Black Diamond Equipment Scales New Heights with Teamcenter

Black Diamond Equipment is run by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts. Founded 50 years ago as Chouinard Equipment by Yvon Chouinard, a pioneer of what is now called "traditional" rock climbing (Chouinard is also the founder of Patagonia), the company was reorganized as Black Diamond and sold to its employees in 1989. Still employee-owned, Black Diamond focuses on gear and clothing for climbing, skiing and mountaineering. The employee-owners, like their customers, are passionate about these sports.

This intense focus makes for an unusual corporate culture. Populated by devotees of highly individualistic sports, Black Diamond tends to be a freewheeling and creative place. On the other hand, it is dedicated to product accuracy and safety -- as Dave Mellon, Black Diamond's vice president for product, points out: "If a product fails, someone could easily die" -- and it solicits input from its customers as subject matter experts. Customers send back detailed reports about products' performance under challenging conditions.

Operating in this niche market is a high-stakes game. Because hard goods such as ski boots are more costly to design than clothing, and the potential markets are smaller, return on investment takes a long time to realize. "We have to make sure that when we introduce a new product, it's successful," Mellon says. "Innovation and technology move fast -- so the ability to get to market fast is critical. If we've invested $3 million in a ski boot, we can't afford to have it not be successful."

Revamping the product lifecycle
Several years ago Black Diamond began a thorough overhaul of its information systems in order to support the company's growth and use technology more effectively. One of the first functions to be re-engineered was product development.

The company's product lifecycle is inherently complex, not only because input is gathered from so many disparate sources but also because the employees involved in the process are spread among Switzerland, China and Salt Lake City, Utah. To add to the complexity, Black Diamond was using multiple CAD systems for product design and managing the process with a confusing mixture of Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, e-mail and other tools. As a result, Mellon says, "There was no good database of project information, timelines, notes from design team meetings, calendars and CAD drawings." Project coordination depended on continual file sharing -- often of enormous files -- among team members.

The first step in addressing the proliferation of tools was to standardize on NX for most CAD projects. NX, a product of Siemens PLM (known as UGS before it was acquired by Siemens in 2007), was adopted about two and a half years ago. "That let us execute well on the design front," Mellon says, "but we still had all the data outside CAD."

So Black Diamond began searching for software that would help it tame the planning and development process by organizing disparate information in one place and keeping multiple offices and departments on the same page. One important criterion was that the software had to accommodate the legacy CAD drawings, which were in multiple formats.

Meeting implementation challenges
A year after implementing NX, Black Diamond chose another Siemens PLM product, Teamcenter, to manage product development. The company selected two Teamcenter modules: Engineering, which is a CAD data repository, and Project, a project management tool that maintains all project-related information.

Implementing Teamcenter proved to be challenging. The first attempt at a companywide implementation of both modules faltered because of technical glitches. Siemens sent in experts to help re-import some of the historical CAD data and reconfigure some servers. But even though these efforts quickly resolved the technical problems, users were now skittish about the system and reluctant to use it. Some of them also felt it altered the way they worked together -- and not necessarily for the good. Trying to learn two new user interfaces at once (Project and Engineering) was also difficult.

After strategizing with Siemens, Black Diamond managers decided to redeploy Teamcenter in a phased implementation, starting with a single module (Project, whose interface was more intuitive and familiar) and with a limited number of teams and design projects. After some early successes with Teamcenter Project, the second module, Engineering, was re-introduced about 10 months ago. Joshua Dees, Black Diamond's vice president, MIS, says: "We're not completely there yet [in terms of rolling out Teamcenter to the whole company], but we've made huge strides. We now know how we'll do the next product line we want to roll in. We've got our feet under it and we're moving."

Siemens also helped Black Diamond configure Teamcenter to support its unique corporate culture. The software is almost infinitely adjustable in terms of rules for decision making and notification. Dees says: "Because of the bold nature of the people who work here, you have to be careful of how much you infringe on what they do. We don't want to disrupt their creativity. It's a fine balance, and we're getting pretty close to getting it right."

A platform for innovation
Once Black Diamond began using Teamcenter in product design, the software quickly proved its worth as a "platform for the innovation process," as Siemens PLM senior director Dan Staresinic refers to it. Mellon says there are fewer miscommunications because updated information is readily available in the project folder. Downstream participants in product planning, sourcing, manufacturing, quality assurance and product marketing don't have to wait to be informed about the product design schedule -- they can see it for themselves. Better communications mean greater accuracy in design.

Teamcenter also speeds up the design process. Black Diamond recently completed a major ski-boot project, with design teams in Salt Lake City and China passing work back and forth between them like runners in a relay race. Even though the project involved more CAD data and related information than any previous Black Diamond project, Teamcenter enabled smooth handoffs and round-the-clock design work.

"The tool allows you to tie commentary to the drawing -- like: "I changed these five things because of these test results," Mellon explains. "All that data is interconnected, and the interconnection is where you get the huge efficiency." As a result, designers were able to meet a trade show deadline that allowed them to introduce the ski boots a year ahead of the original schedule.

Another reason Teamcenter projects move faster, Dees says, is that the software helps designers identify critical-path tasks and communicate more clearly about them. As a result, projects are less likely to be held up waiting for these tasks to be completed.

Black Diamond's in-house manufacturing teams are already using Teamcenter to help them prepare for new and redesigned products coming down the pike. Eventually, the company hopes to include its outsourced factory partners in the loop as well. "We haven't opened up that port yet, because we've been continuing to evolve and refine how we work with it," Mellon says. "But that's the next level where we see it going."

Masha Zager is a New York City-based free-lance writer who specializes in business and technology.

systems at a glance1
* CAD: Autodesk Alias Studio (formerly Alias), Adobe Creative Suite, Siemens PLM NX
* E-commerce: Magento
* ERP and CRM: Microsoft Dynamics NAV (formerly Navision)
* Forecasting: Demand Works Smoothie
* Internal Reporting: In-house system using .NET and Crystal Reports
* PLM: Siemens Teamcenter
* Warehouse Management: Accellos WMS (formerly Radio Beacon)

1Several of these systems are still being implemented
This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds