Thursday, December 05, 2013

A Race To The (Fat) Bottom

Buy direct from China- shipped to your door.
The way we buy things, in general, is a quickly shifting landscape. The Internet, and its attendant information pipeline has opened a can-o-worms that can't be packed back up again. For better or worse, we have a different economy these days.

In terms of bicycles, I have written about how the consumer now has a choice to buy direct from factories in China. Something that was unthinkable five years ago  now is commonplace. E-bay is the most common portal for this, but even supposedly "spam-free" forums have representatives of Chinese factories participating in conversations on-line with potential customers.

This hit the 29"er market a few years ago, (not to mention the road and cyclo cross market place), and now fat bikes have fallen into the same "rabbit hole" of the e-marketplace. I won't begin to delve into all the emotions and "he-said-she-said" arguments you can find about this stuff, but I do have some thoughts on this activity.

There seems to be two schools of thought that can most generally be summed up by the labels, (and these are my terms, not anyone elses), "Sticking It To The Man" and the "It's Just Wrong" camps. On one hand you have folks with a varied list of reasoning that are going to buy this stuff because it's a deal of some sort. The other side feels it is wrong on several ethical, moral, or legal grounds to even consider buying like this.

Here's the deal from my standpoint: These frames are made to make a buck. Are they as "good as" Brand X? Whatever...... I think of it as this- Go to your local butcher. Take a look at the cuts of beef, for example. The discerning eye will see how some are different, "better", or hold more value than some of the other cuts of beef. Others will see them as "overpriced", and give their opinions as to why and point you to a small town meat locker, or even a farmer/hunter/source that you can buy stuff "just as good" for much less. Who is right? Both are. That's the bottom line here.

Made in Asia, but not "the same thing".
It comes down to your beliefs and perceptions. What "reality" is often doesn't ever really matter, but if you dig into this, it might just be eye opening. From the standpoint of manufacturers, I think it is high time that some major retooling of the marketing departments was done. Gone are the days when you could say "Our carbon fiber process is top secret", because what is happening is that people are turning carbon fiber into a commodity that is being bid down to the lowest common denominator. Not many folks understand that the bicycle industry doesn't even get the "really good stuff" and that what the bicycle industry does get is not "all the same". I think the industry needs to be a bit more forthcoming about what kind of quality the frames they are putting out there really are. Some open doors instead of closed.

But maybe in the end it won't matter. I've already seen where some industry wonk is saying carbon fiber will replace aluminum as the "material of choice" for the common levels of bicycle products. I find that sort of thinking pretty incredible. Big box store carbon fiber fat bike rigs for $299.99? Maybe, if this is where it is going. Think that it could never happen? I bet people that first saw Cannondales and Kleins in the early 80's thought the same thing.


Dave said...

Your summary is on the right train of thought. The innovation is happening and will continue to push costs lower.

Want another mind melter? Forget them all and 3D print your bike and parts. At home. In metal or plastic. It's a bit farther off... but not as much as you might think.

Guitar Ted said...

@Dave: The 3D printing thing is just another way that I foresee mechanical engineers getting ripped off much like musicians and the visual arts folks have been getting ripped off for a long time now.

This is either a select redistribution of wealth or the bringing of many skilled position jobs down to the lowest common denominator. Or both. I don't see it as being a very motivating economic model.

shiggy person said...

Why would you not trust a carbon frame from an eBay store that mainly offers women's makeup? What could go wrong?

rideonpurpose said...

Why would you trust multi-million or billion dollar bike 'manufacturers' (read as- marketing companies) to protect your interest any better than you buying it direct? No doubt there are many different grades of carbon, even different levels of quality coming out of the same molds and factories etc.... but do you really think that the ones slapped with a logo are sure to be the good ones? I know I'd rather be out $400 than $2200 for the same, possibly crappy, thing!

So far as the carbon frames being virtually all frames thing, including low end bikes... absolutely certainly.

Guitar Ted said...

rideonpurpose: Interesting.... One could say that you would want to buy from a "reputable company because they would have layers of recourse avaialbe if you have a problem. They might also be held more accountable for product that they produce. That "might" be worth something to some folks. Maybe I'm wrong there....

And even you yourself display doubt about the quality of carbon products being put out as evidenced by your "same, possibly crappy, thing" comment.

What if it isn't the "same, possibly crappy, thing"? What if, in fact, it is better? And how would anyone know?

These are the things that, to my mind, are at issue here. Not the "where you buy" from.

Irishtsunami said...

I cannot wait to get a carbon fiber Walgoose that weighs 50 pounds and rusts within moments of leaving the store!

shiggy person said...

Many of the "big" companies do have proprietary designs/molds for their carbon frames. These are going to cost more because of that expense.
With the open mold frame designs (and there are some "name brands" selling open mold frames) they are going to look the same, but you have no way to know what the internal construction is. They same mold can be used to produce anything from a superlight frame with high quality CF and resin to a relatively heavy one with CF scrap and lots of filler. Either could be bombproof or a bomb waiting to explode.
Even with brand name, proprietary frames I have seen seriously crooked brake post mounts, off center rear triangles, and cracked tubes (that where covered up at the factory). Much easier to deal with a problem when there is a western office and warehouse.

