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Nov 25, 2009

Making Mountain Bike Components

Makers of All Mountain Post use Latest in CNC to Carve out a Niche

Since this Customer Showcase Story was was written Nov 25, 2009, Precision Cycling Components (PCC) has "reached an agreement with TH Industries, manufacturer of Full Speed Ahead (FSA), Gravity, and Vision Brand components, to grant them an exclusive world-wide license to our design."

Inventor of the of the All Mountain Post (AMP), an adjustable bicycle seat raised and lowered through a handlebar-mounted lever, Jim Brennan of Precision Cycling Components used a Series I PCNC 1100 to innovate in the mountain bike industry.

In extreme downhill or cross country (XC) mountain bike racing, riders need a lower center of gravity on descents. “A lot of times you just want the seat out of the way.” And, Brennan says frankly, “On rough terrain, you don’t want the seat bouncing off rocks and hitting you in the butt.” Although the concept of a retractable post is not new to mountain biking, Brennan believes he found a better approach to the problem.

“There’s been a lot of people who have tried this in different ways. There was one company that had been making one for about three years or so, but had some breakage issues with it. Even with these little problems, everybody loved the seat,” recalls Brennan. “My future business partner was actually thinking about buying one. I prototyped what I thought would be a better design, had him try it out, and he loved it.”

In January 2005, the two friends of Modesto, California, founded PCC and started production of the All Mountain Post on the weekends, keeping their day jobs.

The invention uses handlebar levers to smoothly change the seat level. When approaching a descent, the rider simply pushes the handlebar-mounted actuation lever and the seat will drop. Depending on how much downward pressure is applied to the seat before the lever release, the AMP will drop one inch, or down to lower levels, 3-inches or 4-inches. When approaching a climb or flat, raising the seat is as easy as standing up and pressing the actuation lever. The seat will rise to full height in a fraction of a second.

For Brennan, this better idea has led not only to a successful product but a growing bicycle component supply company that has future part designs on the drawing board. Central to getting the business off the ground was his company’s leveraging of a new advance in CNC tooling technology, which is aimed to help people with better ideas – for cycling or anything else – get to market.

To fabricate the precision components out of aluminum alloys, PCC invested in CNC technology – essentially a machine that automatically cuts parts in three-dimensions based on CAD design files. In the last few years, CNC, which has for decades stayed in the realm of heavy industry, has rapidly become more accessible to the individual inventor and small business. Design software and machine-coding programs have both come down dramatically in price and gone up in PC-user friendliness.

But the most revolutionary development in personal-sized CNC has been in hardware. The release of the PCNC 1100 mill from Tormach was a result of three years of development which sought to build a mill under $7000, but had all the cutting performance to make parts out of any material. Having a standard platform for parts and programming, the Tormach design also contained other attributes aimed at the individual’s shop: the equipment runs on a standard dryer electrical outlet available in most home garages, and the one-ton table-sized cast-iron mill is compact enough to fit through doorways and light enough to be moved on a manual palette-lift instead of a forklift.

The PCNC 1100 has enabled countless startup businesses, like Brennan’s, all across the country. The Tormach PCNC 1100 is the first of its class – powerful enough to do professional prototypes, but small, affordable, and easy enough to use and maintain even for the novice machinist. The PCNC 1100 has filled a gap in the market for mills that included only machines too big and expensive for a small company, or wobbly desktop CNC devices that lack the muscle to build real products.

After building his first four or five prototypes of the AMP on a manual mill, Brennan initially bought one of these desktop CNC mills, a hobbyist-style mill from KEG. “It was slow and couldn’t take big cuts. It wasn’t really reliable, but it did allow me to prototype the product a little bit faster,” says Brennan. PCC built its first 50 units on the KEG. “That was really painful and expensive in terms of time.”

After acquiring the Tormach mill, Precision Cycle Components could be come an effective short-run production house. “The one part that actually mounts to the seat to the post took three hours to make eight units on the little KEG machine, plus I had to do secondary ops later to clean them up,” says Brennan. “On the Tormach, I made 30 of those parts in an hour and half. It’s about five times faster.”

The other advantage to the Tormach technology was in the quality of output. Tormach PCNC 1100’s cast-iron table was designed to optimize stability to allow deeper and smoother cuts.

“It’s such a rigid machine that you don’t have tool chatter,” explains Brennan. “How much the machine wiggles around is going to determine how good the finish of your cuts are going to be. If it’s not a good finish, then there’s a lot of clean-up by hand you’ll have to do afterward, like sanding off all the rough edges. With the Tormach, we could cut out the part, knock off the tabs that held the material in place, and throw it right into a laboratory tumbler. It’s done, basically.”

“Using the Tormach has freed up so much of my time. On the small KEG, I did most of my cutting with a eighth inch end-mill, with the low RPM of the spindle and the lack of rigidity of the machine, I had to use really small tool bits. So I had to set up an enclosure with coolant. You couldn’t just leave it running. You couldn’t trust it that it wasn’t going to miss a spec or the motors weren’t going to skip, or the tool wouldn’t break,” says Brennan. “Whereas with the Tormach, I can set up a 10” x 18” sheet of aluminum, bolt it down to the table, run the machine and I come back when it’s time change the tools. I can be in another part of the shop and be productive in other areas, like hand assembly, while parts are being cut.”

For the weekend-entrepreneurs, time is a rare commodity. “To do a lot of the smaller hardware parts, we used to spend four weekend-days fabricating. The last time we did a round, we had everything ready to be placed in a tumbler within a day. We saved ourselves three days of pain and suffering.”

“The customer service has been great,” adds Brennan. “I had one little problem with the roto-control, talked to Tormach on the phone and I came home the next day and there was a package with a part, I put it in, and there was no problem. That’s a great thing: If a machine goes down and customer service gives me the run around and doesn’t want to take action, then that’s going to cost me a lot. It might take two weeks to get up and running again. I don’t have to worry about that with Tormach.”

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