Behind the Scenes of Yeti’s Top Secret Innovation Center
By Emily Singer Photo by Travis Hallmark
A version of this article originally appeared in Issue Five of Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “Beyond the Cooler” Subscribe today
It seems impossible that something as mundane as a cooler could become a status symbol among fishermen, rodeo cowboys and tailgating college students. But since 2006, Yeti has been creating products that are so singular in their durability, they manage to transcend their intended purpose.
Yeti’s flagship cooler, the Tundra, wraps two inches of pressure-injected polyurethane insulation inside a virtually indestructible, certified-bear-proof rotomolded plastic body. For the launch of the product, Yeti created a series of YouTube videos pitting the Tundra against a 500-pound strongman, a grizzly bear, fireworks and a supersized slingshot. In all instances, the hard-sided cooler was little more than lightly scuffed — and still wholly functional.
The Tundra’s much-lauded ice retention was, in many ways, a secondary priority. Yeti founders Roy and Ryan Seiders were most concerned with creating a more durable casting platform for their fishing skiff — an alternative to the breakage-prone mass-market coolers they had long been using. Yeti spent two years iterating and improving upon its original hard cooler before arriving at the Tundra in 2008. A decade after Yeti’s founding, the company was valued at $5 billion. The Tundra remains its most recognizable product, and durability continues to form the backbone of everything it creates.
But for Yeti to grow, it couldn’t spend two years perfecting every new product. Prototyping services and destruction testing were outsourced; the back-and-forth communication and sample development took time. Bringing both product development and testing in-house would not only streamline Yeti’s operations, but accelerate them. It would allow the brand greater control over its products, and open doors for what Yeti could create.
And so in August 2016, after more than two years of planning, Yeti opened its Innovation Center, a dedicated prototyping and product-development facility. The unmarked building sits in a corporate office park shared with an engineering lab, a few miles down the road from Yeti’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. The building’s one-way windows conceal a dedicated 10-person product-development team and millions of dollars of equipment — high-powered, complex machinery that most consumer-products companies would only dream of owning.
Yeti’s Rambler drinkware is marketed as “virtually indestructible.” But under 14,000 pounds of force, the insulated stainless steel tumbler crimps down into condensed ridges until it resembles the body of a soup can. Such power is hard to generate short of using a hydraulic press; the only way to see a Yeti product — any of its products — in such a state is to visit the Innovation Center. And even then, Yeti is notoriously protective, to the point of being secretive, of the circumstances in which the remains of destructive testing are seen, and by whom. It’s not just consumers that Yeti is cautious around; only a handful of Yeti employees are aware of the Innovation Center’s existence, and even fewer have access to it.
“What we wanted to do was bring [prototyping and product testing] capabilities into Yeti with the idea that it would significantly speed up the iterative process of design,” CEO Matt Reintjes explains. Previously, the few 3D printers and assorted prototyping machines Yeti owned were housed in any closets, corners and hallways that could be claimed at the company’s headquarters. The 20,000-square-foot, high-ceilinged Innovation Center comes as a dramatic upgrade. “It also gives us the ability to bring what we believe is better innovation to the market. It’s about the speed of development — being able to move products more quickly through the design process. It was a way to control our design and protect our [intellectual property],” Reintjes adds.
As Yeti has gained prominence, copycat brands have emerged. The company has sued both retailers and competitors for patent infringement — Walmart and The Home Depot for selling imitations of its Rambler drinkware, and Bayou Ice Boxes, Mammoth Coolers, and RTIC, among others, for too closely mirroring the Tundra. “We vigorously and actively defend our intellectual property,” Reintjes says. “But we believe that the offensive strategy is to continue to be the innovation leader and to stay ahead.” The Innovation Center has become Yeti’s secret weapon. New designs and materials are contained under one roof until just before launch, allowing Yeti unprecedented control over its products.
