Watch and learn

We take a whirl­wind tour of Su­unto’s HQ to find out what makes this com­pany’s gear so per­fectly suited to out­door en­thu­si­asts around the world.

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words Justin Walker Pho­tos Su­unto

The pas­sion and crafts­man­ship be­hind Su­unto

WHEN I GLANCE DOWN at my Su­unto Tra­verse Al­pha GPS watch, I look well be­yond the screen at a prod­uct that re­flects an in­cred­i­ble 80 years of his­tory, one in­trin­si­cally en­twined with the out­doors, whether on ground, in the air or un­der­wa­ter. I have just fin­ished a whirl­wind two-day visit to Su­unto’s Helsinki, Fin­land head­quar­ters, which has con­sid­er­ably ex­panded my knowl­edge of the Su­unto brand. Now, be­yond the im­pres­sive time­piece strapped to my wrist, I ac­knowl­edge Su­unto’s her­itage, which is pep­pered with sig­nif­i­cant, game chang­ing high­lights.

SMALL THINGS CAN SHAPE THE WORLD

I had ar­rived in Helsinki cour­tesy of Amer Sports (Su­unto’s par­ent com­pany) and its Aussie Com­mer­cial Man­ager Dick Stanger (of Amer Sports Aus­tralia), who was over in the pic­turesque city at the same time for meet­ings. It was to be a se­ri­ously quick trip but thank­fully Su­unto was, as you’d ex­pect of a com­pany founded on ac­cu­racy, ready to ed­u­cate me on just what makes this fa­mous brand so unique. As soon as Dick and I had walked through Su­unto HQ’s front doors, I was ush­ered off to chat to Li­isa Palmu, Head of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Su­unto, who gave me an ex­ten­sive run­down on the brand’s 80-year his­tory.

It was a Fin­nish en­gi­neer, Tuo­mas Vohlo­nen, who founded the com­pany in 1936. As well as an en­gi­neer, Vohlo­nen was also a keen ori­en­teer­ing ath­lete and had be­come se­ri­ously frus­trated by com­pass in­ac­cu­racy when­ever he was out ex­plor­ing. The com­passes from that era were of a sim­ple con­struc­tion, com­pris­ing an air-filled nee­dle cham­ber. This led to the nee­dle of­ten wa­ver­ing and jump­ing around in­side the cham­ber, mak­ing ac­cu­rate nav­i­ga­tion dif­fi­cult. Vohlo­nen de­signed and built a liq­uid-filled com­pass that con­tained a type of oil that both al­lowed the nee­dle to swing freely, while also re­main­ing still when the com­pass was sta­tion­ary, en­sur­ing a stead­ier and more ac­cu­rate read­ing for nav­i­ga­tion. Im­pres­sively, Su­unto still man­u­fac­tures its com­passes to the same patent to­day.

This rev­o­lu­tionised com­pass use and put Su­unto firmly at the fore­front of nav­i­ga­tional equip­ment; six years later, dur­ing World War II, the Fin­nish Army com­mis­sioned Su­unto to man­u­fac­ture a com­pact liq­uid sight­ing com­pass to as­sist those in the mil­i­tary who re­quired an ac­cu­rate in­stru­ment for mea­sur­ing a bear­ing an­gle, oth­er­wise known as an az­imuth.

As the liq­uid-filled com­pass be­came the stan­dard for land- and ocean­based nav­i­ga­tors from the early 1950s on­wards, the Su­unto brand grew.

Su­unto is also very highly re­garded for its un­der­wa­ter nav­i­ga­tion equip­ment – ini­tially com­passes, now dive com­put­ers – and Li­isa filled me in on how the com­pany de­vel­oped its first dive com­pass, al­most by ac­ci­dent. In 1965 scuba div­ing had taken off in a huge way and Su­unto’s lit­eral dive into this mar­ket oc­curred when a Bri­tish diver worked up his own dive com­pass by at­tach­ing a Su­unto unit to his wrist, and dis­cov­er­ing that it func­tioned un­der­wa­ter. As a re­sult of this quirky dis­cov­ery, Su­unto Div­ing be­came a re­al­ity and the SK-4, the world’s first dive com­pass, was launched.

THE DIG­I­TAL AWAK­EN­ING

Su­unto’s list of firsts con­tin­ued in the ma­rine world with its 1987 launch of the SME-ML, the com­pany’s first dive com­puter. Up un­til the SMEML, divers had to use com­pli­cated div­ing ta­bles to cal­cu­late time un­der wa­ter; the SME-ML sim­pli­fied this process, mak­ing it much eas­ier and safer for divers to keep a track of times. The SME-ML was just the first of what be­came a long line of dive-re­lated prod­ucts, in­clud­ing the (again) world’s first dive watch – the Spyder – that was re­leased 10 years later and fea­tured not only a high-end dive com­puter but also the full func­tion­al­ity of a tra­di­tional watch.

