“I think you’ve got the wrong guy.”
Those were the words of Eric Zagorski, when I first said I wanted to interview him. As the Manager of Manufacturing Engineering, his is not typically the first role you might think of when celebrating 50 years of Therm-a-Rest. In reality though, Eric and his team are magic makers. The fact that his role even exists provides some insight into why Therm-a-Rest innovations have been setting the standards for comfort, quality and performance for fifty years. His position stands as a testament to our commitment to making what we sell and staying ahead of the pack via a deep well of collective, in-house knowledge.
As with many employees, Eric’s first encounter with a Therm-a-Rest pad was on the ground outside. “…my first Therm-a-Rest mattress was a Prolite™ pad. I originally bought it as I was getting the hang of backpacking in the hills just north of NYC, though the best trip I took it on was definitely a cross-country bike tour.” Though an avid cyclist, (“It’s rude to ask home many bikes I own,” he coyly reminded me), Eric adds, “Chances are, if you can do a sport in the PNW, I’ve likely tried it…Why live here if you’re not going to take advantage of [it]?”
A little more than eight years ago, Zagorski came to Therm-a-Rest as a project manager for the machine shop, where custom parts are made for our manufacturing machinery in Seattle, WA. Eric went on to manage both the Tool and Dye shop and the Fabrication Shop. From there, he brought his wealth of experience to managing the Manufacturing Engineering Department.
“I’d say we have two main roles as Manufacturing Engineers. The first is to help shape a new product’s design to make sure it is optimally cost-effective and efficient to produce. Then, after a production line is up and running, we then spend the rest of our time finding ways to make our products more efficiently with less labor, less waste, less downtime, etc.”, says Zagorski.
Mirrored throughout the organization, Eric’s path is representative of a key benefit to manufacturing in-house. This idea of promoting from within allows Therm-a-Rest the opportunity to put people in roles who have much to offer from seeing and being involved in the process from many different angles over time.
This also leads to another advantage of building things yourself: the ability to have a direct impact on every step of the process, making decisions based on your own ethical standards of business as well as what’s ultimately best for the finished product. Zagorski explains, “Material choices for all of our production equipment, machinery, fixtures, jigs, dies, etc. are all decided by the Manufacturing Engineering Team.”
Hand-in-hand with that, Zagorski adds that making and designing what you sell, “…allows us to catch quality issues immediately as opposed to opening up a shipping container full of sub-par goods you need to scrap. It also allows us to be able to repurpose excess or left-over raw materials into custom product offerings for our retailers. Having our production equipment so close at hand also allows our teams to rapidly iterate and create product designs that get the most out of our equipment. For instance, our Stratacore foam is made on a machine that was originally purposed for another task, but with a small amount of tinkering we were able to bring a new generation of foam technology to market.”
With a clearer picture of the advantages to making your own products and the value of Eric and his team’s role there, we moved on to discuss their role in the product development side of the equation.
Imagine a few designers sitting around, bouncing ideas back and forth and dreaming big. At some point, the dreamers need a reality check on feasibility, and they get it from the Manufacturing Engineering Department. They are the ones that take those big ideas and see how feasible it is to actually turn them into something tangible.
“Occasionally we are asked to provide one liter of water that can’t be heavier than half a kilogram so, yes–from time to time I need to be the wet blanket”, says Zagorski. “Generally speaking though, our design process is more collaborative between our Product Line Managers, Design Engineers, and Manufacturing Engineers. With unlimited time and money most anything is achievable, but our goal is to find the balance of the most compelling product, offered at a reasonable cost, that can be launched quickly enough to stay ahead of the competition.”
When it comes to pushing the envelope–both in technology and manufacturing–Zagorski is quick to cite the NeoAir® pad manufacturing machines. “They blew my mind”, he says. “They create an incredibly complex structure to achieve strength and warmth with minimal weight in an impressively novel way.”
On the flip side, one of the more unique things about Them-a-Rest is the running of machines that are older than many of the people on the production floor. As Zagorski points out, the oldest machines make the longest-running products, and those are the Z-Rest® and RidgeRest® pads. “Those lines were optimized years ago,” he says with a grin, “They’re so old that much of the design predates our CAD system so, if we need to replace parts, I need to find the velum [drafting paper] part-drawings like some sort of caveman!”
Suffice to say, Eric has a pretty cool job and plays an invaluable role in building your outdoor comfort. Knowing just how integrated all of the processes are–from ideation to shipping finished product out the door–it’s hard to understate the benefits of being able to build what you sell.
However, as cool as Eric’s job is, when I ask what part of his job he would focus on exclusively if given the chance, he’s got one easy answer: “Field testing.” Designing and building new machinery was a close second, just as they should be.