Best Of PEZ: The Alpina Spoke Factory
If you’re using Mavic, Bontrager, Campagnolo, Fulcrum or newer Zipp wheels, there’s a good chance that they’ve got Alpina spokes and/or nipples in them. If you’ve got a BMW, Husqvarna or KTM motorcycle with spoked wheels or maybe a set of Borranis, they’re also Alpina’s. How is it that such a prominent Italian company remains virtually unknown? PEZ visits the factory near Milan to find out.
Alpina is located in Lomagna, near Milan.
At PEZ, we prefer to be relatively apolitical when it comes to the bike industry, doping, the UCI and other controversial issues. However, it should be noted that when given the choice between a Chinese product and one manufactured in a free and democratic society where environmental laws and workers’ safety are respected, I will chose the latter and willingly pay more for it. Though I do not pursue this with zeal, social costs do factor into my buying decisions, especially the larger purchases. In other words, I was the perfect candidate for the indoctrination to follow at the hands of Moreno Fioravanti, the Sales Manager for Alpina.
I met Moreno at a hotel for lunch near Lecco – this is Italy after all, first food then business – and we easily identified each other across the lobby even though we’d only spoken on the phone a couple times. Stereotypes sometimes are handy: I’m a Yank and Moreno is a sales guy, a large man, a bit brusque, yet most importantly, eloquent… no, convincingly eloquent. In addition to selling Alpina products worldwide, Moreno is on a mission. He is President of COLIPED, which from my understanding is a lobby group trying to protect the European bike component industry from Chinese dumping. “This is my hobby,” he said as he passed me a bunch of legal documents dealing with the EU trade commission.
Moreno Fioravanti, anti-dumping evangelist and sales manager for Alpina.
Although sometimes Moreno’s crusader phrases like “the industrial genocide that national socialist China is perpetrating on the U.S. and EU must be stopped” can be off-putting, he is passionate about protecting jobs in Italy, of which the Bologna native has first hand experience. After working 20 years for the same company, he was forced to leave after it faltered under Chinese competition. But on the positive side, it brought Moreno to Alpina where some great ideas were languishing without someone to sell them. We’ll return to this later.
Guido Cappellotto’s grandfather founded Alpina over 80 years ago, today he is The Man in Charge; the creative force, the inventor and leader. Despite all of these responsibilities, he is surprisingly modest, which makes the power of his arguments even greater. My conversion to their Cause occurred later in the afternoon when Guido took a piece of paper and did the math. “OK, so the raw materials to make 1000 plain spokes and 1000 brass nipples totals 18.50 Euros, these are the global prices for steel and brass, you can look them up. How can the Chinese sell finished products shipped to your door for 13.50?” The answer is that in a centralized, controlled economy, the government subsidizes the losses to eliminate competition. “The real problem is that when you lose those industries, that manufacturing, you lose the know-how and it will never come back, your Obama has learned this,” said Moreno. To prove this point, he later emailed me a bunch of documents concerning dumping and America’s efforts to fight it.
Guido Cappellotto, Chief Chief of Alpina.
“So how can you survive in this environment?” asks Guido. Then it all made sense. All of what I had seen and learned throughout the day. The answer is that Alpina relies on constant innovation, keeps its costs down, meaning no advertising or marketing, concentrates on impeccable, zero defect manufacturing with no waste and keeps their clients happy, nearly all of which are OEM. Of course, Alpina would love recognition from the greater public, but they are pretty successful without it. The people that matter, know them and their products. This is the conclusion, now let’s start with some background and a tour of the factory.
The Boom Ends
The Alpina of today, the one I visited, was created as a result of the Italian bike boom and more so, bust. From 1989 to 1995, Italy manufactured 60% of all the bikes worldwide. Those bikes had 32 or more spoked wheels. Most of those spokes came from Alpina – that meant three million spokes a day or 1,200 kilometers of wire were running through the factory, every day. “Those were fat times, this factory was a gold mine, it only took 31 employees to make all those simple spokes,” said Guido. In the boom period, Alpina was known as a maker of decent spokes at a good price. When the boom turned into a bust Alpina had to reinvent its business.
This wheel transformed Alpina into an innovation company.
As fortune would have it, in 1996 Marco Pantani asked Alpina to make him a set of super light wheels. Man, it’s always the climbers! One of the requirements was spokes that locked. Guido set to work and came up with a beautiful set of wheels. The rims were from NISI, but the hubs, spokes and most importantly, nipples all came from Alpina. Guido found an ingenious way to lock the spokes by adding a hard nylon insert into the nipple. It’s actually a little blue sphere that gets pushed into the nipple, then cut and drilled and allows spokes “to lock” but still remain true-able. This idea was patented, called ABS for Alpina Block System and then sat around while everyone glued their spokes into the nipples (and many continue this practice) – if you’ve ever had to true one of these, you’ll appreciate what a great idea this was (and still is). Just like that, Alpina made the jump from a mass producer of plain spokes to an innovator.
