Painting Alloy and Carbon Fiber Frames – Business Issues

by Sabinna on July 2, 2010

This is the first of two posts exploring issues related to painting frames and components. In this post I deal more with the business aspects. The next will deal more with the technical side of things.

Decreasing volumes and adding value

Until recently I had been getting both alloy and carbon frames painted at the same place. This particular painter has been in business for over 30 years with several employees having been there almost since the beginning. Cervelo and Stevens are among some of his more well-known customers.

In February of this year the proprietor, Peter, announced that he would no longer be painting carbon frames. Processing carbon frames, properly, requires an experienced hand, and he would not entrust the job to anyone else. So whenever a production of carbon frames arrived, he would do them himself. And, most certainly, there was nobody who could do the job as well as him. This increasingly meant 7 day weeks, 18 hour days.

A key driver in this decision was the change in business volumes over the previous several years. His volume had halved, but the amount of time spent on each unit had more than doubled. I think this reflects the general shift in Taiwan towards adding value as can be seen in the overall reduction in bicycle units produced and the increasing price per unit–peak volume of 9.5 million units @$US95/unit average in 1998 to a volume of 4.3 million units @ $US289/unit average in 2009.

Peter’s carbon conundrum had come about through a cyclical drop in volumes to which the business responded by adding value to processes (once again refer to the previous paragraph’s figures). And then orders picked up to the point where the facility was at capacity. A decision had to be made.

Production moves into full steam in the second half of each year, as models finalized and signed off on by the Taipei Cycle Show (March of every year) for the following year’s models to go into production. The period up to the Chinese New Year holiday is the busiest. Customers know that for a period of at least 5, and as long as 9 or 10 days, the painting shop will cease operations. Along with this is a preoccupation with finalizing the coming year’s models.

This leads to interesting behaviors as companies jostle for position on the line. Company reps or even bosses (your truly included!) will be on-site every other day, or even every day, often bearing a gift of (very good and very nicely packaged) food items or maybe liquor in order that Peter might look more favorably upon them in either hastening their production, or moving it onto the line ahead of other less “caring” customers should it still be in the queue.

You would be surprised what effect this can have!

Cost/benefit issues

From a technical point of view, carbon is tricky to paint, not least because of the ever present problem of pin holes, small depressions/punctures in the epoxy that the final clear coat has not filled in. Despite the most meticulous QC, there will always be some that proceed through to painting undetected. A post-paint QC check will usually reveal them, as they are much more visible.

Depending on where exactly the pin hole is, the affected piece will probably have to be rejected. In carrying out QC, you have to put yourself in the position of the customer or buyer. Would it be acceptable to them? If you answer your own question with a “no”, then the problem piece has to be reworked.

But the question then becomes, who is actually responsible for this. Is the fault of the frame/fork maker for not completing the piece perfectly? Or should the painter have taken measures to ensure pinholes are filled in or simply identified prior to painting which would make everything much easier. A similar thing happens with alloy frames. Dents can often only be detected after a frame has been painted–the fault gets picked up in QC. Each party tends to blame the other in these circumstances (framemaker: it happened on route to, or actually at the painter; painter: it is a case of careless frame handling at the framemaker). On balance, you’d have to say that it’s the manufacturers problem. But they will often reject this. Each blames the other and you find yourself in the middle.

From a cost/benefit point of view, it is more expensive (not to mention the personal expense to Peter of long days and weeks) to paint carbon. Alloy is much more straight forward. There are also several ladies very experienced in decal application who can dexterously process large productions in short time frames with a tiny error rate. (In my next production of frames I will detail their skills in a photo post similar to the posts on wheel hub manufacturing). This greatly reduces unit cost compared with carbon.

Anyhow, the upshot has been that Peter has ceased painting carbon, leaving existing customers with the problem of finding a substitute. There are other painting operations around. But you have to find a good one, one that will apply decals perfectly and minimize foreign bodies in the paint (hard to rectify outside of simply repainting) or in the clear coat (more easily dealt with through a quick cut and polish–but still causing a delay in delivery).

I did find a substitute. How I did this, and how it is all going will be detailed in a future post.

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