Polyurethane (PU) products and the industry

I’m skeptical about whether companies are indeed creating their own compounds. Their own molds and shapes, pigmentation and logos, sure. But don’t they still have to buy it in liquid form from somewhere?1

I started this thread down on Pavedwave, and I got into a rather interesting conversation with Zipzit, our forum’s resident engineer guy from Las Vegas. I’ll just reproduce it here.

What baffles me is that there’s small manufacturers who make wheels and pivot cups and bushings and such, who also claim that they have an original, unique formula that makes their wheels harder and softer at the same time or something (sometimes perhaps for real). Now they obviously must outsource production to some factory with their specifications. How do they do that though? How do they come up with formulas? And if they think it’s so unique why don’t they patent their chemical secrets that could give them the competitive edge?

[Zipzit] Mold your own, less hard plastic inner hub […]

Patent the formula? Huh, why do that. To file a patent, you have to disclose ALL the details of the formula. Anybody can clone that. As the patent holder, you get to prove that someone stole your patent idea, and go after them (in any country in the world) and prove it, then go after them for financial loss. Wonderful investment in lawyers. Keep the secret, then find trusted manufacturers to mix urethane for you. 

If you want to compete in this space, knock yourself out. You could 1) find a manufacturer to make parts for you, to your specifications, or 2) tool up molds, cooling racks, purchase curing oven, purchase finishing lathe, purchase packaging tooling, and warehouse space on your own.

There is a reason why some wheels are inexpensive and others, not so much… Do note, graphics on side of wheels cost money. Advertising and branding cost money. I would NOT expect graphics on side of wheel or branding / marketing costs to affect a wheel’s performance. […]

[…]

** disclaimer: My focus for testing as discussed here is on Long Distance Pump (LDP) efficiency. It’s totally possible that a wheel (or other part) that works great on a single test is awesome for that one test, but breaks down after 10 KM on the trails. That wouldn’t be good. A manufacturer’s testing needs to include robustness, durability, long term performance, consistency and a bunch of other stuff. I’m assuming manufacturers are doing this stuff now.

[Alex]“Mold your own, less hard plastic inner hub”
So, wait, they don’t actually do serious scientific chemical reactions and stuff, do they? It’s more like when there’s these vaping enthusiasts making their own e-liquids for e-cigs, isn’t it?

“Patent the formula? Huh, why do that. To file a patent, you have to disclose ALL the details of the formula. Anybody can clone that. As the patent holder, you get to prove that someone stole your patent idea, and go after them (in any country in the world) and prove it, then go after them for financial loss. Wonderful investment in lawyers.”
Yes, of course, you’re right! It’s not like the competition can see what you’ve done by looking at the end product…

“If you want to compete in this space, knock yourself out. You could 1) find a manufacturer to make parts for you, to your specifications, or 2) tool up molds, cooling racks, purchase curing oven, purchase finishing lathe, purchase packaging tooling, and warehouse space on your own.
Could this also be why some of the smaller ones only do bushings and no wheels?
Thanks for the unbranded wheels tip. But, how the heck would I (the average consumer) know which one is actually ok? […] Manufacturers don’t even give us data on the characteristics of their super secret formulas, I can’t see any other way). […]

“I’m assuming manufacturers are doing this stuff now.
Now, Zip, you are teasing me 🙂 You must have realized by now that the manufacturers are much less specialized than you thought they were initially. Also, that the companies are much smaller (I’m talking one-man-band type of thing especially in our little niche). No R&D, no quality control, no damn engineers or mathematicians even, no innovation. None of that. The shrinking skateboard market will suffocate them one by one.

[Zipzit] Two comments.

1) I’m quite certain these guys test their stuff, at least for basic durability. No way could they survive at all without it. Word of mouth would absolutely kill that little business. Here’s a sample from Mark Groenenboom, the founder and engineer behind G|Bomb Longboards.

Pretty nice test setup. I used to be quite active in inline speed skating, and I visited one of the large wheel manufacturers facilities in Southern California a few years ago (2004). They did all kinds of poured urethane wheels, both inline skates and skateboard, in the same factory. There was a whole lot of testing and manufacturing quality control evident in their process. And yes, they are still around.

2) In my experience, these high tech, niche hobby businesses are often side projects to a main stream high dollar business. Tooling and machinery is expensive. If you can use your knowledge, or access to tools and machinery to follow your passion, that is awesome. Again, check out Mark’s story at G|bomb I’ve seen this more than numerous times. 

Don’t forget I spent a whole lot of time as an automotive engineer and program manager. (i.e. I know my way around a manufacturing factory. I know how to gauge quality control in the manufacturing process. Most of these guys are better than you imply…) I’ve seen automotive supplier machine shops add a niche business using machinery after hours (don’t quit your day job.) I’m certain lots of businesses in California grew out of folks doing aerospace development work. The skill sets are the same. You get trained during your day job, then follow your passion after hours.

An example of California production environment supporting skateboarding would be the story of the Bennett Vector trucks.

[Alex] Indeed, G|Bomb is an exception to the bleakness I was describing. And the industry more broadly may well be in better shape than what I see from my point of view from across the pond and much closer to what you describe. But this doesn’t square with what we see being done with trucks in particular. And, in general, how would you explain this apparent lack of knowledge? eg, I see Paris making outlandish claims about some new product they have and can only conclude that even larger businesses like them either don’t have the knowledge or they knowingly lie in their marketing (in either case, they reinforce false beliefs to consumers). As for PU products, our topic here, why won’t they share some of their findings, like we can expect bicycle tire makers would?

I don’t know man, your picture sounds seductive. I wish it’s as you say it is.

But look at our niche. Outside one or two companies, no new ideas. Just aggressive marketing. And look at the bigger picture: the market is shrinking (I’m too lazy to find a source right now). And skateboarders are getting older (and remain affluent white males). Younger people are looking elsewhere. And in my opinion that’s partly because the industry is not inspiring people with trust that it has taken itself and the sport seriously. And when the nostalgia factor goes away for good all we are going to be left with is scooters and inline skaters and then a couple of trickskaters per town, doing this mainly for hipsterish reasons, like unicyclists or something. Skateboards as a means of transportation are doomed (this sounds too bleak to be true; you might be right after all).


1. When I wrote this, Riptide’s website was heralding its “homegrown,” or “homemade,” or “home-” something PU compound. Now, they have removed this phrase and toned it down a bit, in regards to developing their own PU. I’m resolved to always keep screenshots in the future.

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