Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Climbing boulders and playground equipment
Founder Ian Glas is re-creating nature with his company's outdoor climbing installations, and business is booming.
"I essentially wanted to provide the most realistic climbing opportunities in a public setting for youth," says Glas. "I believe if I had I found climbing earlier in my life, it would have made a big difference."
ID Sculpture's ultra-naturalistic Performance Boulders blend in with real rocks down to the mottled faux water stains on their surface. But the company also offers fanciful climbing and playground products like its Terra Critters line, which includes colorful caterpillars, dragons, bears, and turtles.
The company is growing rapidly as climbing gains popularity across the U.S. "We're trending at 20 to 23 percent growth over the last six years," says Glas. "It's annual growth, so it's really been quite exponential."
Glas and his employees have installed about 470 projects across the country since its launch. To meet demand, ID Sculpture expanded its facility by 2,600 square feet to 18,000 square feet earlier in 2018.
ID Sculpture's manufacturing is cutting-edge. "We have a pretty unique system. Some of it is proprietary," Glas explains. "We have developed a 3D-modeling process that directly represents the manufactured product. That's unique within the industry."
It also uses a glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC) developed with Jon Belkowitz, who works with Colorado Springs-based Intelligent Concrete. "He's a Ph.D chemist in concrete design," Glas says. "He's like our Nobel Prize-winning concrete designer."
ID Sculpture designs with a haptic digital interface instead of traditional CAD software alone. "I can touch and feel and sculpt the models in the computer rather than using a keyboard interface," Glas explains. "The reason the fidelity comes through is we use large-format CNCs to cut the structural foam armature."
From there, ID Sculpture's pieces are coated with hand-sculpted GFRC. "So you get the best of both worlds in that our production process is 75 percent digital and 25 percent handcrafted," explains Glas. "We're in a digital world with the majority of our fabrication. You couldn't mold our product because the nature of having viable climbing creates too many in-cuts for molds to hold up, and they would be massive molds. Each time a Pagosa Boulder is ordered, an armature is molded on the CNC, assembled on a steel frame, and hand-sculpted with the finish layers."
Most of its products are built to order, but ID Sculpture does stock some of its most popular products, like its vines and Transition Boulders. "We're so adept at custom orders," Glas says. "Let's say you wanted to take on of our standard products and double the size of it and keep the exact shape -- it's available at the touch of a button." Similarly, the company can commingle standard features or come up with a fully custom product. "Usually it's only a 10 to 15 percent price increase over a standard item."
The products are primarily found in parks and playgrounds, but they have also been incorporated in retaining walls with climbing surfaces, like a project the company completed in Salida, Colorado.
Adds Glas: "We also specialize in bouldering gardens, which is essentially targeting a multi-generation play-type scenario where you have expert climbers climbing with children that are beginners and we do a fair amount of those at this point."
He notes that ID Sculpture's products are far safer and inspire more creative thought than older climbing equipment like jungle gyms. "The climbing is not as obvious so it really inspires problem-solving interaction, and there are different levels of difficulty throughout the boulder. Five feet to the left is going to be entirely different than the routes in front of you."
Glas references a seven-boulder project the company recently installed in Iowa: "That's fairly typical these days where climbers form an alliance in a community and start to raise funds and then dominate a corner of a city park with several boulders so they can have an area to climb with parents and children alike."
ID Sculpture also partnered with The North Face and The Trust for Public Land to install climbing boulders in low-income communities across the country. "We've got three of those projects either in the works or in the ground with another 50 or 60 in the next three years," Glas says with some pride. "It's part of The North Face Walls are Meant for Climbing campaign. Those represent projects that target more than just youth and are larger scale than some of our playground features."
Locating the business in relatively remote Gunnison, Glas says, was a lifestyle choice. "There's something magical about rush minute instead of rush hour and having nature's playground at your fingertips," he waxes.
Challenges: Glas cites attracting qualified workers as a big one. "Some of our processes are fairly specialized," he explains. "If you were in the Denver areas you'd find people who were looking for work and had the skills you're looking for."
He continues, "There is no place to turn for pre-educated employees in the craftsman area of fabrication process. It poses a challenge for instant growth. If you were making coathangers, it would be a different story."
But ID Sculpture's biggest direct cost is shipping. "We spend $80,000 about more a year in shipping than we would if we were in Denver on shipping," Glas says. That's partially offset somewhat by lower facilities costs, which he says might be about 25 percent cheaper in Gunnison than in Denver.
Opportunities: "I started the company to provide ultra-realistic climbing opportunities for youth that would otherwise never be subjected or have that opportunity to participate in the sport," Glas says. "We're starting to see more and more of those types of jobs. It's what I think we do best and from a market perspective, it's where I see the most growth."
Needs: Outside funding. "I would never turn down capital. It would only be the question of the cost of that capital," Glas says. "It's difficult if you grow 20 percent every year. You begin to forecast three years out, and in three years, you've grown 60 or 70 or 80 percent."