Editor’s Note: Over the weekend, a friend asked me about how the product-development process works, which reminded me of this post from about a year-and-a-half ago, when the blog was still in its infancy. Many of you were not around then, so I thought I’d bring it to the top because it’s a cool story.
Last week, I was hanging out in the office of my friend Steve Hemkens, the Divisional Merchandise Manager of Orvis Rod & Tackle, when I noticed a jumble of reels on top of a filing cabinet.
“What’s with those?” I asked.
Steve got up and took the five models down off the cabinet and put them on his desk in a line, explaining that each represented a stage in the development of the Mirage series of reels. As he explained how the reel had developed through the research & development process, I thought, “Cool. I have to get this on the blog.”
So I had my colleague Tim Bronson, an exceptional photographer, shoot a picture of each reel and then sent the images to Steve so he could walk us through the steps that led him from the original prototype to the finished product. The reels at opposite ends of the series are astonishingly different. Here’s Steve’s story, a rare behind-the-scenes look at the product-development process:
Step 1: I had the grand plan that we would name this reel the “X Factor,” so I worked hard on a design that had features more suggestive of an X—thus the triangular holes and the very tricky X shape on the drag knob (which, by the way, gave the milling machine a heart attack because the pattern was so complicated to machine). I also though that a bead-blasted Titanium-esque finish would be cool. I WAS WRONG. To steal one from Kurt Vonnegut, it was “uglier than a gut-shot iguana.” But the internal mechanisms of this initial prototype were 90% of what ended up going to market.
Step 2: This version and the reel in Step 1 are the first of six prototypes of the Mirage, which were made in the winter of 2008 and fished continuously for over a year. I had been warned by my collaborator that machining the drag knob in the shape of an X was going to be problematic. As a fall-back position, we made one version that was a simple round knob. You can see where I started to sketch out the now-iconic drag-knob “swirl” with a pencil on these early versions. If you look closely at one of our Spring Fishing Catalogs, you’ll see a photo of my boss, Jim Lepage, with a big tarpon he caught in Florida, and one of these prototypes is in the background.
Step 3: This reel was part of the second round of prototypes, once the field-testing feedback started to come in favorably on the “gray” reels. As you can see, I still wasn’t totally willing to give up on the X Factor concept, even though I moved on from the triangular hole patterns on the spool. You can see from this drag-knob concept that we were trying to do something a little different by putting distinct indents in the knob for your fingertips. However, the testers were lukewarm on the performance improvements, and IMHO it looked awful. This version also confirmed that gold looks better than concrete gray.
Step 4: This picture represents what happened when we gave up on the X-frame idea and went to a design that was more fluid and suggested more movement. Also you can see, the swirl icon on the drag knob, as well as the knurling, come to life. You can also see that the backing is pretty dirty, thanks to the beatdown this reel gave to some Florida Panhandle tarpon in May-July of 2009.
Step 5: This is the preproduction approval sample from the Summer of 2009, just before we launched the reel in January of 2010. Notice the reference detents around the drag knob, and the two-tone finish on the “swirl,” which was a small signature that we made before the reel went to market.
Furthest left in the group picture at the top of this page, you can see a “concept spool” designed for a super-high retrieve, with even more machining around the arbor to decrease weight, as well as a speed handle. I’m not sure if this will go to market or not yet, but it’s a sneak peak at the kinds of things we’re working on.
All images by Tim Bronson.