(By Dave Wolfe and Tim Halberg)

During this past spring break, Tim and I were graciously invited to visit PING HQ.

No need to sugar coat it, I love going on these covert missions to golf companies.

These visits are a great way to see what the golf companies are all about. Often times, the golf consumer doesn’t get to see what’s really going on behind the company curtain. I enjoy getting to see the workings of the golf companies in person, underneath any marketing spin.

The cynic will say that the main goal of any golf company is consumer cash extraction. If a company doesn’t make money, then it doesn’t stay in business.

Desire for profit may be a common golf company motive, but I hold out hope for more. What if a golf company realized that it was making equipment for people to play the hardest game in the world, and realizing this, merged the desire to be profitable with a true desire to help golfers play better?

In other words, is it possible for a company to take the consumers money while actually still really caring about helping the consumer play better golf? Could PING be such a company?

PING has been in the golf business a long time, and yet as I traveled with Tim to Phoenix, I felt that I didn’t have a solid read on them as a company, nor where they fit in with the other major golf companies. Thus, my simple goal from the visit was to answer this question:

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What is PING Golf all about?

I think that many of us have impressions of what the major companies in golf are all about.

  • TaylorMade is the goliath in the industry, whose marketing and product releases have made them the one to catch in recent years.
  • Callaway is in a #fiveyearwar to be the next number one company, and they have used social media very effectively to increase sales and to keep the golfing consumer aware of their master plan and equipment sorties.
  • Cobra’s youthful, and colorful palate, targets the younger golfer demographic, while also dramatically improving their products in recent years.
  • Wilson Staff shares the longevity of PING, and has recently made strides to place them back in the equipment conversation.
  • Nike Golf? Well at some point the deep pocket giant will really invest time and capital in the golf industry, and when they do, the whole landscape will be covered in swoosh.

But where does PING fit in? Is PING a covert-op company, working on market domination outside of the public scrutiny? Is PING the steady market tortoise, with the others more erratic hares? While the other companies battle each other for market supremacy, is PING just out in the desert following its own agenda? Or, is PING about something else altogether?

Tim and I intended to find out.

 

Dawn in the Desert

Desert Morning Ping

As you can see from the schedule below, our day at PING was going to start very early in the morning. My workday normally starts early, but 7:00 was even a little early for me to get the gears rolling. We rallied though. Lots to see, lots to do, and only one day to see and do it.

 

7:00 AM – 7:45 AM: Travel to PING HQ & Breakfast

When we drove into the PING HQ lot, the size of the golf operation at the Phoenix plant became impressively apparent.

Karsten Solheim established the Phoenix HQ with one building back in the 1960’s. To say that it has grown since then is an understatement. That first building is the little gray one at the intersection of West Desert Cove Avenue and 21st Avenue. As their operations and the company grew, Karsten purchased additional buildings and properties adjacent to the original shop. Now, decades later, the PING facility takes up two whole city blocks.

Ping Map

From Google Maps

After signing in, our guide pointed out Karsten Solheim’s first Bridgeport milling machine, transported to Phoenix from PING’s Redwood City origins. While it was cool to see the old machine, the story that goes with it is that this machine was cooler. Karsten borrowed $1100 to buy this machine, and that was the only time he ever borrowed money for his business!

Not having to borrow to fund growth seems like an amazing, and very uncommon business plan. Maybe other companies have followed similar financial paths, but I kind of doubt it.

On our way to the cafeteria for breakfast, we passed through cubicle pods, all arranged by workgroups. Though the workspace looks a lot like a typical cubicle farm, there are also touches of PING history here and there, covertly (or maybe overtly) celebrating the milestones of Karsten Solheim and his company.

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It may have been 7:30 AM, or so, but there were lots of people already working. Maybe this is a scheduling plan to beat the AZ heat, or maybe it reflects that PING is a global operation and customers have needs at other locations, and times worldwide. Probably both.

Our quick bagel breakfast in the PING cafeteria was tasty and efficient. We had work to do and a long lounging meal was not the way to get that accomplished. So we hopped on the golf cart and headed to iron assembly.

7:45 AM – 8:20 AM: Iron Assembly Tour

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In the assembly area, I suppose I expected to see people gluing clubs together and then throwing them in boxes. Nothing fancy. Sort of like the assembly line that makes fast-food burgers. Like some of you, I viewed the Made in China, assembled in the USA product model as inherently low precision, and low quality.

I had the opinion that cutting costs by having things made overseas automatically went hand in hand with sacrificing quality and craftsmanship, with “assembly” being the thing that I do with random IKEA products.

At PING, iron assembly is far more involved and precise than assembling your IKEA Bjursta table.