Su­unto also de­vel­oped new gear for the nav­i­ga­tional world and as the dig­i­tal age dawned, Su­unto’s Vec­tor hit the mar­ket (in 1998). This was one of the first out­door-fo­cussed watches to in­clude an al­time­ter, com­pass and barom­e­ter. In­ter­est­ingly, as Li­isa re­counted, the orig­i­nal de­sign was far more “com­puter-like” than the fin­ished prod­uct.

“Orig­i­nally it was sup­posed to look like a com­puter… the de­sign was to­tally dif­fer­ent,” she said. “But we had the pres­i­dent of Su­unto at that time, he went to the USA for – I think – the Out­door Re­tailer Show, and he saw some watches there that had a pretty cool de­sign and he had this kind of rev­e­la­tion in his head, say­ing, ‘Okay, what are we do­ing here? Why are we want­ing to bring some­thing [to mar­ket] you wear on the wrist but was not look­ing cool – it was look­ing more com­puter-like?’

“So he came back and was re­ally quite brave and had the nerve to say to the de­sign team – and it was quite close to the fi­nal pro­duc­tion time; there was pres­sure to get it out – said ‘No, no, we are go­ing to re­design it’. And he put the de­sign­ers back onto it and that is how the iconic Su­unto watch de­sign was born.”

This has since led to iconic mod­els, such as the Core (which added weather info to its fea­ture set) and 2012’s Am­bit, through to to­day’s nav­i­ga­tional pow­er­house Tra­verse se­ries, and the just-re­leased Spar­tan GPS sports-watch.

As I lis­tened to Li­isa re­count Su­unto’s his­tory, and had the op­por­tu­nity to speak with oth­ers at Su­unto HQ, it soon be­came ap­par­ent how there’s a sense of pride amongst the com­pany’s em­ploy­ees. This be­came even more ob­vi­ous after I met my next host, Antti Ku­jala, the De­sign Head of Su­unto.

Antti took me up­stairs to the de­sign area where I had the chance to see how lengthy – and in­volved – the de­sign process is be­fore the end re­sult is pro­duced. The de­sign team were all busy at their com­put­ers,

run­ning through ev­ery­thing from draft draw­ings on paper, through to three-di­men­sional CAD draw­ings. I was even priv­i­leged enough to de­sign my own Su­unto Tra­verse model, com­plete with dif­fer­ent colours and bevel sur­face de­signs. The de­sign­ers do not only work on graphic il­lus­tra­tions and di­a­grams for each prod­uct; Antti pointed out a num­ber of early phys­i­cal sam­ples of bands, watch faces and other pieces, all of which are pored over by the de­sign team and, if nec­es­sary, re­fined and worked on un­til ev­ery­one is sat­is­fied that the prod­uct works as ef­fec­tively as pos­si­ble, and re­flects the Su­unto DNA in its de­sign and ap­pear­ance.

THE TOP OF THE TREE

After some time with the de­sign team, Li­isa dropped by and whisked me off for a chat with the Pres­i­dent of Su­unto, Mikko Moila­nen. Mikko rat­tled off a num­ber of facts and fig­ures – as well as per­sonal thoughts on the com­pany – in­clud­ing one that stood out for me: even though the com­pass mar­ket is “rel­a­tively flat”, Su­unto’s mar­ket share of this mar­ket con­tin­ues to grow. Im­pres­sive stuff…

Also im­pres­sive is how Su­unto plans on stay­ing at the top of the bur­geon­ing GPS/sportswatch mar­ket.

“There are def­i­nitely far big­ger com­pa­nies in the same mar­ket, in­clud­ing the smart­watch com­pa­nies, like Ap­ple and Samsung, big guys get­ting into the game,” Mikko told me. “What makes us be­lieve that we can keep up a good and solid po­si­tion in the mar­ket is… first of all, we know our cus­tomers – and I can say that with­out any hint of ar­ro­gance; we know the out­door cus­tomer far bet­ter than Ap­ple. And that’s a great start, and is some­thing we want to nur­ture and make sure that re­mains… We re­ally un­der­stand what is im­por­tant, what it is that they re­ally value.”

Mikko was also quick to ex­pand on the fact you can­not rely solely on a highly re­garded his­tory and name to keep cus­tomers loyal to your brand.

“The next thing is we re­ally have to earn – and keep – their ap­pre­ci­a­tion and trust,” he said. “We can’t force them to like us; they have to like us for what we do, which ob­li­gates us to keep mak­ing su­pe­rior prod­ucts… our ser­vices have to be fan­tas­tic. I mean, the brand it­self, we need to rep­re­sent the right val­ues – our brand pur­pose needs to be some­thing the tar­get au­di­ence can say ‘yep, that’s our brand’.

“That is, in a nut­shell, what gives us con­fi­dence in­de­pen­dent of what is hap­pen­ing in the mar­ket with the ar­rival of the big­ger play­ers.”

BE­HIND THE DOORS

I am noth­ing if not a gear freak, so vis­it­ing Su­unto’s HQ was an ex­cit­ing prospect from the get-go. And hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to ac­tu­ally step onto the fac­tory floor to see the man­u­fac­tur­ing process was cer­tainly a high­light.

