Product lifecycle. This is a term that we dwell on quite a bit as we go about our business day-to-day. To make great products, each stage of the product lifecycle must be imbued with integrity and quality. The product lifecycle is most often thought about in terms of design, materials and manufacturing. Less considered, are our involvement with the product after it has been shipped out and is in the hands of our customers. To us, the cycle does not end there, not even close.
Which is why I sat down with Iris Diligencia—Supervisor of the Cascade Designs Repair Shop and preeminent global expert on sleeping pad repair—to talk about what we do in that latter stage of the product lifecycle: when it comes back to us for some tender love and care. Make no mistake, Iris’ expertise isn’t limited to sleeping pads. She and her team are responsible for servicing gear from all five of the brands in the Cascade Designs family. A lot goes on in the Repair Shop, so we decided closer look at what happens and the remarkable woman who makes the place go was a good idea. Enjoy!
What is your name and current position at Cascade Designs?
How long have you been with Cascade Designs and in what role did you start?
Oh man, I was looking back and I’ve been here for nine years—and that’s wild when I think about it. I started in 2013 as a seasonal technician in the Repair Shop. It was kind of crazy for me, because I’d come from seasonal work; I had just come off a trail building gig, I was working on farms, and doing some guiding as well. I had been doing that for a couple years and when I got the job at Cascade I thought was just going to be in for the season…and then here I am. I ended up staying for the long haul!
So, you’ve always been in the Repair Shop here. When did they make you the supervisor?
I don’t exactly remember [laughs], but I’m pretty sure it was circa 2015/2016. I think you would remember…
I started [on the Warranty Team] in summer 2017…
Was I a supervisor then?
Yes. Yes you were.
It’s weird to think I was the supervisor of the team back then. Two of my co-workers in the shop were like the king and queen of repairing everything! But I suppose I was down to do the computer work and go walk on carpet every once in a while.
Now that we cleared that up, let’s do a fun question: what was your first ever experience with a Therm-a-Rest product?
Back in the 80’s my family used to go on these camping and fishing trips, like over at Deception Pass is a place we often went. At first my parents had me sleep directly on the ground, because I was a kid and I needed to toughen up, or something. But one year, my dad got these closed-cell foam pads, and I didn’t know they were Therm-a-Rest, but they changed my life back then.
I thought they were amazing! I was like, “oh my god, I’m not on the ground!” I had what felt like a quarter of an inch of foam between me and the ground, and I was super happy. Looking back, I’m like, “wow, things have gotten a little bit thicker since then…”
You were sleeping on the ground!? So, did it build character?
Not really! But it’s all about perspective. My family got into camping in the mid 80’s, so I think the pads my dad got were RidgeRests, which came out around then. The RidgeRest was a huge upgrade, because I didn’t know that there was more comfort than just the ground. Then, in the 90’s, I upgraded even more and got a Therm-a-Rest GuideLite self-inflating pad. You put a little air in it, get about an inch off the ground, and all of the sudden you realize how much more comfort there is beyond a RidgeRest.
Let’s talk about the Repair shop. Who is on your team and what does the staff look like day-to-day in there?
I have five people that work with me in Repairs. We have: Da Lan, Thai, MJ, Steven and Liam. Often, we will have a person from the Warranty Team rotate in here to help out.
When I started on the Warranty Team, we weren’t cycling into the Repair Shop to help out. Is that standard now?
I wouldn’t say it’s standard, but it’s a necessity. We don’t really want to pull from that team, because they have so much to do in their own right, but right now we have A LOT of repairs that need to get done, especially Therm-a-Rest repairs.
I regularly arrive in the morning and there’s racks stacked 8-10 feet high with pads waiting to be fixed, and completely full racks of pads hanging in air hold test waiting to be processed and returned to customers. And that’s just Therm-a-Rest pads; we have 4 other brands we support.
That leads into my next question pretty well. About how many sleeping pads get repaired per year?
We fix about 2,000 sleeping pads a year, but that doesn’t equate to how many pads actually come in. Some that we see are replaced under the warranty, but we try our best to repair as many as possible.
Also, not every pad repair takes the same amount of time. Some have a single puncture, others have several. We typically fix up to ten punctures, but sometimes we take it personally and end up fixing more than ten. Some pads are straightforward punctures, while others have tears and require more TLC. Over the years we have learned and evolved our methods to be able to successfully fix the vast majority of pads that get sent in.
So far, we have essentially just been talking about sleeping pads, but there’s a lot of other things going on in the Repair Shop. What is a typical day in the Repair shop like for you?
The beginning of my day starts with a large cup of coffee and walking around the shop assessing how much is in Incoming—how many packages we need to check in. Currently we have ten carts full. Then I look at all the different repairs that need to be done. How many snowshoes are on the shelf? How many stoves? How many water filters? How many tents? How many tent poles? etc.
Once I take a visual inventory, I’ll assign a repair technician to specific brand or category of gear to focus on for the day. For today, we have someone on water filtration, MJ is doing stoves, Thai is checking packages in, and Da Lan is sewing.
This team works really well together, and everybody is competent fixing all the gear. If we have a bottleneck of, say, stoves, I can put any two techs on stoves and the work will get done.
Ultimately, each day we have to adjust to what comes in and what the demand is, and Cascade makes a lot of different gear. Though, I’d have to say that Therm-a-Rest is the most demanding brand from a repair perspective. We have to have somebody dunking and repairing pads every day just to keep up.
You are hands on, fixing gear as needed, but you are also responsible for the behind the scenes administrative work that keeps the place running. Can you tell us a bit about what it takes?
