December 12, 2021

Production & Design Notes: Techonaut 30 and Techonaut 45

Production & Design Notes: Techonaut 30 and Techonaut 45

What follows are production and design notes pulled from various meetings, our project management app, and our recollections. In some instances, we added to the notes to make them more descriptive of what we, in person, were discussing: folks appreciated our Luminary Pre-Production Batch and Synik Pre-Production Batch notes but asked us to share more about design choices and considerations or explain more about aspects of the manufacturing process. We first experimented with this format for the Old School Carry-All; see our Production & Design notes: OSCA edition. Now, it’s the Techonaut’s turn.

We share these notes in the hopes they give you a sense of what it’s like to be here on the factory floor and understand more about what goes into realizing the design of a pack like the Techonaut. Folks who use our bags had long asked for a version of the Aeronaut with a laptop compartment — Nik had been thinking about such a design for a while and began the actual design work in 2019. Work was paused until early 2021 – something happened, as we recall.

As we compile these production and design notes, we realize that we've perhaps mostly previously described the Techonaut within the context of the Aeronaut and that, in reality, the Techonaut is more than simply an updated Aeronaut. It's very much a new travel backpack design in and of itself.

Techonaut 30 and Techonaut 45 notes ~ 

Skeleton Back Panel pieces will be ordered pre-cut, saving a step onsite. Foam parts are sometimes cut to our specifications by the foam supplier, and sometimes we die-cut them in-house – it depends on how many units we plan to use.

A good deal of design work went into the Techonaut back panel. Nik was inspired in part by the back panel of Tom’s (still-being-designed) Trinity travel bag, and in part by one of Tom’s designs from the early 1990s. The hourglass shape of the back panel allows for a nice side opening for a rolling luggage handle, and in such a way that the rolling luggage slot is just effortlessly there. 

We knew the people using the Techonaut would want the opening into the main compartment to be as wide open and accessible as possible while still maintaining a lip/edge so that stuff didn’t fall out as you were packing it — and the result is just that.

Feedback on the aesthetic at the factory is: this is one good looking bag. A couple of people want to test it on upcoming trips but we prob can’t make samples in time, bummer.

Tested various spots for the d-rings for optional shoulder strap; this was challenged by the fact that there aren’t two end compartments and thus not left/right symmetry. Another case where we made changes, tested them, made more changes, tested them, and so on and so on…

We weren't initially going to gusset the very top pocket but ended up doing so — gravity made it make sense.

One aspect of the design that took a good deal of time — the Techonaut is the first design that has hideaway Edgeless Shoulder Straps (as opposed to non-hideaway Edgeless straps, like on the Syniks). Ensuring they could gracefully tuck away without interfering with the luggage pass-through or making that back panel a heavy overwrought monster (not good for a travel bag) — it just took time. Sometimes it can be difficult for a designer to start working on a design then be forced to put it aside to focus on other matters (Nik was working on what became the Techonaut prior to the pandemic) but in this case, Nik thinks the break in designing and return to it may have benefitted the process of problem-solving. Being Nik, he doesn’t really elaborate further here, even though we asked.

Lots of work between Tom, Nik, Lisa, and Fong to make sure the seams on the side that hit the back panel play nice together and are manufacturable. We’ll digress here for a moment: we have learned through the decades that good design, efficiency, and quality do not need – in fact, cannot –  be mutually exclusive. They’re a trifecta that support each other. Good design is non-negotiable — if there’s a feature or quality to a design that we know the end user will appreciate but it isn’t yet as efficiently and humanely manufacturable as it could be, we take our sweet time figuring out a way to make it so w/out sacrificing anything about the design itself. We know it can be had both ways. (This is the major reason why the Trinity is stuck in a holding pattern.) For us, production efficiency and final quality cannot be separated — if a bag is an unruly monster to sew and pointlessly so, the quality will no doubt suffer. Think of when you’ve been asked to complete a task that just doesn’t make sense — and worse yet, imagine you don’t have the ability to say “Hey, this seems pointlessly difficult, can we talk about how to make it better?”. Yuk — so, yeah, that’s the opposite of what we want. And since Tom and Nik know how to sew, the process of assessing the manufacturability of the bag begins when they first sew prototypes. From there, they work with Lisa and Fong, who in turn work with the production crew they manage, to sew samples, get feedback, and make any necessary or useful adjustments.

The process of perfecting the manufacturability, design, and experience of the tuck away Edgeless Straps is perhaps an example of our style of evolving design AKA innovation. It's a topic we might expand on in a future blog post, but the gist is: our goal is to pay close attention, collaborate to problem-solve and create a bag that's quietly there, doing its job, and making the experience of the end user better, perhaps even in a way that they don't realize, which is, to us, ideal. If we can make your bag carrying experience better so you simply experience the joy and ease of using a design that's working with you and you can therefore focus on your trip/the scenery/your travel companions, we know we've done good. 

