Shoes today are more than footwear -- they're high-tech gear with specially engineered components for fashionable and functional designs. Within this $2 billion industry, many companies, like Vibram USA, based in Concord, are looking for a competitive edge by deploying shoe testers who help assess new technologies. "We put our products in the most extreme conditions by executing tests directly in the field," said Steve Ellis, who not only actually tries out shoes himself but also oversees the lab and wear-testing. Every day there is a new problem he is trying to solve in conjunction with the product engineers and designers, whether it's "hot spots" in the shoe that may cause blisters or a sole that starts to separate from the upper.
The Vibram Tester Team is responsible for testing the FiveFingers line but also completes thousands of tests on products that have a Vibram sole on them including cycling, skateboarding, rock climbing, snowboarding, trekking and fly fishing. "One week we may be hiking mountains in northern Italy, the next we're fly fishing in Montana or mountain biking in New Hampshire," said Ellis, 26, who has a physics degree as well an MBA focusing on the commercialization of technological innovation. He creates tests that evaluate fit and comfort, durability, shock-absorption, and more. "The shoe soles are used on different terrain, from rocks and soft terrain to snow or ice, depending on the final consumer use," said Ellis.
Q: Give me an example of a recent test that you conducted?
A: One of the Vibram designers recently made a sole for a mountain bike shoe and wanted to know how well it would work on the hills themselves. So we asked pro or semi-pro bikers to try them out at Highland Mountain Bike Park in New Hampshire. They gave us feedback that we compiled into a report. With mountain bike soles, itís all about seeing how well the design locks into the teeth of the pedals.
Q: How do you structure your tests?
A: They are like other scientific tests, with benchmarks of past products, a control group, and a double blind format whenever possible. If our chemist creates a new compound targeted towards road running applications, first we perform a battery of lab tests to understand the compound's physical properties. Next, we bring natural environments and surfaces into the laboratory and calculate information. Then lastly shoes are distributed to our tester team who will document things like weather/temp, distance, location, and running surfaces, etc. They'll on comment on the differences in the grip of the soles. We then compile the results and make a decision on validation.
Q: You have a physics degree specializing in experimental physics and data analysis. How does that help you with the shoe testing?
A: Whether it's the static/dynamic coefficients of friction, pressure testing, balance, or forces, these are all concepts from physics. For example, if there's an issue with a snowboarding boot, I can place the shoe inside a mechanical abrader that stimulates a certain amount of force over time against the sole. Vibram has a major shoe-testing complex in China, where we do in-vivo testing, which is recreating outside environments in an indoor setting to conduct tests.
Q: How do you find your testers?
A: Right now, the focus is mostly on athletes and sports professionals, such as a group of fly fishermen in Montana. The rivers in that area have different moss, rocks, and ecosystem than here in New England, so we were very interested in how our product worked out there. Another recent group of testers were hunters who wear the Vibram Five Fingers because they're stealthy and give a better ground feel. We're testing new compounds with these guys. But we are also looking to expand our group of testers to consumers by creating an online data base, but that's still in the works.
Q: What have you done to address the complaints that Five Fingers retain odor?
A: We are always looking for new solutions, whether it's new anti-microbial fabrics or rinsing solutions. Working at the office, where all of us wear Five Fingers, there's a fair share of people with the stinky foot problem, so we're constantly working on it, even trying coconut shell shavings, which are supposed to stop microbes.
Q: Have you had any unusual reactions when you wear your Five Finger shoes in public?
A: It's always interesting going to the airport, taking my shoes off and putting them in a scanner, especially if it's an international destination. They're a good conversation opener, especially if people have never seen them before.
Q: How many pairs of Vibram shoes do you have?
A: I have so many pairs they won't fit in the closet. There are piles in the basement as well. I'm giving my shoes away to people at this point.
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