Here is a model of the ABS nipple.
Around this time Mavic and then others were introducing complete wheelsets to the market. Instead of having to choose hubs, spokes and rims, consumers and bike shops could get the whole thing already assembled and be done with it. And the rest is history, Alpina’s own wheelset included. Why? Because bike companies don’t like their OEM suppliers to compete with them. This was a costly lesson that Guido is wont to repeat and it explains why Alpina prefers to live behind the scenes. Other lessons included: Alpina would have to expand internationally since the Italian market was drying up and quality and innovation would have to be their new focus, yet competitive pricing should remain a guiding principle.
The New Alpina
Often, the only way to break into entrenched markets, like the bike industry, is through acquisitions. Alpina was lucky to have already gotten their feet wet in the late 80’s when they bought the ACI brand. Go to any old Italian bike shop and you’ll see lots of green and blue spoke boxes. Originally from ACI, the heads were stamped with an “S”. After Alpina bought ACI, they left the boxes alone or added ACI Alpina to some, yet stamped the heads with “A”. As a testament to Alpina’s frugality, they are still using old stock, green and blue boxes until they run out. Consumer confusion be damned! In any case, all Alpina spokes are stamped “A”, no spoke leaves the factory without it. In the late 90’s, Alpina acquired the Marwi/Union spoke division to get access to their distribution and sales networks in Germany, Benelux and beyond.
Lots of these famed boxes are collecting dust in old bike shops all over Italy.
The next step in transforming the business was to focus on high quality. Remember, during the boom 31 employees were able to produce 3 million spokes a day, today Alpina makes just 600,000 a day and it takes 55 workers. Simple spokes can be spit out of the machine at a around 500 a minute. High end bicycle spokes can take 5 minutes or longer for one! The steps can involve drawing/butting the wire, hammering, thermal tempering, washing, painting and so on. Alpina does everything except the anodizing and painting. A big part of “doing everything” means making their own machines. Really? Yep, nearly every machine in the factory was designed AND manufactured by the engineers and workers at Alpina. When designs change and clients want different features, the machines are recycled into different machines. Obviously, this explains why I was not allowed to take any photos of them.
The factory, up ahead.
It also explains why designing products in Europe or America and manufacturing them in Asia suffers the typical hiccups. The flexibility and speed of being able to design, prototype and redesign instantly has real advantages. In addition, Alpina’s engineers have an intimate relationship with the design and the machine that it takes to produce that design. And this is what Moreno is talking about when he claims that losing this experience, this know-how is the critical issue when talking about dumping.
Marco Riva, head of production.
Marco Riva is the guy in charge of turning raw materials into products. “I would much rather make motorcycle or car spokes all day than bike ones due to their complexity,” he explains. The factory tour actually begins in the testing office. The quickest way to get the boss very mad is to screw up an order and have to throw away materials. I was made to understand that this “never happens” (with lots of head shaking and solemn looks). Careful set up and controls are followed at the beginning of each run. Computer sensors monitor each step and one out of every 10,000 pieces is brought into the testing lab to make sure it’s right. These procedures are repeated for every step in the spoke making process.
Here is the testing lab, busy as usual.
The factory is best described as factory-ish, typical 70’s architecture. Cement and steel beams create a big and open space with light streaming from above. It’s clean. There is a pleasant scent of machine oil and iron. The workers are focused. Yet the younger ones are curious and look up as Marco approaches with some foreign guy asking dumb questions. The older ones don’t bother. The machines sing different tunes depending on the operation that they’re performing and the spoke thickness dictates the rhythm. Some are pulled slowly like taffy then cut, making tiny clicks, some making tings. Nothing is overwhelmingly loud because the hammering takes place in a sealed area with workers wearing headphones. I learn that all motorcycle spokes are hammered, while bicycle spokes below 1.7mm have to be first butted and then hammered. Alpina has a new spoke called Hyperlight that is 1.3mm in the center.
The main factory floor.
While many of Alpina’s office workers are women, the factory floor is the domain of men. No Italian factory or garage is complete without a nudie calendar. I’m sure they don’t get these perks in China. Marco leads me from the factory floor to the warehouse. All of Alpina’s main clients have a year’s worth of spokes here. While investors love “just in time” manufacturing with inventories kept to a bare minimum, the reality is a bit different for suppliers.
The last bastion of sexist male culture: Italian factories and garages.
