It all started with a garden cushion and a sandwich press.
In the early 1970s, three Seattle engineers and backpackers rushed with ideas to start a new company. Two had recently been fired during the Boeing bust while the other was still working for Lazy B. They all had one point of criticism in common: sleeping in the hinterland was the boxes.
During this time, a night under the open sky was at best cushioned by closed-cell foam mattresses or even pool floats. Those unwilling to pack such unwieldy creature comforts—closed-cell foam doesn’t compress much—settled with the floor.
The aha moment came when one of the unemployed engineers, Jim Lea, was gardening. As he propped himself up on a knee pillow, he noticed that the open-cell foam, which he was compressing with his body weight, was releasing air and eventually inflating again. Speaking to Neil Anderson, the other unemployed engineer, the pair hypothesized that if open-cell foam could be encapsulated in airtight material, a valve could control internal air pressure. You could compress the mattress into something packable and let it inflate itself into a thermally insulated sleeping pad.
Anderson, Lea and John Burroughs, still employed at Boeing, created prototypes by using a sandwich press to wrap fabric around the foam pad. Burroughs coined the name Therm-a-Rest. The three patented the design in 1972 and went on to found Cascade Designs, the Seattle-based company that still makes most Therm-a-Rest products in its sodo factory.
The indigenous invention, which celebrates its half-century this year, is now a worldwide staple, cueing millions of campers to sleep. and Burroughs still serves on the blackboard by Cascade Designs.
But even as the company and its flagship product have grown, Therm-a-Rest has largely kept its manufacturing in-house, despite the trend among US companies to offshore manufacturing. Between the engineering talent that pervades Seattle and the city’s proximity to ideal field testing grounds in the Cascades, Therm-a-Rest maintains its local roots.
The reasoning is simple, explained project manager Brandon Bowers during a factory tour in August.
“This unique equipment is your best place to prototype new ideas and monitor your current quality,” he said. “Over the past 50 years, we’ve taken those ideas and improved their design.”
Foam: like bread or wood
Cascade Designs is spread across two squat sodo warehouses totaling 110,000 square feet. The Yosemite building houses administrative offices, where a desktop pair of snowshoes is not an uncommon sight. But the magic happens via the shared loading dock in the Chamonix building: machines whirr and hum, factory workers press and cut, raw foam comes in, finished pads go out.
Bowers, who ran the Therm-a-Rest line for nearly 17 years, can get poetic about foam.
“Foam is like a giant loaf of bread,” he said, pointing to a 200-pound piece of squishy polyurethane that Cascade Designs sources from suppliers in Kent or Vancouver, Washington.
Vertical integration in design and manufacturing is one of the company’s strengths, but Cascade Designs still relies on raw materials from other countries and has had to replace materials or delay product deliveries in recent years hampered by COVID-19. “Supply chain issues have been just as painful for Therm-a-Rest as they have been for the rest of the world,” company spokesman Karen Lamerick said via email.
Once a machine known as a computer CNC cutter begins to cut into the foam, Bowers switches metaphors. “Foam is like wood,” he said, noting that it can have different grain patterns and that not every piece is uniform.
“It’s still complicated crap even though it’s only got five components,” he said.
On one side of the factory, an assembly line cranks Trail Scout, a classic entry-level model. The machine responsible for the main event – which wraps a foam pad in fabric – still looks like a sandwich press, only human-sized and heated to 330 degrees Fahrenheit. The factory can produce 350-400 Trail Scouts per day and feed a product line that sells 30,000-40,000 units per year.
With the outdoor recreation boom fueled by the pandemic, Therm-a-Rest has experienced double-digit growth over the past two years, although the sales curve is flattening.
“Those who took up camping during the pandemic will continue to do so and hopefully make strides in their newfound enjoyment of the great outdoors,” Lamerick said.
Cascade Designs managed the pandemic with minimal changes to its factory floor, as the physical configuration of the work already requires distancing, and has since resumed pre-pandemic operations. The company continues to require proof of vaccination for new employees, and employees who test positive for the coronavirus must notify their manager.
