Not everything has to be made by robots in China. Take Ski Trab for example. I enjoyed an extensive Ski Trab factory tour while in Europe this past January (as well as being guided by Trab on a World Cup randonnee race spectating jaunt). Trab was founded by and is still owned by the Trabucchi family, hence the name. They’ve been hand crafting skis for more than sixty years, and are known for innovations such as perfecting fiberglass skis and refining the use of honeycomb core material, not to mention so many rando race podium finishes they’ve lost count.
Trab’s factory is located in Bormio, Italy, gateway to a vast region of big mountains known for their randonnee racing culture as well as features such as Passo Stelvio’s 57 road switchbacks, which form the hardest leg of the Giro D’Italia bicycle race. Perhaps most importantly to the essence of Trab skis, Bormio is a functional admixture of the old and new. The core village is still a medieval cluster of impossibly narrow streets and dark stone buildings with earthy characters leaning against exterior walls smoking hand rolled cigs, while in outlying areas you’ll find everything from modern ski resorts — to, yes, state-of-art ski factories.
I arrived for my two day visit in the evening. Trab was still going strong with retail; co-owner Adriano ringing up a couple of customers who sported nice new Trab skis graced with Dynafit and ATK bindings. What struck me the most was how the retail and factory were snuggled together in a nice looking building with the trad look of a traditional farm house. It’s hard to imagine a complete ski factory on the premises, but it is there.
What strikes you about the Trab factory is indeed their the mix of old and new. They’ve got aproned and gloved layup craftsman hand-assembling skis just down the hall from here, but the Unigraphics software living on their computer system is state of art. Screen above shows the process of computer designing a ski mold, which is then monoblock machined out of a solid chunk of steel — on the premises.
The molds end up costing around $10,000 each, so they don’t pump ‘em out willy nilly. But the cool thing is these guys can spend however long they choose to design a ski, then with the click of a mouse have a mold made and be baking prototypes before their next espresso. Along with that, they’ve got 50 years worth of measurements and tests incorporated into the software. They’re not just designing the latest and greatest, but rather continuing a methodical and incremental process that gets proven results. What’s more, with such sophisticated software Trab can play around with designing cool things such as integrated skin attachments systems.
The computers help with weight control as well. The exact mass of materials and layers is programmed in, so weight can be easily tuned by material choices — without making physical prototypes. Catalog images come direct from the computer as well (instead of artist drawings), saving resources that can better be put towards research, design, and manufacturing.
Trab’s test facility has the clean looks of a medical research lab. After getting lined out on the array of test machines, all I could think is that these guys are serious about their planks. Way serious.
Adriano explained that they’ve been through a ten year period of modernization. They’ve now got the software and physical plant to compete with companies such as Atomic, but differ by focusing more on design innovation and quality, rather than quantity.
Critical mission for Trab is to make skis as light as possible that still perform. To accomplish that, they use seeminly endless combinations of carbon and glass fibers, as well as honeycomb from the aerospace industry. My experience with their skis is that while they might not be as etherial as a 100% carbon ski such as Goode, they indeed offer a killer combo of performance/weight that’s definitely second to none.
After checking out the R&D stuff, it was time for visiting the actual manufacturing plant. No photos allowed, so I’ll have to exercise my writing muscles. The way it works is actually pretty simple. They have these big steel magnetic tables for the ski molds, which hold the edges and mold solid while a craftsman builds a layer cake of specified materials. The tables don’t look that different from a workshop bench, though they have a slot that holds the lower half of the mold.
Everything is soaked with resin as it goes in, the top goes on the mold, and the cake gets placed in a huge hydraulic press. This consists of a large rectangular frame about eight feet high. The molds are held in the frame, with hydraulic pressure applied from a row of rams that look like those on a front end loader or backhoe. When the ski comes out it’s actually pretty ragged, so it goes through a trimmer that cleans off the edge excess, then is run through the factory tuner. Result is a beautiful combination of hand crafting and high tech.
In all, I was truly impressed by the corporate culture of Trab. They combine old world craftsman with whiz bang tech such as their Unigraphics computer system, and pull it all off in good style. Apparently, not everything needs to be made by robots in China.