Much of it revolves around ordering all the small parts that keep the shop going. It’s a lot of inventory management. I work a lot with manufacturing and shipping people in order to get supplied. I also have open channels of feedback to the Product Line Managers and we constantly discuss how gear is being damaged, what the best way to repair something is, etc. There’s a lot of knowledge about real world use of our gear in the Repair Shop.
I also run our sister shop up in Canada and keep them supplied with parts. It’s all about parts. When you think about all the different gear we make, and that all of that gear is composed of many distinct small parts… sometimes it makes my head spin.
COVID has caused supply chain issues for just about everyone, you too I take it?
Absolutely, and unfortunately it slows down our turnaround times. Normally, we shoot for 6 to 10-week turnaround times, which is pretty good given our resources. A lot of other warranty and repair centers in the outdoor industry are in that window as well. Recently however, our turnaround times are slowing down and 10 to 14 weeks is common. I wish we could repair everything that comes in, and do it super-fast, but that’s just not the case. Lately, several key small parts are simply not available, and some gear repairs we just can’t do, which is frustrating. Coupled with the fact that I have never seen so much damaged product coming in and we’ve had to deal with extended COVID absences of staff… it’s been hectic trying to stay afloat.
With more gear coming in than ever before, do you ever see some early Therm-a-Rest models? The first ever Therm-a-Rest was the Therm-a-Rest Standard ¾, ever see any of those coming through the shop?
Ah yes, the orange pads with the metal valves. Those come in all the time. I actually have one hanging for its air hold test right here. We see them on a weekly basis. There’s a lot of people out there that just keep those things going.
We’ve come a long way with our sleeping pad designs, but we’re still repairing the first ever self-inflating sleeping pad we invented and released 50 years ago. How have sleeping pad repair techniques evolved over time?
When I first started, we were using a polyurethane hot melt adhesive—we applied it with a glue gun—and manually cutting custom patches from swathes of sleeping pad fabric. But to fix a pad, the adhesive needs to spread out and create a seal with enough of a radius around the puncture to last a long time. As it cooled, the hot melt adhesive was bad at spreading out. So, we had a lab oven in which we heated up ‘hot blocks.’ After applying the adhesive and placing a patch over it, we weighted it with a hot block in order to spread the adhesive around, and then also had to move the patches around a bit with our fingers to spread it out even more. Finally, we would weight it with a cold block as we waited 45 minutes for it to cure.
Imagine doing that for every single puncture that is found. You just hope you found every puncture on the pad in the first dunk, which often is not the case.
We were doing that for a long time, but a few years ago ee blew that process up. Now we use GearAid’s Aquaseal + UV™ Adhesive and it’s changed my world here! With the UV glue, we find the punctures, put a little dot of glue on them, spread it out a bit then shine a UV light on it and it cures in seconds. We don’t need fabric patches anymore, because the glue dot is so small.
I imagine the UV adhesive has increased the speed with which you can repair sleeping pads?
Oh my god, I couldn’t imagine where we would be without it. So, so far behind. As it is, the default state of the Repair Shop is playing catch-up these days. That’s just the reality of how much gear we have to process. Fortunately, we found, tested and implemented the UV method at a time when we saw a spike in the amount of gear coming in. If we had to wait 45 minutes for each puncture repair to cure…
How much do you work with the engineering and design teams on refining repair techniques for our gear?
One of the best parts of this team is that we are always experimenting and thinking of ways to improve how we repair. We have the mindset that there is always a better way. The product people don’t tell us what to do, so a lot of it is us using our experience to try new things and see what works. If we think we’re on to something, we always check with the product teams to see if we can use certain materials, such as a new adhesive.
I’m grateful for the freedom that we have in here. It allows us to be flexible.
That flexibility is probably important because the product people are busy dreaming up new materials and construction techniques that then have consequences on how a piece of gear gets repaired. An example that comes to mind is the stretch knit fabric that we use on pads like the MondoKing™ and the Trail Pro™. What do you think about stretch knit?
I love sleeping on it, but from a repair perspective, I think I hate it. The soft, woven nature of the polyester makes it so comfy, but more challenging to identify punctures and bond with the adhesive. But still, we make it happen.
Do you mind walking us through the lifecycle of a sleeping pad repair? What all happens from when it arrives to when it gets shipped back out?
Everyday, someone is going through the carts, opening the packages and checking the gear into our system. At this stage a pad will be given a work ticket, and put in a pile of pads ready to be dunked. From there, we work through that pile, and the pad will be dunked.
We do our best to find all the punctures on the first dunk; marking them with little pointed bits of duct tape. Then we hang the pad and let it completely dry. After it’s dry, we apply UV glue to each of the punctures. Because we don’t have to wait for it to cure really, we can quickly air it up and hang it for an air hold test for 24 hours.
We’ll come in the next day, and check to see if the pad has held air. If it’s held, then it sits for another 24 hours, then we check again. If at any point to during the air hold test we find the pad has lost air, then we re-dunk it and look for more punctures, dry it, fix it and hang it up again to be tested. For a pad to be rolled, packed and shipped back out, it needs to pass the 48 hour air hold test at a certain PSI. Each sleeping pad model has a PSI that we test to.
I have just one more question, what would you tell all the sleeping pad owners out there about caring for their pads based on everything you’ve seen in the repair shop over the years?
The one thing that I would say is to keep your pads clean. After a trip or after a season, wash it down with some soapy water. Keeping it clean—free of dirt and body oils—is the best thing you can do to extend the life of your pad.
Also, how could I say just one thing really, do hang tests. Air up your pad and hang it for 48 hours to check for leaks. When you use the pad, its mostly just inflated overnight, then rolled and packed up again. We see a lot of very tiny punctures with gradual leaks, that are less noticeable unless you give it time.
Well Iris, thank you for your time and happy patching!
No problem, see you around!