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.
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.
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.