With a mix of hand-built customs and manufacturer-made machinery, the space was developed to be maximally versatile — to prototype and test anything; future products and categories included. Speed, too, was a priority. “The number of iterations in testing, prototyping, validation and re-testing has increased dramatically,” says Director of Engineering Scott Barbieri. In the time since Yeti opened the Innovation Center, more than 2,800 distinct prototypes have been produced, with an average of 10–15 each day. A new Rambler silhouette can be generated in wax using a lathe in as little as 30 minutes. Soft-goods patterns, like those used in Yeti’s Hopper Flip coolers, can be laser cut from fabric and sewn into form in a matter of hours. “Previously, prototypes were outsourced to different vendors, taking weeks to turn around,” he adds. “Testing was done at outsourced labs, manufacturer’s labs or at the office sink.” Relying on outside companies left Yeti vulnerable to leaks, and forced the company to relinquish a degree of control over product testing.
Of all the equipment in Yeti’s arsenal, 3D printers, housed together in a walk-in-closet-sized room, have proven to be its most important — and costliest — investment. “[They] speed up our process and also bring products closer to reality,” Barbieri says. With enhanced prototyping capabilities, Yeti is able to create test products that echo the quality of factory samples. Adjusting the size or shape of a design that doesn’t pass muster is as simple as pushing pixels or changing a line of code and resubmitting the file. “Before anyone else in the world sees [a product], we’re able to design it, build it, test it here and have the full design package ready to go,” Barbieri says. The capacity to create higher-quality prototypes earlier in the development process eliminates risk down the road, enabling a previously unprecedented level of confidence in a product’s readiness when it ultimately launches.
In addition to prototyping tools, the Innovation Center houses machines for what Barbieri calls “torture tests,” custom programmed to push Yeti’s products and their individual components to their breaking points. Yeti’s YouTube videos documenting outlandish efforts to destroy its products are made for customer enjoyment; the real destruction happens behind closed doors, off-camera and in a controlled environment — and is much less sexy. Robotic arms put zippers, lids and clasps through their paces 20,000 times in order to mimic a lifetime of use, checking for signs of failure every 1,000 cycles. To test for weather-related deterioration, exterior fabrics and plastics are exposed to months of UV light and humidity, selected to simulate the Florida Everglades, as well as temperatures as low as -30 and as high as 140 degrees Fahrenheit. “All those things that we found out about the Tundra after years and years in the field, we can find out quicker because of the automation and the tools that we have — to make sure that we keep our promise of quality and durability to our consumer,” says Yeti Marketing Director Bill Neff.
Before a product goes to market, Yeti puts prototypes in the hands of its brand ambassadors, all of whom are professional outdoor enthusiasts, for testing. While torture tests reveal breaking points, ambassadors provide insight into the practical nature of Yeti’s products, like the utility of straps or placement of zippers. The newly accelerated design process now gives Yeti the opportunity to involve brand ambassadors in foundational discussions around product development, according to Soft Goods Category Manager Alex Baires. “A big piece of that is just collecting feedback, sitting around a table, asking what’s working, what they’re using and how they’re using it. And some of those conversations result in product ideas for us to look into.” Videographer, surfer and all-around outdoorsman Keith Malloy has worked with Yeti in a product-testing capacity for two years. More than anything else, he says, the Innovation Center shows Yeti’s “dedication and commitment to making the best product possible.”
As Yeti’s product roster has grown, the company has been able to build a catalog of proven methods and materials; this, in turn, helps to streamline product development. In July, Yeti unveiled its first non-insulated pieces: the Panga airtight submersible duffel and the LoadOut bucket. They were among the first products developed in the Innovation Center, and the first manifestations of Yeti’s new prototyping abilities. The LoadOut wasn’t conceived until late 2016, and the Panga, which requires radio frequency welding to bond a watertight zipper to the exterior fabric, “would not have even been considered [for] development in-house due to the specific nature of its construction,” according to Barbieri.
The new products are a departure from what Yeti is known for, but their development was aided and accelerated by materials and methods that Yeti had proven in earlier products.