On the other side of the factory from the Trail Scout station, a contraption is bubbling up Mondo King 3Da plush mattress that even resembles the title character of “the princess and the Pea.” The demand for in-car camping comfort is high – Therm-a-Rest makes thousands a year and still sells out frequently.
“This little machine is unique in the world,” Bowers said. “If we needed another one, we’d have to build it.”
Tucked away in a back corner of Chamonix is Therm-a-Rest’s top secret operation.
“We started with foam and it’s still the most comfortable product to sleep on,” Bowers said. “But around 2005 we started researching air cushions for lightweight compactness.”
With the growing interest in light and fast types of backcountry travel like fastpacking, Therm-a-Rest introduced the NeoAir line – from the regular XLitewhich balances warmth with weight, for UberLitewhich folds down to the size of a beer can and weighs only 8.8 ounces.
The NeoAir line has a loyal following among die-hard backcountry travelers. Dandelion Diluvio-Scott, an ultra running and trail running coach for Team RunRun Those training in Wyoming’s Cascades and Wind River Range swear by Therm-a-Rest for winter camping.
“I travel and camp in the backcountry year-round and that includes overnight stays when the temperature drops to -20F,” she wrote via email. “In winter conditions it is crucial to have a warm and reliable floor insulation system NeoAir XTherm MAX Sleeping pad is my first choice when the mercury goes down.”
No sandwich presses are involved in the NeoAir line: manufacturing is fully automated through laser cutting controlled by a programmable digital interface.
According to Bowers, it is “the most complicated and advanced technology for air mattresses”.
No photos are allowed of the five machines, each costing six figures; The sleeping pad business has become competitive over the past 50 years, with the Swiss brand Exped, Steamboat Springs, Based in Colorado Big Agnes, Australian brand Sea to Summit and New Hampshire-based Nemo all want a piece of the pie. Demand is so strong that Cascade Designs is adding two machines.
However, there is no catalog for these bad boys. The machines in the NeoAir line are all built in-house by the company’s engineers. A metal label on the side of each machine reads “Manufactured by Cascade Designs”.
“We can’t shake the desire to innovate,” Bowers said.
Keep employees, fix sleep
Bowers joined Cascade Designs in 1998 fresh out of engineering school at the University of Washington. He loved camping and “didn’t want to work for Boeing.”
The UW and Western Washington University continue to be strong supporters of Cascade Designs. Other employees are transitioning from more conventional jobs in the industry.
“The number one reason people are here for technology is their passion for the outdoors,” Bowers said. “There works a seal of approval for an outdoor company.”
There’s also the appeal of doing lab research under the same roof as the designers and makers of the product.
There are some old hands over at the assembly line. Pleasant working conditions seem to promote longevity: Cascade Designs has 28 assembly line workers, known as “production specialists”, who have worked there for more than 25 years. (Starting hourly wage is $15.75.)
On the day of our August tour, the workshop was also full of broken air mattresses. On a good day, the team fixes about 50 pads, which are hung out to dry after being submerged in a 230-gallon submersible tank to test for leaks.
“Breakdowns happen all the time,” said repair technician Liam Eagan. “And if there are valve or seam issues, that could be a manufacturing defect.”
Cascade Designs uses an ultraviolet light-cured adhesive and is committed to repairing any Therm-a-Rest product with fewer than 10 holes. The company has a repair-first philosophy to keep products in service for as long as possible. Customers can even purchase on-site repair kits, and it’s not uncommon for the repair shop to receive decades-old pads.
The repair shop is a short walk from the factory floor and designers’ desks, allowing technicians to provide feedback if they spot recurring manufacturing defects.
This tight-knit culture continues to serve Therm-a-Rest well, enabling agile moves like reviving production of a 3-year-old product that has proven unexpectedly popular.
“We couldn’t have done it if we hadn’t invested in our own equipment and gone hyper-local with our manufacturing,” Bowers said.
“This part of our company has stayed the same.”