I recently visited Thule's headquarters in the forests of Sweden, deep in the Scandinavian countryside. As expected, everyone I met has aged suspiciously
well, appears to be of inhuman athletic ability and sporting about 2% body fat. Aside from apparently harbouring the true fountain of youth, Hillerstorp is also home to outdoors lifestyle brand, Thule (pronounced two-leh, I learn). Of the 2000 people that commute daily to Hillerstorp, Thule brings in approximately 500 of them.
It’s a small industrial town in rural Sweden, and the only place where Thule’s roof racks are manufactured. They also make tools and components for bike racks - and the factory is home to their global research and development centre. In total, Thule have nine production facilities across Europe and the Americas. In 1942, Thule was born in Hillerstorp, where their first foray in product development was in pike traps (long since written out of law) and belt buckles. In 1962, they released their first ski rack, and the rest is history.
Kalle Magnusson, Thule’s Senior Vice President of Global Product Development, tells us that Thule’s ethos is “bring your life”. Their goal is to apply their core values of quality, safety and great design to each product. However their customers choose to be active outside, they want to make that easier and better by creating products that last a lifetime. Consumer value is their priority - they don’t create or test products just for the sake of it. They also aren’t afraid to walk away from products or projects that cannot uphold their values during the manufacturing and industrialisation process.
How many products you ultimately walk away from is, in some part, a representation of how daring you are as a brand. Learning, discarding and improving has helped build Thule’s reputation for durability and reliability. They test far beyond the regulatory requirements in Europe - which in themselves are lightyears ahead of North American testing standards - until they are happy to put their name on a product.
Cutting steel in the Thule factory to create custom Thule tools.
In 2021, their R&D centre opened quietly amidst a global pandemic. Their CEO Magnus Welander tells me over breakfast that it was something of a surprise to their product developers who were itching to get back to work after a pandemic of working at home. Throughout COVID, the geniuses at Thule (like many of us) adapted to working from their apartments, which presented serious challenges when manipulating 3D models. Laughing, he recounts tales of some passionate workers setting alarms at 4am to wake up and begin loading their 3D models, which would have eventually buffered to operating capacity by the start of their work day.
For these innovators, the limitations of their work from home must have been maddening. By the time they were able to return to work, they were surprised with a state-of-the-art prototyping centre that has changed the way they are able to innovate. Like any creative project, the ability to use a designated space for a work-in-progress (without having to pack it away at the end of each productive stint) can be game changing in terms of productivity. A new crash testing centre - an investment upwards of 8 million dollars - was also opened in April of 2022, providing another exciting opportunity for Thule’s product testing team.
Left: parts! Right: Delicious Swedish "Rabarberkaka" cake.
One of the more interesting discussions I had with the Thule team was their consistent production of integrated lighting products (such as the new Epos). They know the take rate is significantly lower for integrated lamp products than those without, but as a brand they feel a responsibility to provide the safest options - and therefore cannot ignore the possibility of providing a safer solution.
Thule’s HQ is as much a tool manufacturing facility as it is a part and product one. The theory behind creating their own tools is that it reduces supply chain issues, allowing them to better serve their customers. They have over 800 tools in their factory (with a book value of over 80 million dollars), allowing them to create 3000 different components. In many instances, there is only one tool in the world that can make replacement Thule components, and it's on the shelf right there in tiny Hillerstorp.
While staring around at the room full of 50 robots and even more humans quality checking, the investment in machinery and automation is clear. For quality assurance, they use scale technology. Each item has a recorded weight and is hand placed into its barcoded tray. If anything on the production line is off, missing or incorrect, the belt will not advance. At each station, the belt is attended by an actual human - further reducing the possibility of errors. I learn that these machines each are designed with a lifespan of over 20 years, and some run 24 hours a day.
Thule's stroller testing track.
Being based in Europe means that Thule’s products are all standardized to European standards, suffering rigorous testing procedures on their entire line. They are tested on climate cycling, susception to corrosion, and gravity pull. One of the coolest examples of their testing I witnessed was the ‘M1’ hexapod, used when Thule needs to ensure that its roof box or bike rack remains firmly attached to a vehicle, and it's cargo remains protected. This is a Multi-Axis Shaker Table (or MAST), which rocks Thule bike racks for 36 hours straight on a simulation cycle. Another cool testing product was the crash tester, a Servosled catapult, a high-speed accelerator sled system designed to simulate the conditions experienced during automotive collisions - with 2.1 meganewtons of force.
The M1: Multi-Axis Shaker Table
What's next for Thule? Since their newly released Epos rack, Thule have just announced an expansion into dog products with the brand-new Thule Bexey dog bike trailer. At Eurobike, Thule also showcased a complete refresh of the award-winning Thule Chariot bike trailers, as well as the recently launched Paramount bike commuter bags and aforementioned Epos rack. Thule are also developing their child stroller systems with the Thule Shine Air Purifier Canopy, and informed us they are working on a new app.