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In Yeti’s innovation labs, tough outdoor gear is born (and beaten senseless)

Few brands in the outdoor industry are as hot right now as the Austin, Texas-based Yeti. Over the past few years, the company successfully built a loyal following thanks to its notoriously over-engineered coolers and enormously popular drinkware. But, the team behind Yeti’s massive success knows it must continue to innovate and create great products if it wants to stay ahead of the competition. Fortunately, it has a secret weapon to help the company accomplish just that.

Tucked away in a nondescript office park in Austin, the Yeti Innovation Center serves as a testing ground for the company’s next generation of products. The site, which opened last year, quickly became an indispensable part of how the company develops its new gear. Until recently, the super-secret lab was off limits to all but a few Yeti employees. However, Digital Trends was lucky enough to sneak a peek inside at what happens behind closed doors.

Is this the right place?

From outside, there are no visible indicators giving away who the tenant of the building actually is. We saw no signs or logos of any kind, just a simple number hanging on a wall near the building’s entrance. After stepping inside it becomes abundantly clear you’ve entered a space which belongs to Yeti. Several walls serve as a shrine to some of the company’s most iconic products, while posters espousing the “Yeti Core Values” can be spotted hanging from the rafters.

Yeti Innovation Center metal containers
Lauren Phillips/Yeti Coolers
Lauren Phillips/Yeti Coolers

Still, the building’s main office space doesn’t look particularly special. It features a series of low-walled cubicles spread out across an open area where designers and engineers go about their daily work. Think Office Space, with the exception of a few displays filled with hunting and fishing gear, intermixed with tools and various other outdoor paraphernalia.

Entering the Innovation Center

It isn’t until you actually pass behind the locked doors at the back of the office that you truly get a sense of what goes on. Donning a set of safety glasses — a requirement for staff and visitors alike — we moved into the actual lab itself, where a battery of machines are pushing, pulling, smashing, and generally putting an array of Yeti products — old and new — to the test.

“We’ve custom built about half the machines in the Innovation Center”

“We’ve custom built about half the machines used in the Innovation Center,” Scott Barbieri, Yeti’s Director of Engineering, told Digital Trends. “Some we were able to buy off the shelf but others had to be designed and built to our own in-house specifications.”

One such machine quietly zips and unzips the company’s patented Hydrolock zipper, which is used on its Hopper soft-sided coolers. The robotic arm was programmed to test the endurance of the zipper over an extended period of time to ensure it holds up to Yeti’s high standards. Meanwhile, another automated test drops a 250-pound weight into the recently launched Loadout bucket to ensure it withstands the pressure. It’s a toss up whether the bucket or the machine might break first.

Perfect practice makes perfect products

Members of the Yeti staff wander about the lab, closely monitoring each test. The results are painstakingly recorded and often the same test is restarted and immediately run again. Typically, the team is trying to find the exact breaking point for Yeti’s various products or the components used in its construction. It’s a level of quality assurance most competitors can’t hope to match.

“We have about 10 full-time employees here at the lab, with another 45 engineers and designers coming and going,” Barbieri added. “We’re constantly testing new prototypes and various iterations of our existing products to look for design flaws or areas where we can improve them.”

When asked if it also puts competing products through the same tests, he quietly tells us, “All the time.”

A melting pot of test environments

Not all tests are capable of completing in a short period of time. For instance, the lab contains several environmental chambers programmed to simulate the effects of exposure to heat and humidity over days and months. One such chamber accommodates as many as 40 Tundra coolers at once, where its interior is set to match conditions found in Florida in the middle of summer. This allows Yeti to see how well the coolers hold up to prolonged exposure to harsh conditions and whether they keep ice from melting for an extended period of time.

Yeti Innovation Center saw
Lauren Phillips/Yeti Coolers
Lauren Phillips/Yeti Coolers

The sprawling facility isn’t just crammed with equipment to strictly test Yeti gear, either. It houses a wide array of tools it uses to create custom parts, rough prototypes, and near-finished facsimiles of new products. The onsite workshop features power saws for cutting plastic and metal, large lathes for carving first-round prototypes, and 3D printers for creating intricate objects like plastic buckles or lids. There’s even a 100-watt laser cutter and a fully stocked woodshop — despite the fact Yeti doesn’t use wood in any product.

From idea to final product at the speed of light

All these tools give Yeti the ability to completely design and test new gear under one roof. This allowed the company to be much more nimble in terms of taking a basic concept and turning it into a finished product. For instance, in July, Yeti released its new Panga waterproof duffle, which Barbieri said went from a prototype to a final design ready for manufacturing in the span of just four weeks. In the often conservative outdoor industry, that’s moving at light speed.

“On an average day we see 10 to 15 prototypes come through the Innovation Center,” Barbieri told us. “But we’ve had as many as 100-plus on a single day, too.”

As we strolled through the Innovation Center we spotted a few of those early prototypes sitting about. Some are still hooked up to machines for testing while others are in various states of disrepair. Those older, weaker models couldn’t pass the test but they’re there to remind Yeti’s designers of where they might have gone wrong, giving them a chance to learn from past mistakes and build a better product. Judging from the consistently high-quality goods the company cranks out, the process appears to work perfectly.

Only mental photos inside Yeti’s uber-secret archive chamber

As our tour began to wind down, we made our way to a door that was locked and sealed tight. Before entering, we’re told absolutely no photography would be allowed inside. This was because the room is a Yeti archive of sorts and within we’ll find the very first version of every product it ever made. These “golden samples” are the intellectual property of the company and were originally used as the blueprint for manufacturing everything from the Tundra cooler to the new Loadout bucket.

Each of the items within holds a special place in the history of the company.

When the door swings open, a warehouse is revealed. Shelves stacked high with dozens of Yeti gear samples run the length of the room. Each of the items within holds a special place in the history of the company and diehard fans of the brand — not to mention Yeti’s competitors — would love to be able to stroll through these archives. Hence the reason each are safely locked away behind closed doors inside the Innovation Center, far from prying eyes.

It’s a bit ironic this monument to Yeti’s past is contained in a place which also houses its path to the future. The Innovation Center figures to be its heart of product development for several years and after just a year removed from opening, it’s already paying major dividends. Just what kinds of new products might develop from this creative environment remains to be seen, but it’s obvious Yeti is just getting warmed up. A major delight for the company’s legions of fans, no doubt, but it should also make the competition very nervous.

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