Photos: Gabe L’Heureux
This week, Burton is unveiling a newly revamped binding interface, the Step On. The new model of bindings and boots is built on a foundation of step-ins—a trend that has not resurfaced much over the past decade—and is set to hit retail for the 2017-18 winter season.
The entire Burton team invited media, retailers, and a few VIP customers to Vail, Colorado, Wednesday, December 14, to take to the snow with the new product and give it a first try. For Burton VP of Product Chris Cunningham, the four-year design, development and R&D process is finally coming to light.
“Step-in systems have really disappeared over the past decade, for a variety of reasons, but mainly because of performance,” Cunningham says. “When we set out, it was like how do we make sure it doesn't suck; we realized we’d have to shut out the baggage from the past. Our objective was if you are blindfolded, can you tell the difference?”
Burton is calling the Step On the “next generation” of non-strap bindings, with attention to making the system faster, easier, and—most importantly—perform just as good if not better than the traditional ones.
The last time Burton released a step-in system was in 2004. This time, the team has an extremely detailed strategy, which includes only seeding the product at its top retail partners and creating an all-encompassing marketing push that speaks to multiple generations, including youth (who have never experienced the step-in years) to fathers who are looking to keep up with their kids.
“It's a reinvention, but now in the market is where it’s really going to stand out,” Cunningham says. “There isn't a sea of these interfaces like there once was. It’s great to be bringing it to market relatively early before anything else like it.”
We caught up with Burton’s Cunningham to hear more.
How long has this product been in the design & development process from start to finish? What hurdles did you come up against from the production standpoint?
We started approximately four years ago. We built a room, called the "white room"; we knew we had to buckle down, clear schedules, and assimilate a team and make sure they had zero distractions. We had to go a little off the radar. Over night we built this wall in a vacant space [in the office]. People were like, “why is there a wall here now?” Behind there, we pulled 5 to 6 people from our team and had them clear their calendars for the next 4-5 months. They weren't allowed to come out of that room until they had proof of concept—besides going out on snow to test. They literally disappeared. Other engineers were going, “where's so and so,” and we’re like, "don't worry about it." We needed ultimate focus, and it really set the project up right.
The last time we had anything on the market, we had originally developed the step-ins for a 1998-99 launch. Back then, there was no 3D printing. What we can do today compared to then is light-years apart. We have the most advanced 3D printing on site and we've had it for about a decade. There was always talk that it would be so different if we started this over again. When we applied that new power to the concept, we knew we were going to have some amazing results.
What we were able to accomplish over the past four years of development has been incredible. We went through many iterations and went to snow right away with all of them. We've had a lot of time to refine.
It’s been a long road, and there’s been some blood, sweat, and tears. We documented everything along the way; it's even changed how we do our other projects. You'll see the way we do smaller projects now using the “mini white room” model. Not only has it been a really fun project to see come to life, but it’s changed the way we do things as a company.
Can you speak about the materials used to create the Step On bindings and boots? Is there a departure from typical materials you would use?
We didn't reinvent the materials used. It was more about the prototyping capability and getting things on snow earlier. We borrowed a lot of elements from existing products. The beauty is in its simplicity; not doing too much to it. The fewer mechanical parts, the better. There are less parts on this than on a traditional system.
The primary tension of what holds you is hinged on the buckle in a traditional strap. We used geometry and perfected what we know from the past 20 years. We call what holds you in the back a heel buckle and the boot is interfacing with that. This kind of looks like what's on the ankle strap – and that’s exactly what we know how to do.
It’s simpler, lighter weight, has less parts, and what sets it apart from past step-ins is that we didn't sacrifice performance. The baseplate you are standing on, what's under your foot, is exactly the same as the strap binding. We took the boot, and messed with it in the least invasive way—the outsole shouldn't have to be thicker/thinner, should flex the same, and when I walk in the boot it has to be as, or more, comfortable. It was amazing how little we had to do to the boot to get it just right.
Jake is convinced he snowboards better with it. It's designed to feel just like what you are used to. People approach it with skepticism, and then they put it on. Especially with core snowboarders, they can tell it’s going to be good just feeling the flex. We studied how regular bindings flex and move, and that became the requirement.
How is Burton looking to market this? Traditionally, step-in style setups have been marketed toward more of a beginner to intermediate crowd as a way to break into the sport. Do you find that this is the main demographic you are trying to attract with the release of the Step On?
It will be geared toward everyone. It will attract the beginner or someone looking for convenience. It's like suddenly showing up to the cell phone scene and being asked whether you want a flip phone or an iPhone. It’s a no-brainer.
We have asked ourselves, “who are we making this for?” We originally took the team out of that equation. Typically we develop for the team, but we thought let's develop this for the everyday snowboarder—not just the beginner or intermediate rider— just the typical snowboarder, and we really asked ourselves, “what do they want?”
Eventually we brought the team in and they were like "wait, we want to try it." That didn't sway us. We stayed the course through the lens of the everyday snowboarder, and I think that's who we are going to approach with this.
From beginner to expert, what we are discovering in testing this market, is there is a lot of untapped interest across the board. I don't know if that will change the way we approach it.
I think naturally the core snowboarder will first approach it cautiously. We are doing studies on the product adoption curve, to see who early adopters will be. We’ve been careful about where it’s available for sale, which channels we are placing it in, to make sure it's serviced correctly. Full service specialty accounts will be the first and primary channel where it's placed and then you'll see it broaden from there.
Everyone we've worked on with the product has a perception of who it’s for, and then that slowly changes. Alex Andrews was so adamant to get it first, now he's been posting on social a bunch of different approaches.
A generation that never saw step-ins back in the day are now seeing this. Wheels are turning on one-footed tricks. It's really interesting. Then there's the family dad who wants to keep up with skier buddies, and wants to be able to keep up with their kids.
From Burton’s standpoint as a founding brand of the snowboard industry, what can you say about the evolution of the step-in binding and why do you see it making a resurgence now in 2016-17 and beyond?
I think we knew it was a matter of when and not if. With that comes timing. When will the market be ready for the next go at this thing? The memories of prior systems out there made us ask, will there be skepticism or optimism?
I think the market would have been ready years ago for what we’ve created. We knew a few years ago the time was now and we were ready for it.
The market is different now, too. Back when the first step-ins were introduced, the market was growing rapidly and snowboarding was such a new sport. Back then, there were so many different systems. That generation now has kids; you are now talking to a different demographic than you were 15 years ago.
I'm excited to see the way it evolves based on the way the market has reacted so far. We didn't develop this with the team first and foremost, but it’s been interesting to hear what they have to say and what they are already working on with tricks. They were just kids, or they weren’t even born, [when step-ins were on the market] so it’s really interesting. For me personally, I’ve been snowboarding forever. I have three kids— the youngest is four, and she is still learning the basics. I'm in and out of my system all day long, so it’s nice because I'm just able to teach her better. I think you will see resorts and instructors gravitate toward it.