D’Addario Brings Wire Making & Nylon Production In-House
...brought additional raw materials production in-house, investing heavily in vertical integration at its Farmingdale, New York manufacturing complex. The most recent investments include expanding its expertise in wire manufacturing as well as a high-tech extrusion system that turns out Pro Arte classical guitar nylon treble strings. In a fiercely competitive market—guitar string prices have barely budged in three decades—Jim D’Addario, CEO, says the new production equipment “will yield important efficiencies designed to enable us to make our strings here in the U.S.A. now and in the future.” More importantly though, he says it will enhance quality in subtle but significant ways while simultaneously providing a platform for continuous product innovation.
It’s always been hard to find fault with the quality of D’Addario strings: they have been consistent top sellers in markets around the world and the choice of a large stable of illustrious artists. However, the perfectionist in Jim D’Addario was regularly disappointed by slight imperfections in raw materials: core wire that didn’t meet precise tensile strength or dimensional measurements or nylon monofilament that was out of round by more than .0002". He regularly brought these shortcomings up with key suppliers, but as he explains, “It was hard to get their attention. Our industry’s entire capacity requirements could represent less than half a day’s production at a large wire or extrusion mill.”
Three-and-a-half years ago, he finally decided “enough was enough,” and made the decision to build out his own wire mill. Drawing high carbon steel core and plain steel involves taking large diameter steel cable, a little less than the diameter of a pencil, and drawing it under tension, through a series of dies to reduce it to the thread-like dimensions required for string making. Although it’s a centuries-old process, the D’Addario mill has the look of a high-tech lab: spotless epoxy-sealed floors and five lines of sleek, computer-controlled equipment. The German-made drawing machinery precisely controls the variables of speed, tension, and temperature to yield wires of unusually consistent dimensional specifications and strength. Diameter tolerances are held to 5/100,000ths of an inch, and the process is so automated that the finished wire comes off the machines pre-wrapped on spools, ready to be put into string production.
What started as a complete re-engineering of the process used to make D’Addario’s hexagonal core wire and tinned plain steel wire has now been expanded to include the phosphor bronze wires used to wind the acoustic strings that put the brand on the map in 1974. Having the in-house expertise has enabled D’Addario to not only improve all the steel and bronze wire it currently uses for its strings, but to create even higher grades of materials, as witnessed by the introduction of its NYXL premium electric strings. The new higher-tensile New York Steel wire, along with other process improvements, created the NYXL sub-brand—the most pitch stable and unbreakable electric guitar strings available. In a testament to the superior quality of these raw materials, D’Addario has forged valuable, ongoing supplier relationships with quite a few of its competitors.
The continued success of the wire mill prompted Jim to bring nylon extrusion in house as well. D’Addario utilizes extruded nylon material for the treble strings in its market-leading Pro-Arte classical guitar string line as well as ukulele and other indigenous instrument strings. Obtaining truly perfect monofilaments for string making has always been a string-maker’s Achilles heel.
The challenge is to achieve a perfectly round string cross section with diameter fluctuations under 3/10,000ths of an inch. Variations of as little as 2/10,000ths of an inch, or less than one tenth the thickness of a human hair, can skew the tension and feel of a string. Jim explains, “This may sound insignificant, but it means a lot to virtuoso artists like Julian Bream or John Williams who helped D’Addario design their treble string specifications three decades ago; they can instantly detect these variations.”
A century of making steel strings has given the D’Addario staff a working knowledge of wire and metallurgy, however, nylon extrusion meant acquiring an entirely new skillset. The project involved hiring consultants to design an extrusion line designed specifically for making monofilaments for music strings. D’Addario also needed to add polymer engineers to its staff to develop the end products and processes required.
Made possible in part by investment incentives from New York State, D’Addario’s 50-foot-long nylon extrusion system takes pellets of nylon at one end, and under heat and pressure, turns them into precisely drawn nylon filaments at the other. Unlike many commercial extrusion machines that produce as many as 48 strands of nylon simultaneously, the D’Addario machine produces only one, in order to hold to the tight specifications required. It took close to two years of trial and error experimentation to develop the process that produces consistently superior material satisfying D’Addario’s extremely tight, Pro-Arte specifications.
However, even at that point, the D’Addario staff proceeded with caution. String prototypes were presented to artists in a large blindfold test. In addition, the company sent out 25,000 sample sets with a questionnaire to a cross section of players as a “beta test.” “We have over a 50% market share in the classical guitar string market and we didn’t want a ‘New Coke’ fiasco on our hands,” says Jim. Only after the market tests came back with irrefutably positive results were the new strings released. Now engineers are utilizing the new extrusion platform to experiment with all kinds of new polymers and material additives in hopes of creating a new generation of string products in this category.
The D’Addario family began making gut strings in Italy in the 1600s, supplying the famed violin makers of Cremona. Nine generations later, they’re still at it, and in the process, have absorbed more than a few lessons about “operating for the long term.” For Jim, the overarching principle is continual improvement. The average player may not be able to detect microscopic improvements in core wire or nylon, but he says the fact that something can be made better is reason enough to do it. And, he adds, the quest for a better way has produced products to satisfy the most discerning players, and has been the source of the company’s long running success.
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