Kaizen in the Art of Archery: A Visit to Mathews, Inc.

A couple posts back, I took you to the Pope and Young Club’s headquarters and museum of bowhunting in Chatfield, Minnesota.  By chance, it’s only a couple hours from there to Mathews, the world’s largest archery company.  The very next morning I visited their state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Sparta, Wisconsin. 

In Deerland, those two days allow me to frame the story of bowhunting’s North American reboot and subsequent technological arms race in a way that’s almost too neat and tidy, like it couldn’t really happen that way in real life.  In real life, it made my head spin. 

As I mentioned last time, one exhibit back at the P&Y Club museum was labeled “The Evolution of the Compound Bow.”  It ended with the latest model from Mathews.  Already, however, the exhibit was out of date.  At Mathews a new 2012 model had been unveiled two days earlier, just in time for the company’s upcoming 20th anniversary. 

Speaking of anniversaries, 2011 was the 50th anniversary of the P&Y Club.  What’s more, it was 100 years ago that Saxton Pope’s friend Ishi, future archery tutor and “the last wild Indian in North America,” walked out of the woods near Deer Creek in 1911.  A day after learning about all that bowhunting history, here I was walking the factory floor at Mathews.  My, how the centuries fly by.

My guide was Bob Ohm, Mathews Public Relations Director.  (That’s him up there in the photo.)  He’s been with the company for most of its 20-year history, and was one of the very first employees hired by founder Matt McPherson.  Today, Bob told me, the company has just under 400 employees, around 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space, and over 1,100 dealers in the U.S. plus another 100 or so abroad.  Including all four of its product lines, it sells about 150,000 bows a year.

As we began our tour, Bob told me about Materials Requirements Planning (MRP), lean manufacturing, Rapid Continuous Improvement (RCI), and a kaizen continuous improvement process fueled by suggestions from front-line employees.  Having worked on a few corporate writing projects in a manufacturing environment, I knew just enough to realize I was seeing a world-class operation.  And from the charts, graphs, and statistical analyses I saw posted on the walls and at individual workstations, I could tell that around here quality was more than just a slogan.

Although assembly operations still require a great deal of careful craftsmanship, most of the actually machining is done by rows of million-dollar robotic Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines.  But everything, right down to the cams, pulleys, and strings, is made right here in America.  It was an impressive tour.

Bob did ask me to leave my camera out in the lobby.  But as far as I know, the only department I wasn’t allowed to see that day was the string room.  Today, even a bowstring is a marvel of top-secret technology.  So the door to the string room remained closed.

After we finished our tour, Bob and I sat down to visit for a while longer.  He graciously and patiently answered dozens of questions, and by the end of the morning I’d learned a lot about Mathews and about the archery business in general.  Even if you’re not a hunter and never plan to become one, all of this is more relevant for our Deerland story than you might think.  Today’s archery industry, like the outdoor industry in general, depends almost totally on deer.  Without deer, neither would exist in their present form.

Oh, and that new bow?  It’s called the Heli-M.  (It’s pronounced like “helium,” because it only weighs 3.5 pounds.)  Arriving when I did last November, I was probably one of the first civilians to see one in person.  Since I’m not yet a bowhunter, this honor was admittedly rather wasted on me.

Bob’s holding a Heli-M the photo, and in the display case behind him you can see some bits and pieces from earlier Mathews bows.  I could give you bowhunters all the Heli-M specs and tell you how great it is, but instead you may as well just go straight to the Mathews website when you’re done here.  (Heck, you’d probably be doing that in a minute anyway.)

And if you are a bowhunter, don’t feel bad if Santa didn’t bring you a new Heli-M.  He’s generally very busy in the months leading up to Christmas, and that’s one reason he’s not a deer hunter.  (Plus, there’s that whole thing with hanging around those reindeer all the time.)  He’s a busy guy, and he may not have even heard the announcement when the bow was unveiled back in November.  But the day of the announcement, sight unseen, Mathews dealers placed initial orders for just under 10,000 Heli-Ms.

Sorry, Santa.  The next couple months of production are already spoken for.  Besides, Mathews only distributes bows through its network of authorized dealers.  No exceptions, not even for you.

© 2012 Al Cambronne

Author: alcambronne

Retired photographer, author, and cancer survivor living in northwest Wisconsin.