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Oakley HQ : factory visit

Marc Abbott
6 Oct 2015

The Oakley HQ looks more like a villains lair than a factory, but Oakley's California facility contains the secret to its popularity.

‘Yes that is a real cannon, and yes it has been fired. The fire department was not super-stoked. Why do we have a cannon? The same reason we have a tank I suppose… nobody really knows.’

Military hardware lies at every turn of the 100,000 square-foot (9,300sqm) site of Oakley’s headquarters on the outskirts of the small town of Foothill Ranch, California, and the company’s R&D representative, Stephen de Mille, points out the vintage weaponry in one of the building’s many wide, immaculately kept corridors.

On the driveway to the hilltop facility, visitors are greeted by an Oakley-branded tank aiming over the valley below. Closer to the entrance, a torpedo is mounted in the middle of the car park. A stylised skull and crossbones flag flutters above the building, as if to demonstrate Oakley’s position as the alpha brand in the world of sports eyewear. Don’t mess with Oakley, it seems to say.

Shoot on sight

Oakley HQ reception

Within this grey behemoth are those responsible for every step of the eyewear-producing process, from research, testing, design, engineering and marketing, right down to the 500-strong army that constructs each pair of sunglasses in the company’s on-site manufacturing facility.

On entering, I almost feel I should be retina-scanned, but past the imposing exterior and vaulted reception area it gradually becomes clear that Oakley’s philosophy is the antithesis of the military facade. This company seems to feed off infectious creativity and enthusiasm.

De Mille says the $45 million building was originally intended to be the house of company founder Jim Jannard. In 1975, Jannard created a new kind of handlebar grip for motocross bikes, and this is where the Oakley story began. He soon moved into producing goggles and sports eyewear, and eventually sold the company in 2007 for over $2 billion – enough to build a home that looks like the secret lair of a Bond villain.

We enter a test lab, and De Mille requests I don safety glasses for a demonstration that makes me feel like I’m in the best bit of any Bond film – the scene where Q shows 007 how to shoot a villain from 20 paces with a fountain pen.

Oakley laser test

His presentation of Oakley’s High-Definition Optics starts with a laser test to replicate the left and right eye focusing on a point 15 feet away. To pass, the two red laser dots have to stay together. I’m already visualising sniper sights.

He explains Oakley’s advantage in terms of optics: ‘Our lens material is at its thickest in the optical centre of the lens. Then, as it moves away from the centre, the material becomes thinner. Other manufacturers can only make a lens taper like this horizontally or vertically – they can’t do both at the same time because we patented it in 1989,’ he says. ‘The thickest part of the lens attracts the most light, but by tapering the lens on both axes as you move away from the optical centre, we allow light to come in at its true angle, which creates no distortion whatsoever.’

Holding granules of polycarbonate lens material in his outstretched hand, he adds, ‘Also, we don’t use any glass in our lenses. Although glass tends to provide good optics, it doesn’t provide UV protection. A lot of competitors take a UV filter and sandwich it between multiple glass lenses. This layering process, along with the use of adhesives, causes distortion.’

Oakley impact test

What’s more, glass is not very good at taking an impact, as we’re about to see. I take charge of the R&D lab’s high-velocity impact test, and fire a steel ball bearing at 102mph into the face of a spec-wearing dummy. Wincing as I push the ‘fire’ button, the projectile shatters the glass lenses. Of course, Oakley’s lenses remain intact under the same test. My ballistic abuse of rubber people continues when I drop a pointed steel weight on to another dummy, this one known as Tommy (I wish they hadn’t named him). Again, the Oakleys survive the impact.

Leaving the sealed testing chamber for the manufacturing area of this labyrinthine bunker, we encounter Woody the terrier sitting patiently on his owner’s desk. De Mille explains that employees’ dogs are more than welcome here. ‘The company was actually named after our founder’s dog, an English Setter called Oakley.’

Optic nerve centre

Noise hits us as a door swings open and De Mille leads us into the powerhouse of the operation. Such is the seriousness of the battle for global dominance that we’re asked to lower our weapons (the camera), for fear of what he terms ‘proprietary information’ being leaked. ‘We manufacture everything here,’ he says. ‘We have three eight-hour shifts running 24 hours a day.’

Humming, jumping, buzzing, manically vibrating machinery fills a vast industrial space. Technicians check readouts and punch buttons. This is an atmosphere of total precision.

Oakley dog

‘The raw materials to build one of our iridium coating chambers cost a million dollars,’ says De Mille. ‘Lenses go in face down while a technician uses a computer to choose which minerals to add and how long to keep the lenses in the chamber to get each colour of iridium coating. A vacuum sucks out all the air and vaporises the minerals, which form a molecular bond on the lenses that’s thinner than one molecule.’

