Inside the lab where one company is reinventing the shoelace

The humble shoelace can trace its origins as far back as 3500 BC. Even then, mankind struggled to find ways to keep footwear from moving about. Over the centuries, shoelaces have undergone a number of small material and technical improvements designed to make them stronger and more secure. But at their core, little changed for about five and a half millennia until an entrepreneur named Gary Hammerslag hit upon a bright idea — and Boa Technology was born.

Back in the late ’90s, Hammerslag and his family lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where they often hit the local ski hills to go snowboarding. During may of those outings, he found himself stopping to lace up his kids’ boots, which frequently came undone throughout the day. Frustrated their shoestrings wouldn’t stay tied, Hammerslag began searching for an alternative method to keep their footwear in place.

After designing and testing several prototype systems, Gary hit on the idea of using stainless steel wires wrapped in low-friction lace guides in place of standard shoestrings. Those wires connected to a specially built dial that increased tension on the laces when twisted. This allowed a wearer to quickly and easily find the exact fit they needed every time. Since the dial featured a built-in locking mechanism, the laces stayed firmly in place until released, eliminating the need to regularly stop and re-tie them.

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Kraig Becker/Digital Trends

Those early designs evolved into the Boa Closure System and in 1998, Hammerslag founded Boa Technology to help sell his big new idea to the footwear industry. Naturally, the new lacing system appealed to the snowboarding crowd and when it was officially introduced in 2001, he found eager partners in K2 and Vans — two companies Boa continues to work with to this day.

 Over time, other shoe manufacturers — mostly in the sports and outdoor space — came onboard and now the company works with more than 330 brands worldwide. With more than 83 million units sold, the company’s closure system has become the de facto standard in cycling shoes and is making significant strides in other sports as well, including golf. However, it hasn’t yet been adopted in mainstream running and walking shoes. But because the lacing system offers a comfortable, secure, and exact fit, that never needs to be adjusted once its locked in place, it seems like it is only a matter of time before it finds its way into those activities too.

In 2011, Hammerslag, who is now Boa’s former CEO and current Chairman of the Board, also saw a potential for the lacing system to be used in the medical industry. Today, the closure is used in a variety of braces, casts, and orthopedic and prosthesis devices, making it easier to dial in a firm, yet comfortable, fit for patients.

To get a firsthand feel for this budding tech, Digital Trends recently visited Boa’s offices located in Denver, Colorado. While there, we not only learned about the company’s history but also its stringent testing procedures, approach to design, and unique working relationships with partners.

Lacing up the future of shoes

Even on a normal weekday, Boa’s headquarters is a hive of activity. The once trendy office space has grown increasingly crowded in recent months as the company added more staff to meet mounting demand for its products. Next year, the team plans to relocate to a larger building better suited to accommodate the expanding workforce. In the meantime, employees conduct business in cramped facility, packed with machines designed to test every aspect of the lacing system.

While Boa offers a number of off-the-shelf options for footwear manufacturers, the company often crafts custom solutions to accommodate the specific needs of a new design. This process starts with members of Boa’s prototypes team, which focuses not only on ways of refining the existing Boa Closure System but also on making it work in shoes (and medical products) still in development.

Even on a random weekday, Boa’s headquarters is a hive of activity

Boa works closely with partners like Adidas, and that is a direct result of building the Fit Lab, a branch of its facility installed two years ago. After a design passes through the prototype phase and gets approval, the new parts head to the Fit Lab where they’re turned into working models that can be integrated into real-world products. This allows the designers at Boa — and partners — to piece together test models of future products months before they are scheduled to ship to stores, giving both parties a chance to see how the individual elements that make up a shoe work in conjunction with one another.

Once you see everything together, it’s much easier to discover what works and what doesn’t.

 “The Fit Lab helped us foster an environment of creativity and innovation, providing more dedicated resources to the exploration of new fit ideas and concepts,” Boa Chief Commercial Officer Chuck Mason told Digital Trends while they worked with the Adidas Golf team on a new golf shoe called the Powerband Boa Boost. “With improved sample quality, our brand partners are able to better visualize what final products might look like.”
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Kraig Becker/Digital Trends

Once a design clears the Fit Lab, it is often sent on to the Test Lab to undergo some serious abuse. The Lab pokes, prods, and pushes the lacing system’s various components to their absolute limits to understand how it might perform in the real world. We witnessed stress tests on laces, guides, and dials that demonstrate just how far they perform above and beyond Boa’s stringent specifications.

For instance, one machine is tasked with seeing just how much tension can be placed on the stainless steel laces before they’ll break. As it turns out, those laces are only required to withstand up to five pounds of pressure to function properly. But in the tests we witnessed, the cables easily withstood 10 times that level of tension — or more — before snapping.

Other machines in the Test Lab were built to show just how well the Boa closure system handles intense heat, cold, and humidity, while others simulate conditions as extreme as those found on Mt. Everest or at the North and South Pole. One test even immerses a shoe completely in water to determine how well it functions when thoroughly saturated, while another speeds up the aging process of individual parts to judge performance over time. This rigorous testing process gives Boa the confidence to extend a lifetime guarantee on its lacing system, which is something typical shoelace manufacturers just don’t offer.

Boa isn’t done innovating

The company’s collaborative approach with its brand partners seems to be a successful one thus far. Working closely with companies like Adidas Golf led Boa to become a much sought-after commodity in the golf footwear industry.

Very few companies even have the guts to try and improve on a product that’s existed for more than 5,500 years.

That isn’t to say that Boa — or Adidas, which was a sponsor of the press tour — is prepared to rest on its laurels. Mason Denison, global director of Adidas Golf, told Digital Trends that the shoe maker is already well into development on its 2018 and 2019 shoes and is keeping its gaze focused beyond even that timeframe. Of course, Boa intends to play a central role in those future designs as well, using its prototypes team — as well as its Fit and Test Labs — to provide companies like Adidas with the support and technical insight it needs to continue making successful shoes.

Meanwhile, the staff at Boa remains focused on continuing to improve its Closure System by further slimming down its components and improving overall performance. The system isn’t particularly large or heavy now, but in some markets — including the tradition-rich golf segment– challenges still exist. For instance, some golfers are put off by the unique locking dial, so finding ways to blend it in seamlessly with the shoe while still maintaining comfort and performance, are top concerns. For other sports, it’s all about seeking out performance and durability, two areas in which Boa already excels but is constantly advancing.

If anyone is up to the challenge, it is the team at Boa. Very few companies have the guts to try and improve on a product that’s existed for more than 5,500 years. With its innovative shoelaces, Boa actually has.