With the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France well underway, The Manufacturer Editor, Joe Bush, speaks to Devon-based manufacturer of rugby equipment, Aramis Rugby, an official supporter of the 20 participating teams at this year’s tournament.
Founded in 2003, Aramis Rugby is a family business run by Indian couple Vikas and Roshni Mahajan. As one of the only rugby equipment brands to manufacture its own goods, Aramis’ manufacturing expertise dates back to 1927 when the company supplied hockey sticks to the Indian Olympic team. The company operates its manufacturing processes from its family factory in Punjab as well as its headquarters in South Molton, Devon, and is now making a big impact on Rugby World Cup 2023 taking place in France.
Aramis provide training, grounds and fitness equipment, including the world’s most advanced digital analytical scrum machines. The company also has an official relationship with the Italian, Samoan and Fijian national teams as well as Italian club side Zebre Parma.
The company’s interest in rugby was first piqued in the 1980s, with the very first World Cup, and with the introduction of professionalism to the game in 1995, opportunity knocked for Aramis to diversify from a plateauing cricket and hockey market and into the sport of rugby.
“Often our punch line has been that innovation is constant,” commented Vikas. “That’s what Aramis is all about – you’ve got to innovate, not only in your products but in your thinking as well.
“We want to be a disruptive brand and we look to use our brains rather than brawn. We are trying to be cutting-edge, and we’ve signed many non-disclosure agreements with different universities to develop new, innovative products to take rugby to a different level.”
Aramis found there to be a dearth of innovation occurring within the game during the early 2000s, resulting in a limited choice of equipment available to coaches. Vikas explained that the brands that existed in the market at the time were averse to taking risks to introduce new products.
As a manufacturer rather than merely a brand, coaches began to approach Aramis asking for bespoke products and equipment. This led the company to set up UK operations in 2003, and ten years later took the decision to base the worldwide company headquarters in Devon.
“We don’t make a piece of equipment and just put it on the shelf for people to buy. It’s very important to engage with people and we’re very consumer led. For example, we are the only brand in the world that offer five different weights of fabric for a rugby shirt, to suit different levels and budgets within the game,” Roshni added.
As an original equipment manufacturer, Aramis had been supplying the major names in the sport, who would then add their own mark up and branding and sell the equipment on. This led to the company getting squeezed on margins and, as such, at the time of establishing its UK headquarters, Aramis took the decision to stop selling to what was, essentially, middlemen, and sell directly to the clubs themselves.
“It’s worth remembering that the majority of investment in equipment comes from grassroot level,” Vikas added. “The Premiership and all the national rugby unions get equipment for free through sponsorship deals. It’s often very cost prohibitive for smaller clubs and universities to buy equipment from the brands that are currently available.” Therefore, in 2015 Aramis’ contracts with existing brands began to wind down and the company floated its own identity within the sport.
“The affordability factor is key for us; we try and position ourselves as a brand for the grassroots of the game, which doesn’t have the money, but yet has to pay for equipment” added Roshni. “Community rugby should not have to invest in expensive equipment, balls or even clothing.
If they purchase from us as the manufacturer, they will receive the same service and quality of equipment, only cheaper.” “By providing products at a reasonable price, which the grassroots can afford, it brings us volume, so it’s good for business. But at the same time, it’s good for the game; why keep the best equipment in the hands of a few top clubs? We wanted to disrupt that.” Vikas added.
At around the same time, Aramis started developing what would become the first fully analytical digital scrum machine. Scrum machines have always been part of the game and a crucial piece of training equipment. However, as one of the more dangerous and specialist areas of the sport, law changes over the last 15 years have been introduced to protect player safety in the scrum. Therefore, the initial impact force that previously existed at the start of a scrummage has been removed and the process has become less about brute force and infinitely more analytical.
In addition, since the onset of professionalism, the amount of money driving the game has increased considerably and as such, teams want and need to extract every ounce of performance from their top stars. Aramis’ scrum machines not only measure the force being applied by the whole pack, but also by each individual player, even down to the difference between the left or right shoulder.
“We can then add visuals where video cameras attached to the machine capture body movements which we overlay onto a graph of the recorded forces over a five or six second period, so coaches can then analyse body positions etc,” added Vikas.
Manufacturing around 150 per year, each machine is bespoke and made to the coach’s individual specifications. “Everyone has a different way of thinking and teaching,” Vikas continued. “The coach tells us what they want, and we manufacture that machine according to their particular needs; they shouldn’t be limited by what’s available off the shelf.”
Unsurprisingly, this bespoke offering caught the attention of World Rugby, the governing body of the sport. As such, this year is the first time in the history of the Rugby World Cup that an official provider of training equipment, including scrum machines, has been appointed.
“It’s also the first time all 20 participating nations have the option to choose,” said Vikas. “Previously, World Rugby would have provided the same, standard spec of training equipment to all teams. However, when you order from us directly as the manufacturer, the customer has options. For example, England might want to use a different type of equipment to France.”
