Hand built versus machine built: the wrap up

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First, here is a link to an episode of The Honest Bicycle Program in which I (Dave) spoke with Greg and Mattio. It was a fun conversation, and though the terror of how it would come out was very real for me (have not done too many of these things), it came out well. Enjoy it. Those guys do a good podcast.

Per the last post, there's really not too much left in this topic. It is our firmly held belief that people are capable of building better high-spec wheels than machines are, and that a high end set of wheels, using exacting components, must be built by hand. Which brings me to the last embers of the topic.

In general, the better performing wheel components are less tolerant of inexpert assembly workmanship. A semi-competent wheel builder may do fine with 550 gram rims and straight gauge spokes, and a machine will also do that job quite well. But take 120 grams out of each rim and go from 14g straight spokes to Lasers or Revolutions, and the job gets quite a bit more challenging. That's where a skilled wheel builder becomes relevant, and quite necessary even.

We've considered whether we can do less expensive builds than what we do, and it's a big challenge. To frame the idea, this is not an "is there something that can do the job of Nimbus Ti builds as well or better than they do, for meaningfully less money?" question. For their level of performance and durability, we're convinced that the Nimbus Ti builds are it - best in price class, and way less expensive than their performance peers. But could we do a wheel that had good quality and performance and durability, though a step down from Nimbus Ti options, that would be both a good product for our business and for our customers? It's quite difficult for us.

Our material costs (Cost Of Goods Sold, or COGS - a "20 times a day" expression around here) are high. Our hubs are expensive (just like T11s and CLDs - which they functionally are), as are the rims we use, and though the spokes we use are a significant cost savings over using the CX Ray option, they're not cheap, either. Just a set of Nimbus Ti hubs costs us more than the bill of materials for most of the direct to consumer wheel sets we often get compared with. But while we could compromise materials and chop down their costs, the cost of our work and of our service is fixed. Even if the materials cost $0, we couldn't win the game of low cost commodity wheels. The value curve of what we impart into a set of wheels feels like it makes the most sense across the ground we cover. A lot of the OEM wheel sets that come on bikes can be bought for like $130 wholesale. That's where the machines win - for 6 minutes worth of electricity and opportunity cost, your machine just spits out easy to build wheels with low cost components all day and all night. That's how the mechanics and ecomomics of that capital equipment works. 

Since I've apparently got a little of the P&V in me this morning (I'm a bit riled up, I don't know why), I'll admit that I just read a wheel review that made small puffs of smoke come out of my ears. It's not that it's a badly done review, it's just that - really? That much money for what you get? (US MSRP is $1000 - $AUS is pretty cheap these days). I just don't understand the mentality that would make anyone think that that's their best (or even a good) purchase decision in this category. This would be a fairly good value wheelset at $550. What Mike always says to get me off the ledge when I get worked up about stuff like that is that we're building a universe of people who get what we're doing, and basically to hell with the rest of them. So that's what I'll tell myself here, then.

And a good day to you.


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  • Dave on

    Sal – Yeah, they're probably actually fine wheels. Except that if you were going to offer just one spoke count then 18/24 would not be my choice. But then again, the rims must be quite… Rubenesque. So maybe it's cool. What do I know? I tell you what I know – I don't like the value proposition, and I get a chuckle about the implications of the brand (i.e. "of course they're better than whatever you have, they're ####s!"). But the person who responds to that isn't going to respond to our schtick, so there you go.Ryan – Thanks. I sure didn't mean to come off as defensive, but I likely merged the topics more than I intended to. The last bit was more of an "oh, by the way." More cogently stated, the initial bit is "there is a spec/price level where our setup works to deliver excellent value, and there is a spec/price level below that where our inputs are a bad fit with the other components." We're competitive and driven people, and as such patience isn't always our strongest suit, but addressing and attracting the people who ARE a good fit with us isn't an overnight thing. Especially with our paid promotion parsimony.

  • Ryan Kendrick on

    Mike's advice is good advice. There will ALWAYS be people racing to the bottom. What they never mention is that there's very little good down there. Keep doing what you're doing, educating people on why quality costs a bit more (e.g. this and many other of your blog posts), and forget about the bottom tier, where margins are nonexistent. You never hear ENVE or Pinarello apologizing for not making inexpensive, entry-level products. Maybe I'm reading this post more as a defense for why you can't produce wheels for less, when really the message was intended to be why it's worth it to pay more for quality products (or maybe that's the same thing? I don't know. Time for bed.)

  • Salvatore on

    Ha! I was curious what wheelset the link would bring me to, and it gave me quite a chuckle. I'm sure they'll sell a ton of them. To each his own, I guess.

  • joe on

    I don't disagree with your point that the 30 Course wheels are expensive, but there's two issues: 1) you're not offering the same options that Zipp is for them, while keeping your low price, and 2) it's not completely apples-to-apples, as their build includes cx-rays, not lasers (I know strength is the same and aero is non-existant here, but they're still more-expensive spokes). for example, if I build a november wheel with nimbus hubs, hed tubular rim (which is certainly more comparable to zipp rims than major toms, and likewise comparable to the sl23) and cx rays, I'm looking at around $900. the zipps are $100 more. sure, they're building them assembly-line fashion like you are the nimbus Ti's, so the price should be cheaper. I get that. I'm just saying that for the tubular world, and with the difference of cx-rays being in there, it's not a 100% fair comparison.long story short: I wish you offered your Nimbus Ti builds in tubulars better than major tom's, with a comparable price.

  • joe on

    indeed, I was adding it up with the T11's. and I missed that the hed tubs are available for $740 now with Nimbus hubs via the "open" option. that's a damn good price.anyway, I do agree with you that you don't really offer an exact apples-to-apples build. one because your hub options are all better than zipps (who have notoriously bad hubs) and two because their rims are wider (better for gluing cyclocross tubs). the $740 nimbus open/hed option is close, as you say, but better in other ways (hubs, weight) and not paying for things you don't need (cx rays). it is a narrower rim though. and yes you can spring for T11 branded hubs and cx-rays and pay $150 more for it, but why? (and I agree, your price on this is quite fair.)regardless, I wasn't trying to argue the value of your builds, but simply say that zipps are slightly different. yours are by far a smarter value, they're just not 100% comparable. the zipps are over-priced, but to be fair they could've been worse; they were asking $1300 for the 101's only a few years back. it's actually arguable that companies like November are the reason why zipp are approaching more reasonable prices. and that means you've done a great job at what you're doing. keep it up.



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