In­ter­est­ingly, Su­unto still man­u­fac­tures its prod­ucts in-house and, sur­pris­ingly, with a hu­man work­force. I didn’t re­ally know what to ex­pect when I was led through the fac­tory door (after don­ning an anti-static gown), but a fac­tory full of peo­ple busy putting to­gether watches, dive com­put­ers and com­passes was not it; there is only one ro­bot in the whole fac­tory – the pro­duc­tion ma­chine is com­prised of ac­tual peo­ple. To say I was im­pressed is an un­der­state­ment. It also gave me an un­der­stand­ing as to how and why the qual­ity of Su­unto gear is held in such high re­gard: each and ev­ery prod­uct is put to­gether by work­ers who are pas­sion­ate about their work in this sin­gle fac­tory.

There’s a se­ries of man­u­fac­tur­ing pods (one for each prod­uct) each com­pris­ing three work benches that al­low the worker sta­tioned there to move from one con­struc­tion phase to an­other for that spe­cific prod­uct – and there can be as many as three peo­ple work­ing in each pod dur­ing the peak man­u­fac­tur­ing pe­ri­ods. Each watch or dive com­puter is pieced to­gether by hand one part at a time – it’s amaz­ing.

I was shown around the dif­fer­ent ar­eas, paus­ing at the Tra­verse pods to see ‘my’ watch con­structed be­fore mov­ing on to the awe­some dive com­puter test­ing rig. This rig (at roughly 1.6m tall) re­sem­bles an over­sized ver­ti­cal fish tank. The test is based around the wa­ter pres­sure in­side the tank be­ing equiv­a­lent to 100m in depth, and the dive com­puter is dropped down to var­i­ous depth-equiv­a­lent heights (30m, 50m, then 100m) and brought out and then dunked again un­til it has been stress-tested 10 times. It is an in­cred­i­bly thor­ough process but when you think of just how im­por­tant it is for a dive com­puter to func­tion ac­cu­rately un­der wa­ter, that thor­ough­ness is much ap­pre­ci­ated.

As we moved fur­ther around, I saw where the com­passes are still made – and was al­lowed to make my own South­ern Hemi­sphere-cen­tric one – be­fore check­ing out the im­mense stock-room. An­other ex­am­ple of ef­fi­ciency, the Su­unto HQ’s stock room is the only one in the world, so is re­spon­si­ble for all global or­ders. So, once the watch/dive com­puter/ com­pass is built, and all the ac­ces­sories (heart rate mon­i­tors, etc.) are added into the box, the com­plete, re­tail-ready units are de­liv­ered via a pushed cart (yep, again by hu­man power) to this stock­room, and then the or­ders are fi­nalised.

THE FU­TURE

By the time I fin­ished the fac­tory walka­round I was pretty knack­ered, not so much phys­i­cally, but men­tally as I tried to com­pre­hend the way Su­unto op­er­ates. The com­pany not only ad­heres to tra­di­tion, but re­lies on some­thing that no amount of money can buy; pas­sion. I met a ton of peo­ple dur­ing my whirl­wind visit and all of them were pas­sion­ate about their work, and the brand that work gets re­alised through. And just when I thought my tour couldn’t get any more mem­o­rable, I was af­forded a sneak peek at the new Su­unto Spar­tan GPS sportswatch – an awe­some piece of wear­able hi-tech kit that will fur­ther lift that ever-ris­ing bar that Su­unto sets for it­self.

With touch­screen tech­nol­ogy, full colour screen and the lat­est in GPS and fit­ness tech housed in its body, the Spar­tan re­ally drove home what Su­unto is: a com­pany proud of its her­itage that is also not afraid to keep push­ing the tech­no­log­i­cal en­ve­lope, im­prov­ing all things nav­i­ga­tion, just when you think there is no room for im­prove­ment left.

The last word on Su­unto, how­ever, be­longs to Pres­i­dent Mikko Moila­nen and his an­swer to my ques­tion about why Su­unto has never ex­plored other prod­uct ar­eas in the out­door world: “It’s pretty sim­ple – the com­pany de­cided to con­tinue to do what it is best at,” he said. It’s hard to ar­gue with that.

The founder Tuo­mas Vohlo­nen (above) kicked off Su­unto in 1936, us­ing his en­gi­neer­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to de­sign the then­new liq­uid-filled com­pass.

The orig­i­nal M-311 was the first Su­unto liq­uid­filled com­pass, re­leased in 1936. The M-311 rev­o­lu­tionised nav­i­ga­tion upon its re­lease, prov­ing far more ac­cu­rate and sta­ble than the ear­lier air-filled com­passes.

The Su­unto fac­tory floor is di­vided up into mul­ti­ple ‘pods’ where ei­ther a sin­gle worker or up to a team of three care­fully and metic­u­lously han­dassem­ble each watch, dive com­puter or com­pass, be­fore the prod­uct is sent ‘down the line’ to the despatch centre, also in­side the fac­tory. Amaz­ing stuff.

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