Voice of the Modern Manufacturing Economy Since 2013
Jason Lockwood / photos Becky Hurley

Westone Laboratories

by Becky Hurley on June 23, 2014, 07:25 pm MDT

www.westone.com

Colorado Springs

Founded:  1959 

CEO and President:  Jason Lockwood 

No. of employees:  200 

Audio-expert for the stars: Westone counts Air Force pilots and rock stars as loyal customers, audiophiles who trust Jason Lockwood’s team for custom ear apparatus.

What do an 80-year old grandfather, British rock band Def Leppard and a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot have in common?  All three have used an ear apparatus manufactured by Westone Laboratories. 

Westone has sold between 14 million and 15 million hearing health, sound protection and musician’s in-ear sound-enhancing products since the company was founded in 1959 by Colorado Springs’ native Ron Morgan. 

“Our process is half art, half science,” explains Westone CEO Jason Lockwood, adding that human ear canals, like fingerprints, are completely individual.  As a result, custom earpiece manufacture, unlike one-size-fits-all ear buds or hearing aids, involves a laser-mold design process, hand tooling/finishing and scrupulous quality control.

Many of its key patents – including a proprietary ACCES system used to make specialized audio receivers for the United States Air Force -- were developed in-house.  Today 94 percent of the Air Force’s fighter pilots rely on the company’s custom-fit ear equipment for use in the cockpit.  

The company’s primary – and exceptionally loyal – customer base, however, has always been the nation’s 12,000 professional audiologists.  “We’re considered a trusted partner,” he says, adding that Westone hosts regular continuing education and hearing industry programs.

While many plants increasingly depend on robotics and assembly lines, creating one-of-a-kind custom ear equipment is still a mostly hands-on task.  Day-to-day operations take place in Westone’s nine laboratories.  Molds are designed electronically or built using pliable synthetic materials and waxes.  Lab managers look for workers with an artistic, quality-oriented skillset. 

The American Speech-Language Hearing Association reports that 28 million Americans have hearing impairment and at least half of all Baby Boomers need hearing aids.  But Lockwood expects sales to remain steady.  That’s because custom-fit hearing aids retail for at least $1,500 to $2,000 a pair.  And traditional Medicare or private insurance plans pay little – if anything -- toward the cost. 

“It’s an under-served market,” he says, adding that only about 20 percent of potential users can afford them.   

Hearing health products, however, remain the company’s biggest seller, accounting for about two-thirds of annual revenues.  Additional business comes from products like DefendEar which is used for sound protection by the military, target shooters, auto racers, pilots and by other manufacturers with noisy operations.  Outside Magazine recently named Westone its No. 1 source for sound protection.

But it’s the music and entertainment industry that represents the company’s biggest growth opportunity.  

Concert musicians, sportscasters and performers are frequent customers for noise-reducing earpieces.  They also search out the company’s sound purity and clarification equipment.  In production lab No. 6, for example, a technician shows off a pair of custom earphones completed for a Nashville country music star who called in his order.  

“Think of listening to music on your iPod,” Lockwood says.  “Real musicians know that digitized music has been greatly compressed and somewhat distorted.  For audiophiles who want Hi-def quality, we’ve developed the W series earphones.  A lot of music lovers have no idea what they’re missing.” 

Challenges:

Fighting big discounters and cheap products that distort sound or don’t really fit the ear properly, Lockwood says.  “It can be daunting to compete on price alone when the public doesn’t understand the difference.” 

Opportunities:

We’re here for the next generation that wants to know what real audio should sound like.  We have our own R & D team working on a number of new applications.  At the same time, we are focused on serving the many loyal professional audiologists who use our hearing health products.

Needs:

Finding the talent with the necessary passion for our product.   Ours is a very demanding field; our customers expect consistency and quality.

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