Making Stuff

Making Stuff

When Star Wars came out in 1977, it was a cultural phenomenon. It revived science fiction as a genre and inspired an interest in space that played out both in pop culture and politics. What many people don’t recall are the myriad copycat films that somehow did not dim our enthusiasm for the franchise. On the plus side, Star Wars paved the way for movies like Dune to be produced, but its coattails harbored atrocities like StarcrashMessage From Space and Space Mutiny. To me, the point isn’t that other people will copy your work and cash in on your good idea, but that originality isn’t the thing. Hard work is the thing.

Thomas Edison is known for having said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” It’s a cute little gem, but he backed it up with this: “I never did anything worth doing by accident, nor did any of my inventions come indirectly through accident, except the phonograph. No, when I have fully decided that a result is worth getting, I go about it, and make trial after trial, until it comes.” 

Yeah, hard work.

As I was getting a tour Allied’s facilities in Little Rock last year, their CEO, Tony Karklins, told me they’ve already given tours to employees of several other bike companies, including Giant. He could have been more direct as he told me, “I want to be as transparent as possible. I want people to believe in the work we are doing.”

What he stressed to me repeatedly is that what makes producing great carbon fiber bikes difficult isn’t the engineering or the materials or any of the technology. It’s just hard work. And to his thinking, if someone else is willing to work that hard, then they are trying to make a good product, and why shouldn’t they find success.

While I don’t want to go political, I have to say that I’ve watched our brewing trade war with duties and tariffs galore, the skyrocketing cost of college, and talk of the return of trade schools—not to mention efforts to bring industry back to the heartland—and begun to wonder what this holds for the bike industry. While bicycle retailing is immensely troubled and not likely to get better, I see the possibility of bringing manufacturing of bicycle frames and forks back to the U.S.

The U.S. can be criticized for being overly materialistic (is a bigger house that necessary?), shallow (who really cares how many Instragram followers a makeup model has?) and perhaps disinterested in other cultures (only 36 percent of us have a valid passport), what this country has long had is a strong work ethic. While Asia is still the easiest place to get bike parts made, the rise of new bike companies—like Allied—gives me hope for a new era in the bike industry, and the U.S. economy.

 


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7 comments

  1. Scottg

    Seems to me that these are already the good old days of American bike builders, and have been for a number of years. This internet thing makes helps smaller shops market to broad audience. Waterford, Calfee, Chris King etc, all look forward to this new day of American manufacturing. If Allied wants to blaze new ground, make a groupset or handlebars in Arkansas.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      This is absolutely the golden age of custom framebuilding; you’re right about that. What Allied is doing, and what I expect to see more companies move toward, is different in that these are essentially production frames. As they ramp up production, they will be competing not against carbon makers like Calfee or Alchemy, but on a footing more like that of Cervelo. I’d love to see a component manufacturer set up a factory in the heartland, but for now, a scalable carbon fiber frame manufacturer is a big step. I think their (anticipated) success may lead to things like component manufacturing.

  2. Tom

    It seems to me there’s always been a market for high- (or higher) end products made here. Furniture (go to any craft show) and bike components (Chris King, Paul Components, White Industries) come to mind. What’s hard is making middle-priced products and a profit. The auto makers have figured it out, as have some low-end furniture makers. Maybe bike makers are next.

  3. Les.B.

    If manufacture of bike components is increased in the US because of tariffs, then there’s the possibility that prices will increase. Parts for the enthusiast cycling market are already steep.

    Maybe the challenge is creating a business model that keeps prices competitive with offshore suppliers.

  4. Shawn

    This raises touchy questions. Frames can be mass-produced in the USA. There is a long history of American-made bike frames. There is no “ancient Chinese secret” to carbon fiber. (Credit to Calgon’s 1970s marketers). The market has spoken, and it says consumers (and brand retailers) want to pay less for a bike frame. But American workers simply demand higher compensation for their labor. So one unsettling question is whether tariffs, on one hand, should be considered any more of an artificial price increase than the premium for American labor. Americans simply demand more than the market will bear for their frame manufacturing labor.

    One solution to returning manufacturing to the USA is to lessen the American worker’s component of the equation via automation. (E.g. the auto industry, US small bicycle component mfgrs, etc.). But if bike frames are machine-made, what difference does it make where they’re made? The obvious answer is that local products avoid tariffs (e.g. auto industry), but if the tariffs hurt American consumers without benefiting American labor, what’s the point of the tariff?

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