FAIRBANKS — When the U.S. Army announced the finalists to develop its new series of camouflage patterns last month, almost nobody saw the results coming.
Among the four companies and an Army research team in the running to develop the new patterns, there are three billion-dollar corporations and little Kryptek Inc., a Fairbanks-based company with a total of four employees. The Kryptek headquarters, if there even is one, is located in a back room of CEO Butch Whiting’s log home near Steele Creek Road.
The patterns by the companies and the Army team will begin a four-month series of field trials in May to determine which one performs best.
The winners — with separate designs for woodland, arid and transitional terrain — will be used on everything from everyday uniforms to tactical equipment.
So how does Kryptek feel about being in a multi-million dollar competition against some of the biggest players in the tactical design industry? Pretty good, actually.
“I like our odds,” Whiting said with a small smile.
Whiting said he’s confident in the designs because he’s been through their quirky evolution.
The decision to develop a better camouflage pattern was born about three years ago during a moose hunting trip in the Brooks Range.
Whiting was part of a group of “trigger pullers” who were grumbling about how poorly most camo fared in the state’s varied backcountry terrain.
“We just got to talking about camouflage patterns, and how patterns in Alaska are all crap,” he said.
That led Kryptek, which specializes in high-end hunting gear, to look into developing its own design.
The science behind a good camouflage pattern is surprisingly complex, Whiting said.
Almost anyone can make a unique design using a computer program, but not all of them transfer well to cloth or prove to be functional during a field test.
Kryptek hired a designer to help develop patterns, while collecting advice from everyone from experienced hunters to friends in the military special forces.
In the end, Whiting said, hunters who used the new patterns couldn’t believe how much it helped them vanish into the wilderness.
“It just so happens the stuff we created for Alaska seems to be very effective in environments worldwide,” he said.
So when the Army asked for camouflage proposals, Whiting said Kryptek wasn’t intimidated by the thought that its patterns could also be useful in military roles.
A former soldier who spent nearly 11 years in the Army, Whiting also felt the existing military camo patterns left plenty of room for improvement.
From a group of more than 20 original submissions, researchers whittled it down to five through a combination of scientific analysis and soldier input, according to the Army.
In addition to Kryptek and the Army development team, the finalists include ADS, Brookwood Companies and Crye Precision.
Now that it’s among the finalists, Kryptek is researching ways to add layers of complexity to its designs, allowing them to stand up better to infrared and other types of detection. Whiting said Kryptek is scrambling to deliver by March enough printed fabric for 50 uniforms in each style.
After a summer of field testing, the Army expects to make a final decision on the winning patterns by the end of 2012.
But even before the selection is made, Kryptek’s new profile as a finalist in the design competition has sparked new business possibilities.
The company currently has an exclusive contract with Cabela’s to sell Kryptek products, but Whiting said he expects new deals will be negotiated this year to work with other retailers, including stores in Alaska.
Recent trade shows, including one last month in Las Vegas, left Whiting almost overwhelmed with the possibilities.
The desire for a better camouflage pattern, which began in a hunting camp three years ago, could end up propelling Kryptek into another realm.
“It’s becoming a very big animal to wrestle with,” Whiting said.