Even if you haven’t heard of the Swiss camera maker ALPA, its professional, high-end cameras have long been favorite tools for collectors, connoisseurs, and photography gearheads.
Musician Lou Reed—also an accomplished photographer—was a fan. The late fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld used an ALPA in photo shoots, as did world-renowned French photojournalist Raymond Depardon. Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton created meditative abstract compositions with an ALPA, posthumously exhibited at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
ALPA cameras are used by professional photographers, particularly for architectural, landscape, and automotive photography. And like Swiss watches, they are known for accuracy and steeped in tradition. Digitization presents a major challenge for manufacturers in both industries, but ALPA has successfully transitioned from analog to digital—both in its products and manufacturing processes—thanks to some smart decisions regarding product offerings and design tools.
Born From the Watch Industry
ALPAs are known for precise, sharp images; much like custom-made musical instruments, they are designed for masters of their craft. That precision has its origins in the Swiss watch industry. ALPA cameras were produced by the Pignons company in the Jura region beginning in 1944. The Pignons name comes from the French word for gears, and the company also supplied the watch industry during its history.
As cameras became more mass-produced in the 1970s, Pignons had difficulty competing globally. The company partnered with Japan’s Chinon for the ALPA Si series in the mid-’70s (to mixed results) and continued to release high-quality but expensive ALPA models through the next decade. Due in part to automation in the industry, the company went bankrupt in 1990, and ALPA disappeared from the market. Six years later, graphic designer and psychologist Thomas Weber—along with his teacher and ethnologist partner, Ursula Capaul—acquired the brand name ALPA.
“When they turned 50, my uncle and aunt wanted to do something completely new,” says Ursula Capaul’s niece Carlina Capaul, who took over ALPA’s management this year. “The mere fact that they were unfamiliar with the field meant that it was easy for them to break all the norms and conventions.”
The new owners first bucked tradition in camera format. In the beginning, ALPA offered only 35mm formats, and the manufacturer was in the same league as Leica and companies from Japan. For ALPA to survive in the global market, Weber and Capaul had to find a niche to invest in, and they found it in the medium-format camera. Due to its superior image quality, medium format is the go-to choice for fashion and advertising photography. For Weber and Capaul, focusing on medium format would allow them to produce more modular and flexible products, as well as both digital and analog cameras.
An ALPA comprises three components: the lens, the body, and the digital back. Even though this design may seem simplistic, ALPA’s catalog features more than 400 product variations, all rooted in six base models. “As we offer such a wide range of products, we quickly reach our limits in machining,” Rosenbauer says. “Given the small production quantities, we have to focus on additional methods in order to keep our manufacturing costs down.”
ALPA uses milling and turning mostly for manufacturing supporting parts. The company has introduced 3D printing for gripping, handling, and other equipment; nearly every camera has at least one printed part in it. Rosenbauer says that additive manufacturing has allowed ALPA to provide optimally tailored camera accessories, such as sun visors and handles, without any financial loss.
The design team works with Autodesk Fusion 360 software. “The application was an absolute game changer for us,” he says. “It’s one of the few software solutions on the market that can be used regardless of which platform [Windows or Mac] is running.”
Using Fusion 360 with the cloud also allows for much faster data exchange between remote workers. “Different employees can comment, send links, and edit the file at the same time, which enables agile workflows at their best,” says Rosenbauer, who travels regularly for business.
Looking forward, the company is researching the use of generative design, which Rosenbauer believes will provide even faster and leaner CAD implementation. Given ALPA’s modular nature, the cameras have many connectors, and generative design could help optimize those designs in the future—leading to shorter design and production processes, lighter components, and lower material costs. And that could only help the company remain competitive while also scoring points with its customers.