Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The business of small batch building

A recent thread on VS has encouraged me to write down some notes on my experience with small batch manufacturing as a business model and how it differs from one off custom building.  The question distilled down: it a viable business plan to build factory spec frames in batches and how can one best market/partner with shops to create a streamlined product line without the intensive time involved in one-off building.

I learned in what I would consider a small batch production facility that also did custom work in limited numbers. The basic structure I will share is what provided a successful business that supported 4-5 families for many years. The key, like any successful business, is having a well thought out plan with known COGS, production capability, and defined marketing plan.

In short, here are the key elements:

Your production frames need to have defined geometries and sizing that land solidly into the physiologic standards accepted by the industry but have your personal vision/interpretation of performance characteristics. Your perspective on how a bike should "feel" and handle should transfer through the experience to the rider. We found a 4 product size range to meet 95% of our needs...beyond that, it became time intensive helping define the fit for the customer.

The frame design and the tubing/components used need to be readily available or stocked in ample supply to maintain a consistent work pace. Using component design, such as dropouts, gussets, etc..., that allow for use across the entire size range is imperative as it eases fabrication and increases efficiency in both manufacturing and cost. These items should also speak to your identity, creating an aesthetic that differentiates you from other brands on the floor.

The majority of your capital investment will be in creating dedicated fixtures for each model to expedite the fabrication process. Time spent fiddlefucking around with machine set up is money lost. Invest in being prepared for efficient/repeatable work flow.

Standard finishes that are distinctive and easily created need to be determined. If you will not be doing your own finish work, you MUST identify multiple vendors who can work with your timelines to create repeatable finishes so that there is no differentiation in final product. Define expectations and keep custom finishes for custom need known qualities and costs for this endeavour.

Set a finished price for each frame that positions your product competitively AND meets your business plan profit goals. These can afford to be cheaper than custom one off work as you are batch building, but that does not mean you are self depreciating the value or quality. Set a defined profit that allows prosperity. If you are looking to undercut existing product lines, you are doing this for the wrong reasons. Predictable margins and productivity are your goals, this should be a daily bread product.

Network with shops that wish to represent or carry your brand and have dealer agreements ready to be signed that clearly communicate minimum orders, cost, terms, and parameters of product representation through the build. Folks have stated various opinions on if you should provide a discount/wholesale pricing model. We operated on a 20% margin, offering shops the frame at our set price based on the previously mentioned business plan targets. If a frame was sold direct, it was at that same retail number, preserving equity in the retail market. This gave the shop an easy bump for stocking a frame, but allowed them the opportunity for greater profit if they built a complete bike.

It has been mentioned that you should only sell complete bikes as it maximizes your profit potential. For a small manufacturer, it is not as easy as it sounds. It does take an inordinate amount of time to spec and order OEM complete builds, assemble, and then pack for delivery. We found that although we could make more money on the build, it did not offset the time required for so few hands...the time was better spent making OUR product. I would suggest creating component spec standards for each model that maintains consistency for your bikes. Upgrades are encouraged, but diluting your vision can not be accepted. Allow the shop to build the bikes, the margin on the components and labor is another share of the pie that benefits them and puts some skin into the relationship. Their advantage is that customers cans see/feel/compare the bike at hand and have it NOW vs. ordering directly from you and waiting for shipping. Prices should be equitable, so that does not factor into the decision making process for the customer.

If you can sell a complete bike direct, do it. However, as a small manufacturer, understand that you can quickly turn inventory over in frame only sales. Your business is maximized by inventory rotation and recouping investment dollars so that you have greater liquid assets on hand. Many customers enjoy the process of completing the build own their own, don't negate your product from consideration by only selling complete in this small production plan.

Ensure warranty standards are clearly defined and begin at the point of sale. Handle them swiftly and accommodate a line item into your COGS for future warranty work. Not every product will require it, but every product sold should share the potential cost.

Support the customer's desire to rep your brand with accessory soft goods...have tees, stickers, hats etc available for stocking shops and direct ordering. You are creating a brand and want to encourage loyalty. Happy customers will be your best salesmen.

Remember, this is a totally different plan than being a "custom" builder and should be approached differently. Although the two can operate synchronously, they are exclusive in operation.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

$90 for a replacement QR?

One of the worst attributes of some companies is making "standards" that don't fit anybody else's products. One particular fork company has a 15 mm through axle that uses a different size male thread than everybody else on the market. I can hypothesize that the desire to have a "proprietary" design allows them to charge customers a whopping 90 bucks to replace it if lost or damaged.   So, reason #122 to own a lathe; make a custom insert to fit the more common 15 mm standard through axle.

The original female 15mm receiver that requires you to rotate the piece to find the perfect lever tightness and position. On the right is the new 15mm insert that stays in position and works with a standard 15mm through axle, allowing you to tighten down and go. 

The new insert in's a perfect fit.

A happy DT Swiss skewer with adjustable lever, a quarter of the price of the original and so much more functional. Common sense FTW!

