FREEPORT, Maine — Surrounded by people in lab coats, an L.L. Bean boot frozen in a block of ice and an array of devices intended to tear, soak and destroy virtually anything on Earth, David DaPonte just may have the best job ever.
As Global Quality Assurance and Testing senior manager, DaPonte and his colleagues spend their days busting up L.L. Bean gear so you don’t have to. Anything from measuring the water repellent qualities of a fabric to simulating what a rather hefty posterior inflicts falling into one of their chairs — nothing escapes the stringent standards in Bean’s very own crash lab.
“We test products here and it’s really to make sure the quality is there that we need for our customer so that they have a positive customer experience and it also will then support our 100 percent satisfaction guarantee,” DaPonte said.
DaPonte said the lab, situated within corporate headquarters, is a physical testing laboratory as opposed to a chemical lab. Fabric shrinkage, color fastness and strength are but a few test categories the lab puts products through.
DaPonte said textiles make up about 70 percent of their testing, followed by footwear, furniture and home goods.
Although the bulk of the lab’s work is in new textiles and technologies, DaPonte said they will periodically pull items from the shelf to test them to ensure manufacturing standards are being upheld.
Behind DaPonte, two pistons inside Bean boots continuously flexed the soles of the footwear in a tank filled with water. In the next room, another boot sits in a block of ice in a cooler kept at minus 40 degrees along with a hat with a headlamp in the brim. After three years in the deep freeze, the light still came on.
“This is unique for a brand to have an internal laboratory, but I also find that not only do we cover apparel but we cover footwear, we cover furniture, hard goods, fishing waders,” DaPonte said.
DaPonte said that while some other companies may have an internal lab, they usually have one focus, where L.L. Bean’s lab works across all its products. And it’s not only their own products they scrutinize so closely. Bean’s lab also tests competitors’ products to see how they stand up against Bean’s products.
L.L. Bean spokesman Mac McKeever said, “We do in-house testing but we also utilize third-party labs and we also have an army of field testers too, so we know to do that comprehensive testing process to ensure they are going to stand up to that guarantee because they have to.”
McKeever said L.L. Bean is unique in the industry for letting the customer guide just what 100 percent satisfaction means to them.
“I may be satisfied if I get five years out of these shoes. You may not be satisfied until you get 10,” McKeever said.
Some product testing takes place outside the lab, such as their 2 mile rolling luggage course through Portland’s Old Port. The luggage is filled with weights and the tester drags the luggage along a timed course. DaPonte assured that due to the timing of the course, testers would have no time to stop off at any of the three pubs located along the route.
With cobblestones, curbs and bouncing up and down stairs, DaPonte said the Old Port makes for a great test track. These field testers are not paid employees of L.L. Bean but essentially work to receive the product they are testing.
“They’ll quickly separate out the person just looking for free gear from the person who is dedicated to providing good information,” DaPonte said.
Feedback is constant
DaPonte said some testers will track all variables such as what they ate, how that may have affected their body heat in a sleeping bag. “We’ll get that amount of detail from the testers,” he said.
Feedback is constant in developing products, from the design teams taking prototypes into the woods to put them through preliminary paces, to giving items to executives to use and report back on performance.
The lab can tell you your mummy bag will keep you cozy in minus 20 degrees, but they can’t tell you how you’ll sleep in it.
DaPonte said now is an exciting time to be testing, with many new high tech fabrics coming on the market. He said that often their light weight belies their strength and durability in the field.
With all the new products hitting the floor at L.L. Bean, DaPonte agrees that sometimes tried and true wins the day, like in the case of their iconic boot — 100 years old and once again popular.
One not-so-high-tech tester, tucked away underneath a bench, looked like a high school science fair project, but one with a very important purpose — to test if a belt will chafe.
Another bit of low-tech testing equipment in the laboratory is a room filled with washers and dryers.
There was a machine that draws and quarters teddy bears and another to pluck buttons off fabrics to prevent choke hazards in young children. Another soaked material and and yet another was set up to see how water ran off them.
And then there was the roof.
Along the roof at L.L. Bean headquarters runs a boardwalk leading to a small deck. Upon that deck, Adirondack chairs all faced the same direction awaiting no one. Here, the lab runs real life simulations, leaving tents, chairs and fabrics to the elements.
Well, to the elements and the hundred or so sea gulls who flock to the rooftop.