Black Diamond was born out of litigation so it’s no surprise that the company has a very rigorous approach to making quality gear. They do relentless testing and employ a sizable Quality team. They firmly believe there is no such thing as a small change.

That’s why one might wonder about the rationale behind creating a manufacturing plant in Zhuhai, China, a country often criticized for producing poorly made goods. The short answer is: The product hasn’t changed. Black Diamond has been fabricating parts in Asia for decades.

Aug 2015 Update: Since this post was written, Black Diamond moved all of their rock climbing hardware production back to the US. Bags, poles, headlamps, etc are still made overseas, but the entire climbing hardware process is back in Salt Lake City, Utah, even the anodizing.

July 2019 Update: Since this post was last updated, Black Diamond decided to move the majority of climbing production overseas. Starting in September 2019, the only Black Diamond gear that’ll be handled by the US facility is the assembly of Camalots, skins, Magnetron & Gridlock carabiners, and ice screws. You can read more about this decision in an interview SNEWS did with Black Diamond President John Walbrecht.

The longer answer involves how BD invested enormous amounts of time and energy into creating a new final assembly facility because of the long-term benefit. Predominantly, they felt there was opportunity to gain more control over production schedules, processes and to streamline their growing global distribution. They knew doing so would take commitment. In 2006, the doors were opened to a new facility in China that was entirely owned and operated by Black Diamond. The plant was built from the ground up, with bright, wide hallways. The employees inside are Black Diamond employees. Owning the plant means they have full control over the operations, ensuring their high quality standards are met.

Getting this plant up and running was no easy task. As the Director of Global Quality, Kolin “KP” Powick, talked of personal fears he initially faced: He would no longer be able to walk downstairs to the manufacturing basement at BD’s Utah Headquarters and make sure everything was going OK. Instead, he’d be thousands of miles away.

For the first few years, KP and his team spent countless days at the Asia plant ensuring in every possible way the best procedures were implemented and set in stone. KP not-so-jokingly says that he “instilled the fear of God” in those newest BD employees. Eventually, as he witnessed perfect results over and over again, he gained confidence in the new people and systems. Control of the building and processes that guide the employees and their work are key to sleeping at night.

Owning their facilities also allows BD to innovate, in China, keeping conscious of their environmental footprint. In 2009, they started a closed-loop anodization process there. It recycles 2,000 tons of wastewater per year. They didn’t invent the process, but they took the best parts of every anodization system available and put them together to create a more environmentally friendly solution.

Part of Black Diamond’s outsourcing success lies in the choice to have their China facility limited to “simple” assembly. Black Diamond employees in China do lots of riveting, sewing, and other basic assembly, but no critical metalworking. They assemble wires to nut heads that are fabricated in the US, and add gates to carabiner bodies forged in the US. Final assembly of Camalots, including US machined lobes, also occurs in China. There are strict quality assurances for each stage of assembly and many are heavily monitored. For example, the carabiner testing machine is linked via the Internet to SLC, making results immediately available in the US.

Black Diamond Cold Forged Carabiners

Black Diamond keeps everything in Salt Lake City that requires precise tolerances or includes metalworking. In the basement of the BD headquarters, you can find carabiner bodies being hot and cold forged, watch the CNC machining of cam lobes, or witness the cutting of ice screw threads. You’ll find big spools of cable in one far corner as even the cable inspection and testing is done in-house before being sent to China for final assembly.

Crampons are also laser cut and bent in the US, powered by a nitrogen creation system that is “more environmentally friendly.” Another benefit of laser cutting is that it drastically decreases the time it takes to make a change in the design. In fact, a designer could conceivably create a new crampon profile in the morning, have it prototyped by the afternoon, give it to other employees to test the next morning before work, and have opinions of the design back within 24 hours. Then it’d be time for refinement or more strenuous, measurable testing.

Black Diamond Laser Cut Crampon

The quality control team tests current gear (beyond the standard batch testing) alongside gear that might be coming out in 2-4 years to create equal comparisons. Not only are they constantly coming up with new ways to test gear but they’re also testing everybody else’s equipment as well. Each year the team buys thousands of dollars of new gear and breaks it, sometimes with the tags still attached.

Black Diamond Breaks Gear

With so much testing and first-hand experience using the gear, KP and Bill Belcourt (Director of Research and Development at BD) are incredible resources for learning the backstories behind the testing and design of a product. Further, they know exactly how a piece of gear should be used and when it shouldn’t be modified. In person, they’ll spend an incredible amount of time passionately explaining every detail of a product or process.

Black Diamond Vapor Under Shell

Yet, at the same time, you can feel their blood pressure rise when they talk about attempting to explain their position on the Internet. It seems that no matter what data they provide or tests they conduct to clarify a point, somebody will always have a question about another more extenuating circumstance. Explaining how to use gear, and why certain modifications are OK while other similar ones might not be, is a constant struggle.

KP, Belcourt, and most others at BD, have a vested interest in setting the story straight, not just being “right” or telling people how to do things. They do more elaborate testing than any other company in the industry and that’s where their voice comes from. The culture engrained at Black Diamond is to put your heart and soul into every product, and to build gear that outperforms expectations while minimizing your environmental footprint. Whether that product is designed and forged in the US, assembled in Asia, or distributed in Europe, Black Diamond is a global company that keeps quality and testing a top priority.

All photos taken by WeighMyRack at Black Diamond’s Headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Share
Alison Dennis

Alison Dennis

Alison (she/her) runs WeighMyRack from her 17' travel trailer. She is currently touring the US and would love if you contacted her to meet up to talk about climbing, climbing gear, or if you have any fun and/or ridiculous adventure in mind.

All author posts