By Jon Gaffney
on 5.29.14
Photo by JG

W
alking into Thule’s U.S. Headquarters in Seymour, CT, it’s obvious that this is an outdoor company. There’s a bike room to store the road and mountain rigs of Thule employees who commute. Just outside the building a few guys are drenched in sweat, holding mountain bikes and knocking on the door — looks like they’ve forgotten their key cards. It turns out it’s the president of Thule U.S. and a few other senior executives back from a hard lunch break ride on Thule’s on-campus single track. Sweaty handshakes exchanged, they promise me their lockout wasn’t a little bit of pre-tour theater, and the quick interaction makes one thing clear: Thule isn’t just a company making outdoor products; it’s a company of outdoor people making products to best serve their peers, and they’re not messing around.

MORE BEHIND-THE-SCENES COVERAGE Aboard Lufthansa’s Boeing 747-8 | Visiting the Highland Park Distillery | Photo Essay: Timecrafters

If you’re into the outdoors and own a car, chances are you own or have owned a Thule product for hauling your skis, bikes, kayaks and other outdoor gear. A Swedish company, Thule was founded in 1942 by Erik Thulin, and his first product was metal grills to save headlights (they used to be made of glass) from being shattered by rocks. In 1962, Thule released their first roof-mounted rack, for skis, and have been modifying and adding to the system since then. Thule’s presence in the U.S. market took an important turn in the 1970s, when the gas crisis led to car design that included fewer universal rails in favor of aerodynamics and gas mileage. This small change proved pivotal for Thule: now every car might need unique mounting hardware. Recognizing this opportunity, as well as differences in sporting interests between the U.S. and Europe, Thule decided to set up a headquarters in Seymour, CT.

From the start, Thule U.S. was given a large amount of autonomy from its Swedish parents. This has resulted in a Swedish company that takes great pride in being American made. Of the products Thule sells in the U.S. market, nearly 80 percent are made in the States, much of them in the Seymour factory or in facilities in Pennsylvania and Chicago. U.S. product development and testing are also carried out almost exclusively here in Seymour.

The factory floor at Thule doesn’t feel like factories of yore. There’s a lot of light and it’s very clean. People are smiling and laughing as they assemble a variety of rack systems. Each assembly station is set up with an eye toward ergonomics, with mats on the floor and tools suspended from overhanging arms to minimize repetitive picking up and putting down motions. Each assembly station is completely flexible and can be used to assemble whichever Thule product is in the highest demand. Had a light winter in the Northeast and ski racks aren’t selling? No problem. Switch to bike racks.

The factory floor at Thule doesn’t feel like factories of yore. There’s a lot of light and it’s very clean.

Down in the R&D lab, Thule’s engineers rule over the life and death of new products. For Thule that doesn’t just mean new racks, but also making old racks compatible with new products, which are drawn up and brought to life with onsite rapid prototyping using 3-D printing, CNC machines and welding. From there life gets a little harder for Thule products, because the majority of the R&D lab is also a veritable gear torture chamber. There’s a salt water tank, a temperature tank for both extreme heat and cold, UV exposure, drop testing and a device that replicates the rattling of driving thousands of miles in a day — all dedicated to breaking that which the engineers have built. Should a product successfully run this gauntlet, it’s strapped to the roof, hatch or tow hitch, overloaded and then sent to the local race track, where it’s tested in “real world” situations. All of Thule’s engineers go to professional driving school when they’re hired, so if they can’t get the rack to come flying off, the hope is you can’t, either.

All of this manufacturing and testing runs up a serious electric bill, and as an outdoor company full of outdoors people, this created an opportunity for what might be the HQ’s crowning achievement. A narrow yellow ladder above the factory floor leads to the facility’s roof, where the bucolic Connecticut landscape can be seen stretching away in all directions. This hilltop location affords a great view, but more importantly it means consistent access to sunlight, making it an ideal spot for a massive solar array. More than 1,800 solar panels installed up here provide clean energy for 29 percent of the facility’s yearly electrical needs — a staggering amount, when you consider what kind of wattage a team of electric robotic welders must be using.

Walking amongst the panels you can look out and see the single-track biking trails that Thule continues to expand on their grounds and the parking lot filled with employee cars sporting racks carrying bikes and other outdoor toys. It’s often said that it’s best not to see how the sausage is made, but in this case we were glad to get a behind-the-scenes look at a company that’s been, in a small way, a part of our lives since we started camping, biking and skiing. What’s found at this Swedish-owned facility in Seymour is promising for the future of quality products and for manufacturing in America.

FILED UNDER ,