How 5 Ski Companies are Approaching Innovation in 2020
Curated expert and ski journalist Donny O'Neill explores five ski brands pushing the boundaries of product innovation in 2020.
Ski brands must be deliberate with their product innovation to push the sport forward while keeping it accessible to real-world skiers.
Since Shane McConkey first coined the term “rocker” in ski design with the Volant Spatula in 2001, manufacturing within the ski and snowboard industry has been on a constant upward trajectory. Season after season, brands look to embark on ambitious innovation projects in order to make skiing easier and, subsequently, more fun, appealing to a wide range of consumers.
New ski shapes and camber profiles, lightweight bindings that still provide full safety capabilities, boots that are lighter with integrated hike mechanisms, and hybrid bindings that can be used both inbounds and in the backcountry are all innovations that have come from the past 20 years of product development.
But, at a certain point, innovation hits a ceiling, and brands and manufacturers must choose to either hone in on small design tweaks to improve products or to think so far outside the box, that they end up innovating just for innovation’s sake. Brands that can remain innovative in their product development without creating product problems in the process will be the most successful as ski products continue to develop.
The following five brands have successfully navigated the innovation process, honing in on making great products greater for their real-world user base, rather than simply catering to the needs of professional athletes or the desire of designers to create truly “out-there” products.
Sweet Protection: Living and Breathing the Sport
Norway-based Sweet Protection relies on a team of product designers who truly live and breathe skiing and mountain biking when developing its protection gear. Because its product team is so in tune with the sports, they’re able to better identify problems within the market and develop gear around elevating the experience of those participating in skiing and mountain biking.
"If it doesn't really solve a problem, we're not gonna put it on the market."
“Everyone in the company is really into the sports that we are developing products for, for example, they would define themselves as skiers, not just people who ski,” says Ståle Møller, co-founder and Director of Design & Development at Sweet Protection. “We really try to understand where things are heading and what problems people really have, and what problems can occur in the future that we really have to solve. Then you don’t really do innovation for innovation’s sake, you try to make a product. If it doesn't really solve a problem, we're not gonna put it on the market.”
DPS Skis: Specializing in Carbon Fiber
For a brand like DPS Skis, that problem in the market was a ski that could truly float above deep powder, while remaining an energetic and powerful tool that skiers could rely on for groomer, mogul, or hardpack skiing.
“We just want to make the best damn skis that we can,” says Laakso. “Early on, we had some very giant innovations in shapes and constructions, but now I wouldn't say there are giant technological leaps, but we tweak and we tweak and we make it better and if that ski makes me a better skier, then that's a good innovation.”
DPS has built a loyal fanbase of skiers interested in the innovative use of high-end materials. Unlike many manufacturers that add carbon fiber to a ski just to cut weight, DPS focused its design, engineering, and manufacturing processes around the material and unlocking its beneficial attributes, including low weight, high strength, power, and energy return.
“We’ve definitely taken the high road in terms of engineering the best possible ski that we can think of out of a carbon fiber construction, and there's a very loyal following on that,” says Thomas Laakso, vice president of development for DPS. “When you choose really expensive materials and high-end constructions and you own your own factory, you're ultimately at a higher price point level. But, that hasn't really been a concern for us. [Our products] are for people who are looking for a different feel and an exciting ski that will make them a better skier.”
With the clearly defined goal of utilizing carbon fiber to its full potential, DPS can be purposeful with its product design and focus on tweaking within its already tried and true domain. That’s easier said than done, of course, as carbon fiber has always proven to be a difficult material to work with. But DPS has built its whole process around this difficult task, constructing a United States-based factory in Salt Lake City to help control manufacturing and supply chain and investing in its factory process to better work with these high-end materials.
“Let’s take the hardest known construction known to mankind with carbon fiber. We chose the hardest way possible to build a ski. And as we've built a brand new factory, we've made huge investments in the overall manufacturing side to make it an easier task to build a high-end ski in the U.S.,” says Laakso.
"Making a carbon ski that actually feels planted and damp has been something we've been seeking out for 15 years."
“Making a carbon ski that actually feels planted and damp has been something we've been seeking out for 15 years. How to take a really difficult material and use it for power, control, and energy return. Others still do it wrong; you see carbon skis out there and the fillings are coming out, or people use it just for weight savings. But a DPS ski can hold a mean edge and have certain energy where fiberglass and metal skis just feel lethargic to me.”
In the end, regardless of its materials or design strategies, DPS’s goal remains to produce the perfect turn, whether that’s floating through deep powder or carving a trench on a groomer. It’s about making that dream turn a reality for the end consumer.
Faction Skis: Targeting a Real World Audience
At Faction Skis, they’ve seen firsthand how sometimes being “too innovative” can result in product lapses. Relying on input from professional skier and team athlete Sam Anthamatten, Faction released the Prime series of skis in 2017. While companies often tout how instrumental athlete feedback is in the creation of skis, sometimes, what a pro skier is seeking in terms of ski design doesn’t speak at all to the wider consumer.
“When we analyzed the Prime story in total, the aim was to build a ski which was super progressive in terms of shape; we had a longer tail rocker than in the tip, a five radii sidecut,” says Daniel Tanzer, head of hardgoods for Faction. “It was something that a great skier, like Sam Anthamatten, could ski, but not the greater audience, almost everybody on the planet. Ninety to 95 percent of people were not able to ski it in a good way. You put them on the edge and you didn’t know where the ski was going.”
Faction pivoted, instead of focusing on the niche needs of professional skiers, to building strong skis that would accommodate a wider range of consumers. In turn, with a strong selection of approachable skis, Faction is now able to produce more one-off products that cater to more specialized clientele, like its monoski or mogul skis that lie in its Outcast series. By outlining its core series of skis, the Agent, the Prodigy, the CT, and the Dictator, it has a solid base from which to expand. In the future, Tanzer sees Faction’s innovation lying more in materials use rather than outlandish shapes.
“We have to build solid skis first, that are speaking to a wide audience, not just privy to specialists,” says Tanzer. “It’s a good thing for us, I'm super happy that we have done this quick move. Sometimes, when you make the quick move in two years maybe not everything is perfect, maybe you would do this size split in a different way or make the waist a little bit bigger on some models, but now we have a solid structure that we didn’t have before and we can go from there.”
Icelantic Skis: Embracing Art, Durability, and Sustainability
For Icelantic Skis, based in Golden, Colorado, innovation doesn’t always necessarily come down to specific materials in the manufacturing process. Like DPS, Icelantic has focused on manufacturing products in the United States, a major selling point for many consumers. But, what’s truly set Icelantic apart from its inception in 2004, is its focus on making the art, done by Travis Parr, that adorns each ski’s topsheet an integral part of the product story, and thus, a part of the brand story, as well.
“The art story is a big one that we always try to refresh,” says Ben Anderson, founder of Icelantic. “We were really the first company to take original artwork and put it on skis. We really want to stay true to that and continue to have annual storytelling through visual interpretations to give the customer a little more depth and a little more substance with their product than just a cool image on top of it.”
Anderson admits that Icelantic isn’t at the forefront of monumental design innovation, and that comes with being a smaller ski brand. But, with its Made in the USA ethos and annual invitation for consumers to join into its art stories, it can focus on a few key design concepts that help differentiate it, the first of which is top-notch durability.
“We're definitely not the most technologically advanced company out there,” explains Anderson. “A couple of things that we really do to differentiate is with the overall durability of the product. That's one of our main design strategies, to build a product that is built to last. We want you to buy a pair of skis and have it for years to come, not something that you're going to blow through quickly.”
On top of its durability standards, Icelantic seeks to stand out in terms of sustainability, both in its materials choices and in its commitment to stimulating the local economy through localized manufacturing.
“It’s a combination of working with sustainable materials, but also sustainable processes, building locally, supporting the local economy, and really just keeping that hands-on approach to the manufacturing cycle,” says Anderson.
Dynafit: Democratizing Ski Touring
Brands like DPS, Icelantic, and Sweet Protection have all emerged within the last two decades. But for a company like Dynafit, which has been around since 1950, creativity has been key to continued innovation as it approaches 60 years in business. The brand has been revolutionary in the backcountry ski market, coming out with the Low Tech frameless alpine touring binding in 1984, and, more recently, the Hoji line of ski boots, with innovative Hoji-Lock System, that integrates multiple parts of the shell, allowing them to move in coordination via a single lever of the boot for easy transitions from hike to ski mode. Benedeikt Boehm, general manager of Dynafit, says it’s a slippery slope toeing the line between product advancement and regression.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” says Boehm. “Every day I have to check out with the product managers and make sure they did not invent a problem, and then they have to invent a solution to the problem.”
Where Boehm sees Dynafit’s best path toward continued innovation is more than just developing new products, it’s attracting more skiers to try the sport of ski touring and ski mountaineering. Making that segment of skiing more accessible can ensure long-term success for the industry.
“The main challenge for us in the next two years is to lower the entry barrier for the sport of ski touring, because the sport is still too complex,” says Boehm. “That's where the main innovation will come from. Where our main innovation is coming is to use technology to democratize the sport.”
"The main challenge for us in the next two years is to lower the entry barrier for the sport of ski touring, because the sport is still too complex."
Dynafit is coming out with a program this winter called Unpack and Ski. In a single package, Dynafit is offering a pre-mounted ski with a long adjustment range on the binding, with the climbing skins already attached. With the gear is an easy-to-understand, visually appealing manual that teaches the customer how to use the gear. There’s even an associated video that also instructs the user about how to adjust the binding to the boot. After that, the ski is ready to be taken onto the slope for ski touring. All told, the ski-binding-skin system costs 550 euros, a really attractive price point for beginners, and comes with an extended warranty.
There are numerous avenues that ski brands are taking in terms of innovation in 2020, from specializing in specific materials to democratizing a sector of the sport, from simply tweaking designs to yield incremental benefits to relying on artwork to help tell a story to consumers. Regardless of strategy, the most thoughtful innovations come in solving problems to make skiing easier, not simply creating products that are disconnected from real-world needs that may drum up more issues than solutions.