Go Inside DeMarini's Portland-Area Factory, The Birthplace Of All Company Bats
Everyone’s heard stories about companies that start in the founder’s garage. But how about a company where the founder — in this case, bat innovator Ray DeMarini — launches his company out of his garage only to move it one year later to a dirt-floor barn outside of Portland in Hillsboro, Oregon?
Now, 30 years later, the DeMarini bat company may no longer have Ray at the helm after his passing from cancer in 2001 — his office, though, sits untouched at headquarters — and that barn is a distant memory, but DeMarini still makes every single bat in Hillsboro.
Ray DeMarini, a Portland-area businessman who partnered with engineer Mike Eggiman to wow the softball world with the pair’s bat technology, especially after debuting the world’s first double-wall bat in 1993, had an eccentric side. He also had a passion for high-quality design and top-shelf product. The DeMarini brand, which sold to Wilson in 2000, retains that focus, following Ray’s mantra of “insane dedication to performance.”
With over 20 bats in its baseball and softball lines, the DeMarini factory has continued to grow. In 2017 the company added 37,000 square feet of space, nearly doubling the headquarters to 77,000 square feet, complete with research and development, design, customer service and a full manufacturing facility that turns raw materials into finished DeMarini products.
With 120 employees in Hillsboro all focused on the premium bats with enough diversity in the line to meet the needs of a variety of players, says Joe Cmelik, a product development manager, every step of the process ties to another, streamlining the efficiency and allowing for small-batch creations.
As DeMarini approaches that 30-year anniversary — Ray’s birthday was in October, pegging the brand’s celebration to October 2019 — the brand will commemorate the event by debuting a special series of bats to celebrate the anniversary and history. That special design, though, comes on the backs of years of manufacturing and R&D know-how.
The uniqueness of manufacturing all bats on U.S. soil isn’t lost on the DeMarini team and plant manager Nate Baldwin.
Whether carbon tubes or aluminum rods, the Hillsboro factory brings in raw materials at the right diameter to start the bat-making process. To get things going, workers heat-treat the materials to ensure the right shape and CNC machining helps turn raw materials into exacting specifications, all while prepping the bat for add-ons, such as knobs and end caps.
Precision sanding clears off oxidation, helps taper the bat and prepares it for the next step, which requires a dust-controlled painting room. The two paint lines in the factory offer one run for custom bats, which requires all paint get mixed and sprayed by hand, and then another paint line for the main production line. All paint is piped in from a different part of the warehouse for a quick-change ability.
The painting process itself includes primer, base coat, a move to the graphics department where bat graphics get hand-placed in a water transfer (every graphic was designed and digitally printed in house and then individually cut out for every bat), and then back to the paint room for a sealing clear coat. The bats then bake in the oven to accelerate drying.
With the barrel design shaped, painted and adorned, the next stop for a bat in the Hillsboro plant comes with end caps, knobs and connections, all pieces injection-molded in house. Robotic machinery speeds the manufacturing process, and DeMarini programmed all the machines themselves to handle the processes.
“We are fortunate to have all our own equipment,” Baldwin says. “In the beginning, we didn’t have money, so we had to build the equipment, but now we think it is the best thing for us.”
Examples of next steps include a plastic connection over top a carbon tube, priming and gluing the inside of a bat to handle the knob or a gel-like glue that adheres the end cap in 30 seconds. A machine also inserts a stainless-steel pin through the handle and the knob to ensure security.
With all the components in place, the bat receives a grip and is then shrink-wrapped and boxed. Each bat receives an individual RFID tag before shipping so it can be tracked every step of the process once it leaves Hillsboro.
From R&D to graphics, the balance of the Hillsboro facility contains everything needed to make the factory run and give it the latest technologies to do so. The R&D team tests materials and engineering. From a batting cage that draws top college talent to test out and measure spin rates, exit velocities and more to an impact lab that includes cannons for testing the performance of bats by simulating hits, there is always something different happening inside the DeMarini headquarters.
The cannon, for example, in keeping with the DeMarini theme, was built from scratch, every piece created for the purpose of testing bats to find the optimum design to fit within regulations but still find the highest level of performance.
Don Loeffler, head of research and development, says having access to a factory, test lab and R&D equipment all under one roof allows for faster iterations. “We can react quicker,” he says.
With design built around player types, Loeffler says DeMarini balances lab testing with player feedback. “We rely on quality player testing and feedback,” he says. “We want them to tell us when something isn’t good.”
As part of the increased focus on creating new innovations from the R&D team, DeMarini has launched its D-Lab line that puts limited releases into the market to test the interest. When a bat performs well in its limited run, it then can move into the mainline process. “Having D-Lab allows us to do that,” he says. “It has got to be the right bat for the player.”
Upstairs, in The Bakery, the two-person design team, led by lead designer Hodad, who has worked at DeMarini for 20 years, creates the unique look for every bat. Ray had a love for motor sports, so the DeMarini look has always had a more extreme sports motif.
The trickiness of designing on the 3D shape of a bat requires plenty of mock-ups and design prototyping. The design process typically runs seven to eight months. Hodad works to create a similar look across the baseball line, but still give them each a distinct identity. “We go for something unexpected for the players,” Hodad says. “You may love it, or you may hate it, but you know it will surprise and give them something fresh.”
The DeMarini design team has long looked outside of baseball and softball for design cues, whether extreme sports, board sports, the Portland area or nowadays the 30-year archive.
Jerry Garnett, a DeMarini senior manager who was one of the earliest employees, starting with the company in 1990, says he still goes over notes Ray wrote to engineers while pioneering the multi-wall bat. That focus on innovation helped the bat company go from softball to baseball, where they continue to produce everything from special-edition D-Lab bats, CF designs or the popular Voodoo lines.
Garnett says the creating of the two-piece design allowed DeMarini into baseball, taking weight out of the handle and moving it around to find the right performance. “Every year we have hung in the top-three brands for bats,” Garnett says. “Our R&D team has done a great job of ringing the bell.”
Having every part of the production team in house means that an idea can get discussed on Monday, designs produced mid-week and prototypes created by the end of the week, with players hitting with the bat in the cage within seven days. “You can’t beat that,” Garnett says. “We can throw 10 things at the wall and know where we need to be within a month, and we can stay competitive.”
That constant dedication to find high performance puts a singular focus on everything that happens at DeMarini. “We can’t be concerned about making the cheapest bat, but about making the best bat,” Loeffler says. “It is about having everything under one roof. It is something I don’t take for granted.”
Tim Newcomb covers gear and business for Baseball America. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.