In addition, Aramis were the first company worldwide to innovate and manufacture a scrum machine specifically designed for women. Women’s sport, and women’s rugby in particular, represents a huge growth opportunity for Aramis but also, because the company is consumer led, it was acutely aware that clothing and equipment had traditionally been designed for men, and men only.
Aramis is currently working with the universities of Exeter and Plymouth on new and revolutionary technologies that Vikas thinks will dramatically change how the game is viewed. He added: “We are investing heavily into developing technology around concussions, for example.
“Since we deal with over 6,000 clubs, we have enough data in-house to tell us that the growing level of concussions within the sport is being driven by incorrect technique and positioning, and outdated laws of the game. There is currently not enough guidance and people are not aware of the wrongs they are doing. To be able to prove that scientifically is shedding light on this growing concern.”
Roshni added: “After the World Cup our work with university academics and eventually university teams, will be increasing and we’ll be engaged in a lot of R&D around making scrums safer. Different levels and areas of the game will also have a variety of needs based on different body structures, so we’ll be launching a full range of affordable, digital scrum machines for minis, juniors, women and seniors.”
A challenge for Aramis is that a digital, analytical scrum machine is a sophisticated piece of equipment which the company is trying to bring to the grassroots level of the game. Top level teams are able to afford such equipment but from a commercial viewpoint, the volumes will only come from the grassroots.
Then, not only will Aramis see the benefits filter through to its bottom line, but it will benefit the game as a whole. Additionally, the company develops a high volume of prototypes, so therefore, rather than discarding them after use, Aramis donates them to local clubs.
“Our USP is innovation and affordability,” Vikas added. “When it comes to high quality and low price, you can have both, and getting product directly from source is the best way to achieve that. Our whole ethos is to minimise expenditure without compromising on excellence, so removing the middlemen is key to that and World Rugby have recognised this. This is the first time they’ve signed directly with a manufacturer rather than a brand.”
Tackling the skills gaps
A constant challenge for Aramis is recruitment of skilled workers at its site in north Devon. In a region almost exclusively associated with tourism and farming, it has been hard to attract engineers and designers who tend to be lured by the bright lights of the larger cities.
The level of salaries in the South West are also imbalanced in relation to house prices, and so relocation to that part of the world is generally cost prohibitive and unattractive. As such, Aramis encourage a lot of apprenticeships and on the job training. “We can’t just sit by and hope that there’ll be a sudden and significant influx of skilled labour into Devon,” Vikas warned.
Therefore, Aramis tries to develop skills inhouse by engaging with local colleges and onboarding new graduates into the business. Then, with the help of the company’s experienced supervisors, graduates receive the necessary training with the hope that they stay with the business six months down the line. “We’ve currently got seven full-time workers and five part-time welders who are currently undergoing training – with around 150 people in India (63% of whom are women),” said Vikas.
Roshni continued: “We work very closely with North Devon District Council, and have permanent positions there, especially for welders. Right now, for the digital aspect of our machines, we have to do a lot of outsourcing because those skills are just not available. So, we are working very closely with local colleges, universities and the job centres to try and bring those skills in-house.”
As a contribution to the environment, and to give something back to the local economy, Aramis aim to source all the products and components used in its equipment – even down to the nuts and bolts – within a 40 mile radius of the factory (with the exception of the electronics).
The company recognise that the geography of Devon means that there will be other smaller manufacturers in the region facing the same issues. Roshni added: “If we can help each other, that in turn generates more employment in this part of the world. So not only are our scrum machines a 100% British product, they’re also a 95% Devon-based product.”
While large chunks of manufacturing have migrated to the Far East, Aramis is one manufacturer that is doing the opposite. When the company were supplying to other equipment brands, STRATEGYthere were some elements of the scrum machines that were being made in India. Now, as a standalone manufacturer, that process is 100% based in the UK.
However, not only are the products manufactured by Aramis in the UK affordable and competitive, there is also the value added kudos of being made in Britain. “It gives us that additional value to be able to sell to other countries,” he said. “When we sell to Australia, they would rather have a scrum machine which is made in England rather than in India, for example.”
The focus on the grassroots level of the game is the key driver for Aramis. Described by Roshni as the cradle of the national teams, it is key to how the business can flourish. “Everything doesn’t have to be about profit,” she said. “Yes, you need to pay your bills and staff. But there’s got to be ethics in business. And it’s not that difficult. You don’t need to keep filling your pockets; you can have an affordable brand and invest in grassroots.”
“Hopefully, the World Cup will expose our brand as a manufacturer,” Vikas added. “Cheaper doesn’t mean lower quality and it’s better to buy directly from a manufacturer. If people can see the highest level of the game adopting this approach, then this should filter down and translate into sales at grassroots level. If the same piece of equipment which is used at the Rugby World Cup is available at less than half the price of the usual brand, why not buy it?”
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