build innovative, low-volume pieces, like the Portable Self-Inflation Vest, that few other companies would take on and fund. It’s also where we tinker with experimental technologies that never make it to market but eventually trickle down into everyday products that are more imaginative, more sophisticated and more environmentally responsible.
“The new technologies that get proven through The Forge projects,” Shaw notes, “are shared within the company to implement in other areas of our product line.”
“What makes The Forge so special,” says Hub Hubbard, our surf product development manager, “is that it’s greater than the sum of its machinery. It’s about all the people that work there. Actually, it’s not a whole lot different from our daycare center, with which it shares a wall—and by that, I mean it’s an environment that inspires creativity and ingenuity.”
For the Portable Self-Inflation Vest—a flexible flotation vest that can be instantly inflated with CO2, increasing safety in life-threatening surf—the challenge was how to make a piece of equipment that was fast, intuitive and fail-safe to operate in life-or-death situations. And the process, as for many of our products, depended on The Forge and field testers working in unison to fine-tune a reliable design.
“By building things ourselves,” says director of product field testing Walker Ferguson, who serves as the link between designers and testers, “we don’t have to rely on someone else’s interpretation. We can work on a proto, take it out that day and come back in the afternoon to make adjustments.”
“We learned more from each iteration of the flotation vest,” remembers Shaw, “and now we have more than 100 units, all hand-built in The Forge, out for more testing and evaluation. The project was never constrained by commercial considerations—it was just about building the very best safety product we could.”
The desire to dream up the new has always been in Patagonia’s DNA, and the surf projects coming out of The Forge are examples of how well-applied technology can redefine what’s possible in the natural world.
As Shaw sees it, “The Forge keeps our hands dirty. By staying connected to the actual making of product, we’re able to innovate on the things that exist—and invent the things that don’t.”