March 03, 2020 7 min read 175 Comments
Recently we invited local customers to meet us and take a tour of our facility. Customers were excited and surprised with just how much manufacturing we do right here. They saw skilled people working with lasers, custom machines built by our own engineers, looms, knitting machines, robots, and more. It seemed to strike a chord with people. We realized we do a poor job communicating our purpose and why we work so hard to make things ourselves. This year we’re opening up and talking about our past, our principles, our current struggles, our future products, and what it takes to Manufacture in America. We’d love to have you join us! Happy 2020!
BJ in his basement, melting straps in his homemade, version 1.0 cardboard melting station.
Hi, my name is BJ Minson. I started GRIP6 five years ago with a vision of a company that created things that were simple, functional, long-lasting, made in the USA, and that people loved. We started with a belt.
As a father of five young children, I felt like I was throwing out broken toys constantly. I have a low tolerance for waste and it bothered me more and more over time. I began to notice most products, not just toys, were cheap, low quality, and disposable.
I was also dismayed by the lack of products being made domestically. Almost nothing in retail stores had a “Made in the USA” label. Something didn’t feel right. After some research, I discovered that manufacturing is vital to economic strength. Over the last half century, the United States has been slowly losing its manufacturing infrastructure and know-how. Watching the United States slowly and steadily lose that vital competency made me concerned that we weren’t thinking properly about our future. Losing knowledge is losing power.
Doing Something About It
I needed to do something. As an engineering student, I loved product design and manufacturing. So when I designed a unique belt that worked well, I saw an opportunity for a step toward making a difference. At the time, Kickstarter was peaking in popularity. I made a short video of my new belt and 30 days later, with no marketing, I had an order for 10,000 belts.
So I started GRIP6 and was excited to get to work making the new belts. I quickly realized I couldn’t make 10,000 belts by myself. I began looking for domestic factories to weave, cut and sew webbing as well as metal shops to cut and bend the buckles. I was committed to making the belts and sourcing the materials all in the USA.
The original Kickstarter campaign page.
What came next was... enlightening. The companies I contacted took weeks to respond. When they finally did, their pricing was high and timelines were months long. At their quoted prices, I would lose money making the belt. However, most of the manufacturers gave me another option; they could guide me through the process of using Chinese factories. It was far more affordable and they pushed the option on me as the most desirable. I found it strange they were so willing to give business away to their competition. In other words, even the manufacturers were telling me I couldn’t do it without China. If that was true, my concerns about making things in the USA were right. US manufacturing wasn’t competitive.
I felt I had two options; I could follow my principles and lose money by making it in the USA or make it overseas for a profit. The frustrating thing was that I wanted to give someone my business and they didn’t even want it! Why was it so expensive and slow? The raw materials were a tiny fraction of the price. Even factoring in the labor costs, it didn’t add up. I got the impression they just didn’t want to do it.
I was struggling - I wanted to make a product and start a business, but I wanted to do it the way I thought was right. I guess I’m stubborn that way. I’d rather have refunded the money to the Kickstarter backers than make a low quality, outsourced product.
My Moment of Truth
There was one more option. I knew it deep down but it was scary. I could do it myself. In fact, I had planned to do that all along. I specifically designed the belt to be simple enough that I could make it in my garage. But that was when I was planning to sell a few hundred belts, not 10,000. I had no experience as a manufacturer and I had no equipment. And 10,000 belts is a lot! If I could make a belt every 5 minutes, it would take 833 hours of labor. That’s 40 hours per week for 5 months! It was a sobering thought, but it became clear that this was the only way to make these in the USA. I needed an industrial sewing machine and a vibratory tumbler.
BJ’s basement during the kickstarter project. A portion of the 10,000 straps organized by size and color.
Fortunately the math worked in my favor. The machines would easily be paid for with this first batch. I began to accept my fate. This would be tough, but I could do it, especially if I could convince some foolish friends to help.
It’s an understatement to say that the next six months were pure hell. It was literally the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. My friend Winslow (and now co-owner) and I worked a full shift at night after our day jobs. It was tedious manual labor week after week, month after month. Winter set in and the garage was frigid. We were exhausted, but six months later, we delivered our first batch of 10,000 belts. They looked pretty good for being made in a garage. What’s more, the feedback was great. Customers loved them and were asking to buy more. It was a proud moment for us.
As we moved forward with our in-house manufacturing plans, more seasoned “business people” continued telling us it was a losing strategy. We heard over and over, “You’ll never make it” and “it won’t scale”. This of course only made us double down to prove them wrong. It took us a while and we made mistakes along the way, but we figured out a way to manufacture our belts in the USA.
Making the belts ourselves, while challenging, provided some immediate benefits. We had direct control over the quality. We made sure we only produced and sent the best products we could make. Over time, we improved, got faster and reduced mistakes. Our product got better as we made changes based on customer feedback and testing. None of those improvements would have happened if someone else was making our belts.
What Works For Us
From the very beginning, we learned that purchasing machines and producing as much as we could in-house kept our costs low. Early on, I built custom hand tools that would make us faster. Later, we built custom machines to make our slowest and most tedious processes faster. We expanded from manual machines to more automated ones. Now we have a handful of excellent engineers and a machinist that work together to build our next generation production machines. About once each year we redesign our main production machines and replace them. Each iteration is more automated, takes fewer labor hours and improves the consistency and quality of the product.
Our buckles going through the tumbling process.
Whenever possible, we purchase our own machines. In almost all cases, we are able to do it faster, better and for less cost than outside companies. It’s a demanding approach because it forces us to learn completely new things, but it’s rewarding. In the few years we have been in business we have purchased and become proficient using lasers, knitting machines, looms, grainers, tumblers, robots, vision systems, lathes, CNC mills, press brakes, plastic injection mold machines, boarding machines, and clicker presses. Additionally, our engineers have designed and built dozens of manual and automated machines.
Domestic Manufacturing Today
Our motivation to grow American manufacturing isn’t about bringing back jobs that were lost or isolating ourselves from global trade. We enjoy doing it and believe it’s unwise to give up too much manufacturing knowledge and ability. We’re trying to demonstrate that American businesses can be competitive in a high-tech, global economy. We understand successful manufacturing doesn’t look the same as in the past. We believe winning strategies will include modern tools like 3-D printing, robotics, automation, and in-house marketing. Domestic manufacturing is not impossible or impractical. Staying competitive is vital to our economy, our future, our independence and our spirits.
At GRIP6 our mission is to create high quality products that last decades and to strengthen domestic manufacturing. What you buy from us with your hard-earned money should be something you love and want to use daily for the rest of your life. We know it’s a lofty goal, but it is something we strive for. This approach has worked for belts and we believe it can be applied to other products. Our intent is to be more than a belt company.
Get to Know Us
I hope you will get to know us better and allow us to earn your trust. I’m excited about this year as we continue stepping outside our comfort zones and introduce new products. Please join us on the journey as we make new products and bring new processes in house. Follow us as we struggle, misstep and learn. We usually get much better as we go along :).
Thanks for your time! Also, we’d love to hear what you think about our products and our approach!
Next time... We’ll be talking about one of our newest additions to the GRIP6 product family... High Quality Wool Socks!