Designing to stand the test of time

A cardboard ping-pong table is among the Decathlon prototypes. Damien Fournet (left), a scientist at Decathlon, outside a climatic chamber, which can reproduce environments from -40 to 40 deg C.
Damien Fournet (left), a scientist at Decathlon, outside a climatic chamber, which can reproduce environments from -40 to 40 deg C.ST PHOTO: CHUA SIANG YEE
A cardboard ping-pong table is among the Decathlon prototypes. Damien Fournet (left), a scientist at Decathlon, outside a climatic chamber, which can reproduce environments from -40 to 40 deg C.
A cardboard ping-pong table is among the Decathlon prototypes.ST PHOTO: CHUA SIANG YEE

French sporting goods giant Decathlon gives a behind-the-scenes look at its R&D arm

In a brightly-lit nondescript room in the northern French city of Lille stand eight high-speed cameras, spread out in a circle and trained on a human subject in the centre of the room.

At the side, scientists devour data from the motion of the subject - covered in bulb-like sensors - sprinting and leaping. They devour data captured on a computer, such as the force on each joint and the level of strain on the muscle.

For the uninformed, this futuristic set-up sounds like a scene from an X-Men movie. Except this takes place in Decathlon's sprawling 10,000 sq m headquarters, referred to as the "Campus" by staff.

Damien Fournet, who holds a PhD in thermal physiology from England's Loughborough University, said: "We run about 200 tests a year, based on feedback from customers or our brand managers, to try and make our products better."

The 31-year-old Frenchman belongs to the SportsLab team, a group of about 50 scientists whose sole focus is to aid product design through understanding how the human body responds in different environments.

They represent the French sporting goods retailer's commitment to innovation and quality. Decathlon, with an annual turnover of €9.1 billion (S$13.89 billion) last year, is only behind the military and car manufacturer Renault in research and development spending in France, Decathlon Singapore chief executive Bastian Grandgeorge proudly declares.

The research covers all areas, from designing new products to testing an item's durability in carefully-designed "stress tests".

Fournet, for instance, heads the Thermal Lab, which has four climatic chambers capable of reproducing environments from -40 to 40 deg C.

The scientists test products in the chamber, sometimes on a mannequin that has sweat pores installed to replicate perspiration.

They also do live tests, including hiking in the French Alps with volunteer subjects, many of them regular Decathlon customers. The team of scientists even publish scientific papers - about six a year - based on their findings.

Among their proudest designs are a running top installed with a heart rate monitor and a reflective tent that takes two seconds to set up.

They were also instrumental in creating a running shoe that reduces the chances of injury for all types of running gaits and strides. The shoe, which took four years from conceptualisation to production, came in third at Decathlon's annual innovation awards night on Oct 6.

But the SportsLab scientists make up only one portion of Decathlon's innovation team.

Teams of engineers are employed to study different aspects of company products. There is a mini cannon that fires golf balls at a surface to test their durability, and a machine that tugs at bag straps to test its durability.

The company's focus on innovation goes beyond product design. Domyos, Decathlon's label for gym and fitness equipment, has run a fitness club in Lille for the past eight years.

The club, housed in a Decathlon store carrying mainly Domyos products, comprises a fully-equipped gym and several studios. It has instructor-led classes ranging from modern dance, spinning and yoga.

There is even a free app for users to watch some classes live from their own homes and join in the workout.

Pannya Khamphommala, product chief of Domyos, said this is a new way to both attract and retain customers.

"More than just selling Domyos products, we want to promote an active lifestyle among our customers," he said. "By having them in the store, we can also get instant feedback on the products."

Fournet hopes the amount of thought put into each item will quash the notion that cheap prices mean low quality.

"The prices come from the integrated structure of Decathlon. We do everything, from product design to manufacturing, so we save a lot of costs," said the running enthusiast. "As you can see the products are, what we like to call, technical."

And, as Fournet would say, none of the X-Men were created from his labs, but they are what gives Decathlon the X-factor.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2016, with the headline 'Designing to stand the test of time'. Print Edition | Subscribe