Techonaut laptop compartment — Nik wants it to open at the top of the back panel and spend a good amount of time wrestling with the design to get his way. In that process, he also makes sure that the bag is patterned and shaped to fall slightly inwards, towards your back, to avoid any sense of it pulling away from your back as you wear it backpack-style. This took several adjustments and much testing to get right.

We notice in testing that, when the bag is on the handle of rolling luggage, it can slightly pull away from the handle. Tom had the idea of adding two pieces of 1/2” / 12mm herringbone webbing to stabilize the back panel. It works and works well.

We’re looking at cutting the soft mesh with the fabric saw, if we’re able to achieve the accuracy that we’d like to by that method. If not, we’ll order a die.

The usual discussion ensues regarding fabric choices — interiors, exteriors. The exterior fabric impacts the perceived softness or rigidity of the bag as well — 400d Halcyon offers less structure as an exterior fabric than 525d or 1050d ballistic, for example. Folks who buy our bags like having the option of the lighter 400d Halcyon or the more structured 525d or 1050d, so part of our goal as designers is to create a bag that will work well (albeit differently) in either material. The majority of the structure or shape of a bag is not determined by interior or exterior fabrics; it’s more about the seams, the patterning, any potential piping, and sometimes adding a layer of closed cell foam (which requires an added ply of lighter material to contain the foam within the bag).

Here we digress into a discussion of “lining” — from our perspective, “lining” per se, is adding a layer of interior fabric to a bag or garment simply for aesthetic reasons — to impact the look and/or feel of a product — and we seldom do that. The exterior fabrics we use are more than adequately durable on their own; the polyurethane coatings are plenty durable for most of of our applications (there are exceptions: high-abrasion areas, like the bottom of a backpack for example, where adding a “lining” layer adds long-term durability). It’s a balance between: is the so-called “lining” actually contributing something to the design or longevity of the bag, or is it just unnecessary weight?

The Aeronaut actually has less interior lighter weight material (“lining”) than the Techonaut — Nik felt the addition of a little more interior material to create pockets or add gussets in the Techonaut was worth the tiny bit of extra weight.

The Techonaut has one pocket that isn't as deep as the entire main compartment (meant for wallet/phone or other small objects) so the interior "lining" created by that pocket only goes halfway across that panel; this creates a sort-of secret, unintended upside-down pocket inside the main compartment, so it’s kinda cool in that way: gives you the option of using it from the inside or from the outside, or even from both sides depending on what you’re putting in the pocket.

Nik made changes to the top zipper/pocket configurations after using/testing the bag again and getting feedback from others who did the same — the only “finished” prototype we have is now different than his idea of the final design, but Lisa and Fong have a panel that shows the differences. Notably, after the testing confirmed the pockets themselves and the placement were good, Nik added gussets so bulkier items would more easily fit, and worked with Lisa and Fong to move the zippers ever-so-slightly to increase manufacturability.

The Aeronaut had two end pockets, the Techonaut has one — going from two to one wasn’t all that difficult, but the construction of the one end pocket (on the bottom of the Techonaut) had to change in order for the laptop compartment to exist. The most difficult design/engineering aspect of this was the interior zippered divider pocket — unzip that divider and the Techonaut has one giant main interior compartment, zip it and it’s divided. As Nik says, it took a lot of “finagling” to get it right. Besides pattern adjustments, 1/8” of fabric ease was added per Lisa’s request to increase manufacturability on the production floor.

Handle — originally, the Techonaut was to have the same “wrap and snap” - style handle as the Aeronaut. A sample was made and, the more we looked at it over time as the bag was used/evaluated, that style handle just didn’t look right on the Techonaut — it seemed glommed on or out of place. Nik pondered this: there was no other existing handle design that made sense there. He’d have to design a new one. By and large, folks love our Edgeless Straps, so why not try to make an Edgeless handle? And the answer to why not would be: the bag was pretty much done and this would take some work. That wasn’t a good enough “why not” for any of us (and if you know us, you know we’ll even delay a design if we get some last-minute design inspiration: see this Update on the Luminary for an example) so he made several iterations of the handle — testing it, refining it, getting feedback, testing it — until he made what became the final handle.

Pretty much everyone likes the new Edgeless handle design. It’s different and sometimes different takes some getting used to but early feedback is good. 

Edgeless Handle foam will be cut by hand until the die arrives. Good news: sewing the new Edgeless Handle is good, no changes needed from Lisa and Fong.

There has been discussion on seam allowance difference in a couple of spots on the Techonaut — ultimately, Nik and Fong determined that no change was needed.

Irma reports that the markers for cutting are good, specifying that larger quantity orders of the Techonaut will make it easier to cut the lining. 

Various materials need to be added to the Bill of Materials (BOM), a task for Ben. 

Overall, the pre-production batch is going along quite well. It’s exciting on the floor — this is one of those designs that is impressing folks even as they are working on just parts of it here and there.

Remaining meetings with Quality Assurance and Shipping go well — discussion around which sizes of shipping boxes the Techonauts will be packed in, counting bartacks and O-rings, all of that important stuff. 


Angelia R - May 24, 2022

I love this post! I love learning the “why” of things and learning how this bag came into existence.