Friday, March 13, 2015

MUST you have machine tools to fabricate a bicycle frame? No, you can do much with hand files, patience, and skill. However, when a level of repeatable accuracy is required, the use of machines and fixtures arguably becomes necessary. In the video below, I walk you through one part of the process of machining the Hot Rod Cranks to visually demonstrate the need to move beyond the simple tools of the trade.



Friday, February 20, 2015

2015 Groovy Tees

The new Groovy Tees are in. The good news is that Eric at Illusions Screen Printing said that things are slow right now and he would have time to do another run before the show, so we are going to open up the availability for everyone NOW. Em is going to spearhead the orders and shipping, so here is what we need from you.
Unisex Colors - Blue, Green, Red, Orange, Teal
Women's Colors - Blue and Berry
These are Canvas/Bella shirts and are a "modern" fit, meaning the soft tri-blend material tends to fit a little tighter, go up one size if you are all angsty about your luv handles showing smile emoticon
Cost: $20.00 per shirt, $5.75 shipping in the US via USPS Priority Mail.
International shipping will be determined by destination, please email me for details Prior to ordering.
If you would like to pick up a shirt locally, please note that in the comments area and disregard adding shipping.
Please make sure your shipping address is updated.
Send the money by Paypal to and include the color and size you would like.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Tapping titanium...what's the secret to success?

A month or so ago I posted a vid showing power tapping steel parts on the mill.  Seemed fairly straight forward and did not require a bunch of explanation if you are aware of the fundamentals of machining.

When moving to titanium, it is a whole separate ball of wax, full of missteps and broken tools if you are not keenly aware of the changes necessary.  As I'm just finishing up some titanium hot rod parts, I thought I'd share a few of the lessons that are worth knowing.

Know your material:

When speaking of Titanium, we might as well talk about the grand daddy of toughness, 6/4 ELI in a non-annealed state.  Machining titanium is much more difficult than steel, as the material does not like to dissipate heat, instead keeping it fairly localized. This means that you need to be aware of your tool speeds, feed rates, and coolant application to prevent tool failure and work hardening.  If you push the material too hard, you will find your tools quickly dulling or becoming burnished at the cutting edge, the material pushing and forming instead of cutting cleanly, and an inordinate amount of smoke coming from your work space...not good in any combination.

Ti also has an inherent springiness, a by product of it's elasticity.  This makes it want to close in on your tool, so having a proper lubricant that reduces the cutting edge friction is paramount.

Know your process:

Tapping titanium is not difficult, per se, it just requires a different approach.

Preparing the hole for tapping will require a stepped approach, using more incremental sizes and a higher peck rate to insure that the heat build up is reduced.  In the case of the spider interface below, I begin with a center drill to create a focal point, then use two drill bits to step up the through hole size, finishing with a third drill bit designed to work specifically with the tap I'll be using.  Due to the hardness of the material, the final bit is one size larger than you will typically find on the suggested drill charts, as the 6/4 Ti does not need near the depth of thread steel or aluminum would require to for the threads to have sufficient pull retention properties.

The extra steps and measured pace in creating the through hole is worth the time as it increases the longevity of the tap.

Know your tool:

I mentioned that titanium does not dissipate heat well, keeping it localized during the machining process.  This manifests in a binding action on the cutting edges of the tap, creating a circumstance where the force required to continue to advance will quickly yield to the torsional forces, breaking the tool off in your work.  We need to select a tap profile that will limit that potential.

The best choice for machine tapping titanium through holes is to use a two flute spiral point tap with a relieved back edge and tooth chamfer.  This allows maximum space behind the cutting edge for chips to be pushed out the bottom of the hole while reducing friction and heat build up on the cutting surface.  Several manufacture's make taps for exotic/hard metals, but I like OSG (EXO TI) and Emuge (Rekord C Ti) the best as they are material specific for titanium, have a nice tooth rake, and are designed for rigid tapping.  Below is an example of some new bits and taps from OSG...I always start with fresh tools when I begin a run of Ti parts so that it is a pleasant experience.

These taps are designed to be machine fed in one back and forth hand work here, don't even try.  The parts MUST be rigidly fixtured as vibration is one of the forces of evil to tap longevity.  Make sure that you consult the manufacturers guidelines for speeds as they will differ.  I run these taps at between 10-13 sfpm,  That equates to an rpm around 240...seems pretty damn fast for how hard a material 6/4 is but that is what is required for proper thread shape and chip evacuation.

You'll see that I am still power tapping with the mill,  I don't use a tapping head.  The key to doing this successfully is to only tighten the chuck enough that the tap will self feed but if it binds, will slip in the chuck before breaking.  It takes a bit to get the right feel, but it is a process that allows you to start with light pressure and work your way up.

Know your friends:

One of the best friends you have in tapping titanium is a little bottle of Moly Dee CF Tapping Fluid.  Heavier and more clingy than your typical "Tap Magic" or equivalent, this lubricant will make life a LOT easier for you.  Good friends do come with a price...expect to pay around 50 bucks for a bottle.