Innovating, Part I
There are two new innovations from Alpina this year that I was not permitted to write about until after their unveiling at the Taipei Show. The first one is an evolution of the ABS nipple. One issue with the original design is that a spoke has to stick out about 2mm above the nipple for the locking mechanism to fully lock the spoke. While there’s nothing wrong with this, having to use 2mm longer spokes is an inelegant solution. Zipp ask Alpina to solve this. So Guido created a cylindrical nylon locking mechanism, instead of the spherical one, that lets them insert it further down into the nipple and lock the spokes earlier.
The other new item is a road/MTB spoke, a special one called Zero Head. The Achilles tendon of spokes are the heads, more specifically, the excess steel/mold marks from the stamping process (visible on the sides). These wings rub against the hub’s flange, creating stress risers. Campagnolo asked Alpina and a few of their competitors to make a spoke without these wings. Once again, Alpina solved this by notching these stress risers so they no longer come in contact with the hub, thereby reducing the risk of spoke failure.
All spokes start out life like this.
Now, If I May…
The worst thing you can say about Alpina is that they are like so many, no, too many Italian businesses that have no idea what marketing can mean to their bottom line. They equate marketing with traditional advertising and that means spending money in a terribly inexact way. Or at best, it means sponsoring professional cycling, but here Italians have been pushed to the sidelines by quicker, savvier and wealthier marketers. Italian management structure with the boss/idea man and then a sales guy or two (often family members) and then the quiet worker bees is too antiquated. Yet, Colnago and many other famed and (once highly) successful businesses still work this way. In Alpina’s defense, they are aware of these issues and while most companies begrudge competitors, Guido and Moreno greatly admire Sapim and DT Swiss for their products, their success and their marketing ability. The other good thing is that Alpina is so unaccustomed to having journalists around that they speak freely, almost too candidly.
Innovating, Part II
The last bastion of lead on the bicycle, the green people mover, is found in brass nipples. Brass nipples have lots of lead in them. European law states that lead should be removed from wherever possible (especially in products intended for children under 12). Manufacturers dodge this requirement by claiming that it is impossible to produce a nipple without it. Guido spent a year, designing and redesigning a process (and its machine) that manufactures brass nipples without lead. Proof positive that it’s possible. Adopting this process would take 25 tons of lead out of European factories, yearly. Alpina announced this innovation, claiming that lead free nipples are stronger than lead ones with only a 5% cost increase. The news was greeted with cheers and some excitement, but so far there have been zero orders. Again, zero orders.
Brass nipples, these are the leaded ones.
To my American thinking this is a perfect example of how adding effective marketing to an exclusive, timely innovation would equate to sales and profits (until the others catch up). But that’s just me. Moreno’s rebuttal: “you have to understand that our margins are very thin, to stick our necks out and fully commit to a product that no one wants so far risks the livelihoods of all of our employees.” Fair enough.
This is what Alpina’s mission is really about: creating and protecting jobs.
Talking with an industry guy about my factory visit, he cynically asked, “so does Alpina say their spokes are the best in the world, like everyone else?” No, actually they don’t. Alpina makes whatever you want. Guido Cappellotto is a problem solver, first and foremost. Pantani wanted locked spokes. Solved it. Campagnolo wanted wingless spokes. Zipp wanted level spoke threads. The EU wanted lead free nipples. Yes, yes, and yes. As Guido told me, “if a client tells me that whatever he’s ordering is the best spoke in the world, I tell him he’s right. We might have tests that disprove this or we might have ideas for better spokes, but that’s not our place. However, if companies want to work with us to create the best spoke in the world for their application, then we’ll do that, too.”
Fulfilling clients’ orders is what Alpina is really about.
It just so happens that their best clients usually want the best stuff. I was shown some internal testing data where Alpina’s did very well in comparison to the other well known brands. In fact, one of their client’s spokes came out on top [note: I have no means to prove or disprove these claims, nor do I know under what conditions these tests were performed, I’m merely reporting what Alpina showed me, pulled off of an engineer’s desk. This is the information that they are using for themselves].
Visiting the Alpina factory and getting to know Moreno, Guido and Marco has been an enlightening experience. I like spokes… actually, I like wheels, but I’ve never been terribly concerned about how they’re made and the ongoing hostilities within the bicycle industry until meeting the people that are directly tied to it and appreciating their efforts and ingenuity. They use war terms and they’re right – it is a battle for survival. I’m pulling for Alpina and hoping that they continue to succeed. Though they cater to the OEM market, they are talking about introducing some products to the aftermarket. In the meantime, I will be using some of their spokes and nipples in a couple of upcoming projects. So stay tuned (and trued).
More information can be found on Alpina’s website: www.alpinaraggi.it