First of all, the whole process is geared for efficiency. Build tags are filed at the end of the facility where the various components are housed. Workers then pull heads, shafts, grips, and etc. to meet the needs of the order.

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It is at this point where the iron heads are paintfilled with the iconic PING color codes,  next being laser engraved with the serial number. You can also get custom engraving on the hosel as well.

Adding the serial number at assembly, as opposed to manufacturing, not only helps PING prevent counterfeiting, but it also provides a way to keep track of the specifics of every order. Everything in the process is tracked via computer. Through serial numbers and QR code tags, PING tracks each piece through the process. Fear not, you club will never be lost, nor will your specifications.

As a consumer, the unique serial number on your irons will also allow you to order additional clubs with the exact specs as your original set. If you want to add a matching U-wedge, or replace a 9i that is now swimming at the Sawgrass 17th, your serial number is saved in PING’s system and guarantees an exact match when you order.

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Once the components are selected and tagged, they are moved to one of the assembly cells. In these horseshoe-shaped cells, workers assemble the clubs, making sure that they meet the exact specifications of the individual order.

This is the part that I never imagined about the process. It’s not just gluing and boxing. There are multiple points where the clubs are checked for proper specifications. I say multiple points, but really it’s at every step where the clubs are checked. It’s every time a PING employee touches your club. Length, swing-weight, loft, lie, and so on are all checked and adjusted if needed. Parts do not progress forward unless they are correctly configured.

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Speaking of loft and lie, every club is checked and adjusted to exact specifications. Even the standard/black dot clubs are checked to be sure that they are in fact standard. PING uses a laser-based digital loft and lie reader (of their own design) to read every iron, making adjustments by hand when necessary.

Did you see where I just wrote “by hand”? That is a huge aspect of the PING assembly process. Each assembly pod had about fifteen people or so working on the various aspects of assembly, each an expert in his or her part of the process. If we include the pre- and post-assembly people, the number of PING employees who touch your new set of clubs jumps to well over twenty.

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That’s twenty people who are making sure that your clubs are exactly what you want, and that those clubs reflect PING’s commitment to quality. The employees are truly experts at what they do, with many of the line workers having done so for ten, twenty, and even over thirty years.

To further ensure quality, each person in the process is encouraged to pull out any product that they deem not up to PING’s quality standards. It was obvious that PING really takes pride in their products and takes whatever steps they can to be sure that you get highest quality, precision clubs.

The shipping department is right adjacent to the iron assembly room. Throughout the day, boxes of clubs roll into shipping from the assembly cells. PING’s plan each day is to have full bins of order slips in the morning, and then a full shipping facility by the afternoon pick-up.

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8:20 AM – 9:10 AM: Metal woods / Putter Assembly Tour

Assembly for metal woods and putters mimicked the same assembly cell model found with the irons. Obviously, there were some slight differences from the irons, but the number of people working on the clubs and the process progression was similar in scope and efficiency.

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One part of putter assembly that surprised me was that the Fit-to-Stroke mallet shafts were bent to fit stroke path after the head was glued on. I had assumed that they would just have bins of straight, slight, and strong arc shafts. Not so. All of the shafts started straight and then were bent to order, once again by hand.

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For some reason, the PING Ketsch is very popular right now. We saw Ketsch after Ketsch, after Ketsch work its way around the assembly horseshoe. I’ll have a whole lot more about the Ketsch manufacturing process in a separate article. Coming Soon!

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While we didn’t spy any unreleased product on our mission, we did learn that before any new products are released, the assembly steps for the new products are also tested. PING wants to identify any weaknesses or issues with the assembly process, just like it would when designing the club itself. Again, demonstrating PING’s commitments to quality and efficiency.

 

9:10 AM – 9:30 AM: Bag Assembly / Customization Tour

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Once again, we see the PING assembly and customization model in place. The bags come to PING from their supplier as “flats” and then the bases, legs, and tops are assembled in Phoenix. It may not be as complicated as the club assembly process, but the same level of care is taken in the construction of the bags.

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I bet that a lot of you who played high school or college golf had a PING bag that was customized for your school. All of those logos are stitched on right here at the PING factory. Some of the bags were being stitched in small batches, while others were done in many-at-a-time runs.

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I know that I’m getting a bit redundant, but like the PING clubs, if you buy a bag from PING you can be assured that multiple PING employees have done their best to make sure you get a precisely constructed golf bag.

We learned later in the day that PING bags are also stress tested to the point to failure by the engineers to improve designs. Some poor Hoofer had its legs extended 20,000 times so that your bag could serve you better. Thank you abused Hoofer, thank you.

 

9:30 AM – 11:30 AM: Engineering Discussion

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After the morning tour of the facilities, Tim and I sat down with one of the PING engineers to learn what the club designing process at PING is all about.