The Panga was created, in part, after Yeti learned that customers were using its Hopper soft-sided cooler as a dry bag. Building a dry bag could have been as simple as producing a non-insulated version of the Hopper, but Yeti has never been known to take the simple route. “Having something that’s proven doesn’t preclude us from trying other things,” says Baires. “We can have something that works extremely well, but if the application is a bit different, we want to make sure it’s right for that application . . . . We want to keep our options open to make sure we’re not ignoring or discounting something that could be better.” In addition to a similar thermoplastic polyurethane fabric, the Panga and Hopper employ the same proprietary watertight HydroLok zipper — developed exclusively for Yeti by TIZIP and based on zippers that previously had only been used on medical field tents during the Ebola crisis in West Africa — and EVA-molded base. “We tried a couple of different things, but we [kept coming] back to the fact that what we’re doing now worked. It was validation that what we’re doing now is the best approach,” Baires says.
On the other end of the spectrum, the development of the five-gallon LoadOut bucket can be considered a return to Yeti’s origins. “[The five-gallon paint bucket] was something we were using to rinse off reels on our skiffs; it was something we were using to wash our boats,” Hard Goods Category Manager Dennis Zuck said at the unveiling of the LoadOut. “They lived in our lifestyles, but they didn’t really live that long.” In much the same way that the Tundra was a purpose-built reinvention of a product long met with frustration, the LoadOut redefined what a bucket could be. Neff conceded that while something as mundane as a bucket “threw people off,” the LoadOut was simply the result of Yeti paying attention to its audience. “We weren’t trying to convince people that this is what they need; it was us listening to frustrations with what people were already using,” he says.
As Yeti looks to the future, the Innovation Center will prove its most vital asset. “It creates an enormous amount of opportunity [in terms of] places we can go,” Reintjes says. “The hardest thing about being in a growth organization is [making sure] that you are focused on knowing what you should do and deciding what you shouldn’t do. We’ve got to [have] discipline around picking what to focus on and what we’re going to do, and make sure that it fits with the brand and our consumers.”
At the outset, Yeti appealed to hunting and fishing communities with coolers that boasted unprecedented durability. But as the company’s product line has expanded and its reputation spread, other groups — rodeo, barbecue and outdoor enthusiasts — have gravitated toward its tools. What unites the disparate individual needs of Yeti’s new so-called “lifestyle” groups is a hunger for authentic experience, Neff says. “[Each group does] different things, but they have similar traits about them, and it’s this restless spirit that we attach ourselves to because we feel that’s what embodies the ethos of the brand, and that leads us to wherever we’re going to go.” Yeti’s future, then, will be guided by solution-oriented tools built for maximum utility.
Rather than targeting a particular audience, Yeti takes a pursuit-agnostic approach to product design. “It’s about starting from the ground up [and] making a product as best as we can make it, with no compromises,” Baires says, citing the goal of “staying pure to the product.” That means eliminating unnecessary or overwrought details, and constructing a tool that’s familiar, but with renewed utility — an ethos that allows Yeti’s products to be interpreted and employed in any number of ways.
Yeti’s reputation has begun to precede its product. Superlative durability, whether in a bottle opener or hard-sided cooler, has come to be expected. As Yeti broadens its horizons by introducing new categories and attracting new audience segments, its signature marriage of premium materials and true-to-life utility will endure, if not strengthen. “We are significantly focused on how we continue to bring innovation to the market; and that innovation is going to come in a number of different styles,” Reintjes says pointedly. “Some of it is going to come through new categories . . . but they all tie back to this focus on performance, durability, quality, design.”
“We have products in our pipeline that are wholly new to us and have never been done,” he adds. “And they’re not sharing any common materials or design expertise other than the design ethos of Yeti.”
Indeed, Yeti has recently ventured beyond the cooler, launching a durable camp chair called the Hondo, in addition to expanding on the concept of the Panga with an unlined bombproof tote called the Camino. A quick web search also reveals that Yeti has filed a number of patents for products even further outside of its current purview. With each new category launch comes more irrefutable proof of not only the brand’s expansion into broader markets, but of the Innovation Center’s power as a catalyst for new growth. In Neff’s words, “It isn’t about evolving to just become a bigger company, but it is about evolving to put out better product in the marketplace so people can enjoy what they do just that much better.”
It’s gear storage hyperbole; like the bombproof ice vault coolers that gave the brand its original cult following, the GoBox is nigh indestructible, waterproof and dustproof. It is, to use an all-too-common turn of phrase, a Rubbermaid bin on steroids. Read the Story
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