Cutting machines bevel lens edges with a diamond tip to create a rounded edge. It has
to be within a tolerance of one 8,000th of a millimetre to meet quality standards. All the lens-cutting machines are named after beers (Stella and Guinness among them), and for quality-control purposes it’s possible to track each lens back to the machine that produced it.

The strangely soothing sound of multi-frequency, ultra-sonic soundwaves emanates from lens cleaning machines. ‘Different frequencies eradicate different sized particles of dust, oil, dirt and fingerprints. This is the cleanest your lenses will ever be,’ says De Mille.

The area reserved for final assembly is like a crime scene tent, plastic sheeting taped from floor to ceiling to keep dust and dirt out. Lenses are popped in, and important people in red tops are there for final quality control.

Oakley Jawbreaker sketch

As we move on, we pass the ‘Ballistic Eyewear’ department. Our guide explains that, behind the tightly locked door, Oakley glasses supplied to the US Special Forces are subjected to even more stringent impact tests – being shot at from multiple angles with 405mph projectiles.

Taking a detour past the office of CEO Colin Baden (who was also the architect of the building for Jannard almost 20 years ago), we peer inside to see a rocket launcher and custom motorcycle. Four ejector seats taken from B52 bombers serve as chairs in the waiting area.

Taking Cav into battle

As Rosie the Staffordshire bull terrier vacates the second-floor conference room, I’m seated before a fan of sketches presided over by Oakley’s director of design, Nick Garfias, and director of concept development Ryan Calilung.

‘Our most recent cycling product, Jawbreaker, was a collaboration, and athlete involvement was really important,’ says Calilung, whose previous work has included Sram’s Doubletap system, and electro-mechanical baby toys. ‘If you want something designed in a primary colour, I’m your man,’ he says.

‘Cav is really technical and gives great feedback. We wanted to give him as much protection as possible, without them being goggles. One of the first inspirations was a samurai helmet. Cav wanted something he could put on to go into battle. I wasn’t allowed to buy the helmet – it was an art exhibit – but it was one of my biggest inspirations.

Oakley designers

‘Cav was there from the start. We checked in with him throughout the process, but I couldn’t get him to sit at my desk for a month and a half… it just wasn’t going to happen. So we took it to the lab. Some of us attempted to sprint while using eye-tracking technology to tell you where you’re looking through the lens. This qualified what it meant to have enough field of view. We found the upward field of view was really important. We saw that a lot of areas of the lens that we thought were important turned out not to be important, so we could add ventilation and a new Switchlock mechanism. Then Nick’s team got involved, to capture the emotion.’

‘When we did the first sketches, if we’d put in everything we wanted it would have been gigantic,’ Garfias says before explaining the first steps of taking a concept to a design: ‘We get a list of technical requirements from the engineers – who it’s for, what it’s for, what it costs, how many pieces there are, what kind of hinges, does it have rubber socks [the bits of rubber on the arms of the glasses that grip the side of your head]? Then we start doing sketches. We’ll hone it down to three of four ideas. We’ll refine for a few weeks until we can solidify our idea and take it to the model shop. Then the modeller will create a crude mock-up, with no mechanical stuff in it. But we’ll consider what the engineering guys tell us.’

The power of the pro

Passing Calilung’s desk en route to Oakley’s backyard test track, he explains how even people who are often working with household names still get star-struck. ‘When I was growing up, Greg LeMond was the first American cycling hero. This picture on my desk was the centrefold from Winning magazine, and I framed it because I always wanted this bike, and have had it on my desk for a long time. One day, our global sports marketing manager, Steve Blick, came up to my desk and said, “I want you to meet somebody.” Greg LeMond was standing right there, and he signed the picture for me.’

Oakley Greg Lemond

LeMond was one of the first pros to adopt Oakley sports glasses, and certainly the one who did the most to make the brand the icon it is today among pro riders. Images of him winning the 1986 Tour de France resplendent in Factory Pilot Eyeshades set the style for the peloton for the next 30 years, and Oakley is well aware of the importance of being connected to the big stars of sport, which is where Steve Blick comes in.

Blick looks after Oakley’s sponsored riders, of which there are a great, yet undisclosed, number. While we talk beside the off-road track he helped dig, multiple mountain bike world champion Brian Lopes does a few runs. ‘Peter Sagan was here on Monday, and I surprised him by introducing him to Brian,’ says Blick. ‘Peter was shitting himself – Brian’s his hero!’

I wonder out loud why there’s a gaping hole in the patio. ‘That’s our barbecue pit,’ Blick smirks. ‘We were trying to figure out how to make eyewear from magnesium, and also having parties out here, throwing pallets of wood on to make fires. Someone threw a great lump of magnesium on there and it didn’t go out – it just burnt a hole straight through the concrete.’

That seems to sum up the Oakley experience – a strange blend of machismo, science and fun. Yet for all its posturing and playfulness, it’s also a business that goes to great lengths to protect its position in the global market. Don’t mess with Oakley. It’s got a tank.

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