I do believe there will be lower end mainstream carbon bikes replacing aluminum on many cases. It has already happened with road forks.
I have seen the FOB cost for aluminum and carbon frames of similar design. The carbon is only about 15-20% higher (as of last year), and it will go lower.
Waiting to see the bike industry to do more with cf reinforced plastic (again, GT did it in the '90s) like BMW is using for their "i" class electric/hybrid cars (BMW is producing the CF parts in Moses Lake WA). Then the price will really drop.

rideonpurpose said...

As someone who repairs carbon for part of my living I can assure you that the system of recourse of the major manufacturers is questionable and uneven at best. I also do not see much evidence of manufacturers that do produce products with poor quality being held to any account.

Until each and every shop treats warranty claims the same and as intended by the manufacturer, Until there is some sort of consumer reports like reporting on the true rate at which failures occur... marketing and product placement (how much does it cost to get mentioned in every copy of outside magazine anyways?) will dominate the decisions of the consumer and you are right "how would anyone know".

Did you read this by any chance?

I'm no fan of the knock-off frames! The only thing worse is getting that level of quality with a brand name on it, and that's what I fear is really the issue/tragedy taking place right now.

Guitar Ted said...

rideonpurpose: First off- Thank you for being up front about your interests in carbon and your business in it. Of course, I know that about you, but it makes more of an impact when you are upfront about that here.

Secondly- I have not read your particular link, but I am well aware of that sort of thing. This is why I am calling for the sort of openness that doesn't exist now in this arena. Again, correct me if I am wrong, but I feel that without a way to verify quality product by the end user- or at least a way to identify it as such- your example and what I am referring to will only serve to make carbon frames a commodity, and then- why not just buy on price alone? I think we are on a similar page here, but perhaps coming at it from different angles?

@shiggy person: I remember those GT frames and it was oft said then that the "thermoplastic" type carbon would one day put the "thermoset" type a thing of the past due to its ease of molding and less labor intensive construction technique. I assume the BMW example is the sort of stuff those GT and Ross frames were made from, only better?

rideonpurpose said...

Yes, I agree.

To boil down my point of view more...

The established companies and their distribution (and warranty) networks need to recognize this and show us why and what they are doing that is legitimate and better than the 'open' products that look the same.

It is one thing if there is a knock-off Pinarello or Specialized or whatever that appears to be 'after the fact' (often copying models that are out of production or with obvious deficiencies such as with the bike I reviewed above). When the 'knock-off' is virtually concurrent with the release of your frame or fork... that's when it raises huge issues for me.

I should also add that I'm incredibly excited for a lot of these frames to start showing up! A lot has changed with fatbike technology since I built my Pugnago 20? months ago and I can hardly wait to try some of it out.

shiggy person said...

Yes, BMW, Maclaren, and other auto manufacturers have been using carbon moulding techniques that do not require laying up sheets of material (the labor intensive part of carbon frames). And they are doing large, complicated shapes, including the main chassis Monocoque and body parts.
The material is referred to as carbon fiber by the mainstream press, but is carbon reinforced plastic in the industry.

* clarification on the BMW Moses Lake plant. They are making the carbon fiber material there, and shipping it to Germany to be made into component parts.

shiggy person said...

Re: knockoffs of discontinued name brands.
I have heard of deals where a bike company gets reduced tooling (mold) charges if the factory can use them for open mold sales after two years.

spruceboy said...

so.. if carbon frames only cost 15% to 20% more like the shiggy person suggested, why are they so expensive? 907s (just as an example - that fat bike frame looks similar to 907's carbon offering) carbon frame is ~2300, while the the alu version is 800? I am all for compensating for the development/design costs, but that seems like a huge markup if true.

I realize this is an aside to your main point, but folks are bound to feel like they are being taken advantage give the huge price differential and no real idea how much it actually costs to produce and to develop these frames. And it is not like main line manufacturers are free of quality issues with both their carbon and alu frames.

Guitar Ted said...

@spruceboy: See- this underscores what ridesonpurpose and I were discussing. How do you know that the 9 zero 7 is worth what it is? You don't. Is it worth "less"? (As in- is it overpriced?), maybe- but here is the thing, we just do not know.

This is why I feel companies that are forthcoming about their carbon fiber programs are going to be the winners, (if any companies actually do this), because then we will all know why the bike costs what it does and we can then decide if the processes and design features are worth the money. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the costs are indefensible/not adding value to the consumer.

shiggy person said...

If it is not an open mold frame (and 907 is not AFAIK), the bike company did not have to pay for the R&D or tooling/molds, which can be substantial.
Unlike a metal frame, making prototypes and changes are very expensive, even for minor alterations.

I should have included this before.

spruceboy said...

"If it is not an open mold frame (and 907 is not AFAIK), the bike company did not have to pay for the R&D or tooling/molds, which can be substantial."

So the actual widget that makes this frames is not very expensive?

Perhaps the 9zero7 example is a bad one, as they are presumably pretty small volume, so the R&D costs are not spread around very many frames. However - doesn't the beargrease carbon frame cost about the same? It still doesn't make much sense...

It would be really interesting to see a writeup from someone involved in frame production giving some idea about the costs and processes involved.

Thanks for the post GT and the comments rideonpurpose & shiggy, it was interesting and informative.