First and foremost, the engineer explained that PING does not follow the traditional model of product development. The traditional, or product driven process goes something like this:

  1. Establish Design Requirement (i.e. longer driver)
  2. Take your best guess and build a prototype
  3. Test prototype and go back to step 2 if not working.
  4. After rounds of testing, bring new product to market.

Rather than working to design specific products, PING engineers work to create knowledge. That is the primary goal of PING, to create a knowledge culture. Engineers explore aspects of golf club design such as aerodynamics, center of gravity, inertia, weight position, and even alignment schemes, identifying any areas where gaps in the knowledge exists for the given topics.

Their goal is to learn as much as they can about these areas and how the different aspects interact. For example, how does moving the center of gravity forward and low in a driver affect inertia and forgiveness?

Here is how the knowledge-based design process happens at PING.

  1. Study the customer needs, identify knowledge gaps, and design tests for those gaps.
  2. Evaluate uncertainty: what are the limitations of physics and manufacturing
  3. Develop optimum design that meets the customer needs, provides measurable improvements, and maintains quality standards.

The engineers explore advances in materials and manufacturing methods, knowing that if a new material becomes available that saves a few grams from the crown that those grams can now be redistributed to other parts of the club.

Manufacturing process knowledge is also critical as the best design becomes worthless if PING doesn’t have the ability to build it.

PING’s approach to new equipment starts with knowledge, and then the products emerge from that knowledge. The other main feature of this knowledge is that it is shared throughout the PING company culture. What they learn as individual engineers is written down and shared with all. This way, the company’s knowledge grows with each discovery and this enables their engineers from all parts of PING to easily access the entire knowledge base.

We all know that PING also has a well established 2-year product cycle. For the consumer, it’s nice to know that the driver that they just paid full price for this year will not be replaced and discounted in two months.

Let me zero in on another thing that we learned about the PING process that you can take some comfort in: measurable improvements. PING only releases new products if they actually outperform the previous model. We are talking real DATA here.

This means that the new i25 line shows statistical performance gains over the i20 line, just like the i20 did compared to the i15.

CASE STUDY: Adjustable Drivers

PING was one of the last companies to feature adjustability in their driver. It wasn’t due to some resistance to new technologies, PING engineers are all about the new. Instead, the engineers worked on designs for adjustability until they came up with an adjustable hosel that didn’t negatively impact performance.

During their research, PING engineers found that increasing the mass and diameter of the hosel negatively impacted inertia, dropped the center of gravity, and actually increased aerodynamic drag around the hosel by as much as 10-15%

Only when they could address these issues did PING release a driver with an adjustable hosel.

It’s probably not too much of a stretch to anticipate that the G30 line will be coming to the market this fall. That fits PING’s release schedule. Based upon PING’s design principles, this means that the G25 driver, a great club that came in 2nd in this year’s Most Wanted Driver competition, will be replaced with something that is even better. Again, data supported better.

The PING engineers are, of course, on staff to develop ingenious new ways to direct golfer cash into PING’s accounts. However, it really feels like the PING engineers also have license to explore the science of golf, directing that exploration toward the topics that will help the PING consumer play better too. Measurable Improvements

 

 

11:30 AM – 12:00 PM: PING Man

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For all of you who have ever demanded that our club testing be performed by robots, PING Man is your guy. This little mechanical dude is able to put a swing on the ball in seemingly any way that you, or more importantly a PING engineer could think of.

PING Man is designed to mimic the golf swing, both at normal human conditions, and crazy conditions like 150 mph club head speed. The swing is repeatable, and precise enough that engineers can target any part of the clubface to see the effect on ball flight data.

Here are some interesting facts about PING Man:

  • PING Man’s swing is elliptical, not circular
  • The swing mimics the action of a golfer’s left arm through the swing.
  • PING Man prefers Titleist Pro V1x balls
  • If engineers are testing a design, each swing is preformed with a new ball.
  • PING Man’s wrist is free-rotating, allowing it to turn freely through impact.
  • Small water jets can be programmed to add moisture to the golf ball.
  • Fully juiced up PING Man can launch balls out of the testing facility just like the human PING Man, Bubba Watson, has been known to do on occasion.

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PING Man shares his workspace with a few other pieces of engineering equipment. There is Sling Man, a ball-launching machine, used to study ball flight under various conditions.

They also have another golf ball cannon that is used to test clubface durability. In other words, they blast the face with balls until it fails. Then they blast a different part of another face to see when it fails.

As I said before, it’s all about the data at PING.

Did you want to see PING Man take a swing? Follow this LINK to see the video I posted on Instagram.

PART 2 – CLICK HERE

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PART 2 – CLICK HERE