Using these processes on my manual mill, I am able to get about 30-40 holes out of a tap before it is no longer sharp enough to cut efficiently, that's 10 crank arms.  At a cost of $50 per tap, you can begin to see why working with ti can be such an expensive proposition.

Know what to do when things go wrong:

Unfortunately, if you are going to be tapping a lot of holes in titanium, you will break a tap off in the work piece.  When that happens, those buggers are STUCK.  No amount of trying to turn it out using the brittle shards left above the work piece or breaking the tap with a punch will get them out.  So what do you do?

Drop the piece in a small container of Ferric Acid and walk away for a few days.  This can commonly be found at Radio Shack labeled as a PCB Board etcher.

 The acid will eat away at the cutting edges and thinner portions of the tap, leaving the titanium alone.  After a few days, rinse it good and give it a tiny little tap with the punch, out it comes with little more effort than the patience to wait.

If you are going to make custom Ti bikes, you need to know how to work with all the variables of the material.  I hope this gives a little insight and saves you a bit of time and money in the process.



Monday, December 8, 2014

Nahbs 2015 Louisville…why I’m choosing to exhibit

The North American Hand built bicycle show is a concept that teems with potential and opportunity for the small independent frame builder.  Never before has there been a vehicle that affords the prospect of global awareness for hand built brands, creating prospective customers outside the normally regional appeal our industry tends to propagate. 
During its tenure, the show has evolved from a small gathering of fabricators and key suppliers to an assemblage of creative companies, representing a broad view of the cycling industry.  Though some have argued that the show has lost its focus on the hand built bicycle as it has grown, the key platform and interest for the individual fabricator has remained steadfast;
-     - a venue that allows for direct interaction with potential customers, facilitating the start of a business relationship in areas outside the business’s normal geographic reach
-         -  Media exposure that bolsters builder recognition and broadens awareness of hand built bikes
-          - Creates opportunities for builders and their vendors for face to face communication, development of product ideas, streamlining supply options
-         -  Integrates ancillary cycling products into the show, drawing cycling enthusiasts, increases potential reach and exposure for exhibitors.
-          - Provides for an instructional medium within the seminar framework, encouraging mentorship.
-         -  Creates a physical sense of community amongst builders who typically labor in solitude.  

      It is with these benefits foremost in mind that I feel supporting the show by consistent attendance should be a priority in each builders business plan.  Fabricators working at capacity will not realize a Return on Investment for participation that is tangible.  However, their participation does keep the industry in the eye of the customer, provides a vehicle for new builders to find an audience, and invests in the industry that has provided a living wage throughout a career.  The show benefits all who engage in the custom bicycle industry whether they attend or not, is there not a responsibility to give back?

Much debate has transpired within the small hand built community regarding the direction and administration of the show by its Director/Owner, Don Walker.  As a business owner who is engaging in a relationship with Nahbs, I feel it is important to recognize that in this circumstance, I am not only a customer, but have an invested interest in the success and longevity of the show.  To insure it’s opportunities continue to be available to industry members, it is my responsibility to give feedback to create an ever improving environment for positive change.  For Nahbs to evolve as the leading marketing medium for the small fabricator, I would recommend;
      - A renewed focus on Customer Service to builders that facilitates a sense of ownership/importance of Nahbs in their business plan. 
-          - Affordability – Nahbs needs to establish a financial model that enables attendance for its diverse range of exhibitors as well as to provide a fiscal foundation for future existence.  Tiered pricing that supports the independent fabricator, as they are the focus of the show, facilitates annual attendance due to consistent cost expectations.
-         -  Focus on the hand built fabricator by centralizing their booth spaces to support each other.  Surround the builders by their supply partners, offering consumers a direct visual correlation of the goods that go into the finished product.  Ring the event by ancillary vendors that bring the fun and accessories of every day cycling to the marketing mix.
-          - Professional development – many who attend the show have an interest in someday entering the industry, it should be a goal of this gathering to provide educational awareness and mentorship opportunities.
-        -   Equitable show location choices in top tier cities, throughout the United States, proportionally locating between the coasts and middle so no one has to travel across the country more than 2 years in a row.  Travel and logistics are the largest portion of show participation costs, reduce the financial strain by insuring equality in location choices.
-          - Discontinue the Awards structure…encourage builders to bring product that represents the typical work from their shop and allow the crowds to provide affirmation through their ultimate choice in who they wish to work with.

And as a personal note to Don…the strength of a man’s character is often defined by his ability to let go of past transgressions and accept people as they are, celebrating their strengths and supporting them when they are in need.  You have assumed the mantel of an advocate for the custom bicycle fabricator, and subsequently, a responsibility to lead.  Do so with honesty and respect for those you serve, and they will return it in kind. 

In its short life, Nahbs has been responsible for launching many new careers, fortifying existing business success, and bringing a global awareness and recognition to the hand built industry.  I have been pleased to be part of that success and choose to continue to support the opportunities it presents.

See ya all in Louisville.