Monday, October 31, 2011

We're not happy until you're not happy

For the last ten-odd years I have been buying aluminum and scandium tubing from primarily one company. That company pioneered the butting and alloying of these metals and created a revolution in frame building that I was a participant in , albeit in a very minor role. What I did was take pre-production samples of the tubing and build bikes for very high-level competitors. These bikes went to places like UCI world cup and championship races and got some serious press, not only for me but for the company I bought tubing from. This for me was a really great relationship and a chance for my bikes to be seen on the world stage of sport.
There's only one problem. Another revolution of sorts came along. the revolution this time was carbon fiber. One by one the big bike manufacturers began sourcing molded carbon bikes from Taiwan and elsewhere and there were good reasons for this. # 1, once the molds for the frames were engineered and made, thousands of identical frames could be produced with little skilled labor ( such as welders and machinists ) and the frames were very light and had a smooth ride. # 2, Since the molds were costly to make , the manufacturer simplified the whole concept of sizing-it used to be that you could buy 5-6 different sizes of a frame in 2-3 c.m. increments. Now you had a choice of three: Small , Medium and Large-maybe an XL if you were lucky. This allowed retailers and bike companies to not have to carry as many sizes, further cutting costs.
#3, The molded carbon frames were not as durable to side impacts and required more frequent replacement making for more frequent sales.#4, Having the frames made overseas allowed the bike companies to not have to deal with the various regulations and high labor costs over here.
Where am I going with this ? Maybe you have guessed. Now that the big companies have gone to carbon, who will buy these wonderfully engineered and precision manufactured aluminum and scandium tubes ? the answer is almost nobody........except for the few folks like me. Without the market to sell the tubes to the big companies there is no economic reason for the company I dealt with to continue making the tubing. They have told me recently that after twenty years of doing so,they are ceasing all tubing manufacturing . I guess I could get really mad at the company except for the fact that they had little choice in the matter. I think they really wanted to keep making the tubing that pretty much put their company on the map-they had invested a tremendous amount of energy and money into making this tubing , but in 2011 that means nothing. Market share and economic viability are what ensures survival in these troubled and competitive times.
For me, this means the eventual death of about 55% of what I build-that is, unless I can find another source of material. The problem for me is that the tubes I was buying up until a few years ago were manufactured right here in the USA. The quality was unassailable and I knew what I was buying. Metallurgists and engineers will tell you that it doesn't matter who makes a 7005 aluminum tube-the metal is the same and should have identical characteristics. The folks that engineered the tubing I was buying have a different view. They were at the forefront of the advent of this particular material and figured out the best way to form and heat treat it , right down to the finish on the surface of the tubes. Tubing from other factories and countries is visually not the same and I can personally attest to seeing more failures with other tubes.
I am angry not merely for the problems I will encounter now that my main source of tubing is gone-I am mostly upset that things got this way......that everything had to be made elsewhere so that the profit margin grew and that the product was to a degree, disposable-just as disposable as the domestic jobs that evaporated when the whole carbon revolution started. The irony is that by the time these carbon bikes get over here, they really aren't that good a deal for the consumer. A frame that costs $ 150 to the company that imports it will become a bike that sells for nearly the same amount as a domestically produced bike with the same equipment. The big difference is that when you pay a framebuilder $ 3,600 for an Ultegra equipped road bike you are paying a large proportion of your money to the actual builder of the bike. When you buy a carbon 'whatever' road bike with the same equipment you'll be paying mostly for marketing-advertisement and the many hands the bike goes through before getting to you. It isn't the same on any level except maybe the price.
The company that no longer makes my tubing didn't want it to end up this way. The folks that lost their jobs certainly didn't want things to end up this way, either. I definitely didn't want it to end up this way. I still believe strongly in the material I can no longer get. my customers still believe in the material as well. I just saw an article on a world-class racer who is still on an aluminum bike, as if it is now a novelty in a sea of molded carbon bikes . I am now faced with having a set of skills and a market that have possibly outlived their usefulness in today's bike market. To quote another builder, maybe I should have been a plumber.