I’m a knitter, and was first introduced to TB by a knit blogger. The Maker’s Bag was my first TB bag (& also my gateway bag). In the years since I was gifted that bag, I’ve read up on TB, watched numerous YouTube videos about the bags, and have generally stalked TB products.

Somewhere along the way, I heard the story of how TB knitting bags came into being (I think it’s the Swift). You actually had knitters test the materials and the bag, and had them involved in the whole design process. I was so impressed with this attention to detail. I was so impressed that you asked knitters for their opinions & feedback. It totally makes sense, but is something that most companies don’t do. After reading this post, I realize that this is how you create all of your bags – with this level of attention to the details. It makes me love TB products even more!

There’s SO much I love about TB products. One of my favorite things is that you make bags that can be used. Most of the compartments in TB bags can be used without taking away from another compartment. This is huge! I can’t tell you how many bags I’ve bought, thinking I could use all the compartments, only to pack it and realize that I couldn’t. For instance, I bought a backpack (from another company) that had a main compartment, an outer compartment, and a shoe compartment on the bottom. I thought this would be great for travel. Once I packed the main compartment, I realized I could no longer use the other areas because the stuff in the main compartment took up all of that space. That is SO frustrating!

So, thank you for taking the time to figure out how to make the bag work. Thank you, too, for never sacrificing quality. When I’m using my TB products, I never have to worry about them falling apart/ripping/breaking. I know I can count on them.

My Techonaut 45 arrives this week and I am SO excited! I have been stalking this bag for a while now & can’t wait to have mine in my hands!
TOM BIHN replied:
Hi Angelia, thank you for stopping by to leave such a sweet message and for supporting us! We value feedback and are sort of detailed obsessed in our design process. It’s hard to make a bag that works for everyone, so your message makes us so happy! Hope you enjoy your new Techonaut a lot and take it on many adventures.

Dennis - March 24, 2022

I second Kirk’s request for lockable zippers on the laptop compartment. Here’s why: sometimes while on a plane, we are separated from our luggage by quite some distance. For instance, the attendant might take my bag and place it far behind me in an overhead compartment that I can’t see. Other persons might rifle through the outer pockets of my luggage, steal electronics, and move them to their own bags or take them back to their seats.
Of course, I could take all the electronics out and keep them at my seat, but that’s not always feasible nor practical. For instance, on a long trip where I took long naps, I left my laptop in my Tristar in the overhead bin rather than keep it at my seat where it could get damaged, stolen, or forgotten (forgotten has happened to a friend—he left his laptop in the seat back pocket to take a nap and when he went back to get it after deboarding, it was gone).

Also there are times when I have to leave my stuff in my luggage at the hotel. A coworker had his laptop stolen from his room by the cleaning crew; I know that they could steal the entire bag, but what I usually do is lock the bag up and then lock it to the radiator with a thin bike cable. They’d have to cut the bag open to steal its contents, and most aren’t brazen enough to do that. (Often the room safes are too small to fit my laptop.)

These are crimes of opportunity; even a small deterrent is often enough.

I’d also like the small top pocket to be locking (for passport and cell phone).

Thanks—I hope to buy a Technonaut someday. For now, the Tristar works—I use one of the lockable main compartments to store the laptop in its sleeve and all my other valuables. Sadly, I can’t lock any of the front pockets of the Tristar.

Kirk Foster - February 7, 2022

Lol!! I didn’t think of that.
Thanks for your reply.
Logical reasoning there.
Yet another reason why I am a fan of your product.
TOM BIHN replied:
:) thanks for your question!

Kirk Foster - February 7, 2022

This a great post. So many manufacturers just have an opaque barrier into their design decisions and processes.
Thanks for the insight. One question I do have however is re the omission of lockable zippers for the laptop compartment.
Was there any particular reason why lockable zippers were not included?
TOM BIHN replied:
Hi Kirk! Thank you for that question. Our thought process is that the main use for locking sliders is to keep people from accessing rear facing pockets when a bag is on your back. The laptop compartment, being right behind your head, would be very difficult for someone to access without you knowing. Also, a lock against the back didn’t feel like the most comfortable thing to us.

Bryan - December 22, 2021

Love this post. The dedication to quality and usability is what keeps bringing me back to TB. I’m looking forward to ordering a Techonaut myself, but I’m hoping that waiting until early ‘22 will see the introduction of a yellow (Solaris?) interior option and/or a green ballistic. (won’t be able to hold out much longer than that!) Keep up the excellent and innovative work!
TOM BIHN replied:
Good point re: Techonauts lined with Solaris (and more of the other 200d Halcyon options as well) That actually just prompted a discussion in our work chat about the next Techonaut order…. expect to see some new colors in early 2022 :) We might also offer the Techonaut in Boreal (a green exterior, though a texturized nylon, not a ballistic). Could see it in Wilderness too. And glad you liked the post as well!

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We're the TOM BIHN crew: we design bags, make bags, ship bags, and answer questions about bags. Oh, and we collaborate on blog posts, too.