Come Fly With Me

Mar 7, 2011

Aero kits are one of those product categories that may get overlooked by restylers when considering product offerings. The horror stories that sometimes circulate about fit problems or dealing with a company that was here today, gone tomorrow shouldn’t deter you from taking a good look at what’s available, who the quality manufacturers are, and how you can integrate these products into your market.

Understanding the process, from the selection of particular vehicles, to design, to manufacture, and then to fitment and support, will help you have confidence that this product category is one that you can offer and make some good money at the same time.

There is heavy reliance on existing body components, attachment systems, clips and holes. Aero kits need to fit with a minimum amount of alteration to the vehicle if they’re going to have a wide appeal. Naturally, the end-user customer has to be considered, too. What is installed on their vehicle must be right, it must be tight, and it must hold up.

And it all begins with the kit/part manufacturer. And each kit maker works hard and spends a lot of engineering time, talent and expense in bringing to market a product it hopes will match the desires of the end user with the expertise of the restyling shop.

‘Tribal’ knowledge

The first critical decision in manufacturing must be the vehicle. Is there a market? What is the potential for sales? How difficult will it be to produce parts for the chosen vehicle? We all have favorites in our given markets, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into sales at a national level. Manufacturers are here, after all, to make money just as you are so the products they make must have a broad market.

How, then, do these companies decide which vehicles to manufacture product for? I’ll let each of them explain:

•    Ernie Bunnell and Bill Longfellow – of 3dCarbon, Newport Beach, Calif.

Most of it is based on tribal knowledge – we know what models/vehicles have a history of being accessorized. Take the Mustang, for example: It’s pretty obvious that the buyers of this vehicle like doing accessories. So staying with the core models is a safe, calculated risk.

Other models that are new or traditionally less popular are a bigger risk, but can offer a good opportunity – the exterior accessories might make the vehicle much more appealing if done correctly and offer some good sales volume opportunity.

Then there is the no-brainer one where a guaranteed volume is there. For instance, the 2008 Ford F-150 project we did for Ford as a special-edition model based on the Chip Foose Special Edition: supercharged, 3dCarbon body kit, custom wheels, etc. The program build was targeted at 750 units. After the wholesale to the dealers, the volume was less but still enough to justify the ROI, so we put that project at the top of the list for development. It had to meet all of the Ford Engineering Requirements: low- and high-temperature testing, durability, paint durability, Ford PPAP testing, etc. We learned a lot from that program and use a lot of the engineering today in all of our new products.

•    Steve Anderson of ATS Design, Cerritos, Calif.

We work a little differently. People bring the vehicles to us to produce the part. We do not do the design, so market analysis needs to be completed by the client. Because there are so many applications, we wouldn’t even try to guess what would sell. That is why you see a lot of these companies come and go because they chose what they thought would sell and didn’t analyze the market completely. Because of model changes you have a short sell time before the next year comes, and subtle changes are made which make your kit obsolete.

•    Sean Tito of RKSport, – Murrieta, Calif.

We look for vehicles that fit into the aftermarket industry market. We also look at age groups and vehicles that people are buying.

Vehicle sales figures are also good to know as the more vehicles sold, the higher percentage we have of selling more parts. I also think the age group is a huge concern – you want to target a vehicle that attracts all ages and genders, typically enthusiasts that are going to spend the extra money to accessorize their vehicle.

•    Kristie Ingram of Razzi by AAC, Alpharetta, Ga.

The Razzi team tries to focus on sport-driven vehicles. But we also listen to the market’s response. A vehicle must have the need for such restyling in order to be considered for a kit. It must have good production numbers as well as volume sales to be a success for production and sales. As a business you must justify its creation and use good business sense to survive and remain in the game for the long haul.

•    Mike Clinger of CPX, Orange, Calif.

It is quite simple for us to do the marketing. Every member of our staff has vision and taste for vehicle popularity and style. Our biggest problem is getting the boots on the ground to show the actual part on the car. CPX Foilers are so unique and look perfect on the car, consumers have a hard time visualizing them on their car; but if physically displayed, it’s a guaranteed sale. The parts are prepainted, unpainted or carbon fiber coated and are ready to install.

It’s in the DNA

Manufacturers go through a process to answer the questions about product and fit. This generally involves starting with renderings of the vehicle. Bunnell of 3dCarbon tells us, “We start with a rendering. This helps us get a feel for the car/surface and feeling of the car. It is critical to the design that the front side and rear ‘talk to each other.’ This means that it must flow from front to rear. Body lines must match.”

The goal is not to take away too much from the “DNA” that already exists. There are things about a Mustang or a Camaro that make them what they are. So the look and feel of the vehicle must be maintained.

During this process, various features of the vehicle must be considered so the design will fit properly. Says Ingram of Razzi by AAC: “First, the vehicle is measured and carefully examined to ensure a quality fit and to overcome any obstructions before designing the kit. Next step is to visually examine the body lines and follow the natural feel of the vehicle’s design. We do not want to take away from the original design, but [rather] to enhance the vehicle in a tasteful and sporty design.”

RKSport’s Tito agrees. “We start by studying the car or truck first, brainstorm what’s been done or what owners are looking for,” he says. “We use forums usually to get a taste of what people are looking for and already have. Then we design a few renderings and see which one follows the lines and keeps the same look to each vehicle. By that, I mean you want a Mustang to look like a Mustang in the end as each car has its own uniqueness.”

This first part of the process may involve a great deal of consultation with the customer if the parts are being produced for a company that is going to market a package for a specific vehicle. Anderson of ATS explains: “We start with a drawing from the client along with good data and specs on the vehicle. From that we can make the preliminary molds either from epoxy or aluminum depending on how many parts will need to be produced.”

It becomes apparent that this is not a process that can be done in a week. Consultation with clients, brainstorming sessions, measuring and designing, it can sometimes take from two to five months. When you consider that unexpected things happen along the way such as strikes, a sudden recall that puts the skids to the vehicle’s sales -¦ well, you get the picture. This is why manufacturers of these kits are very careful.

For Clinger, of CPX, he says “his design team has prioritized a list of enthusiast/popular new vehicles and, via a phone poll with our customer base, industry associates chart a sorted order for design then prototype. We upload factory images and do many renderings. The CPX “look” is centered around a tasteful factory style with mass appeal,” he notes.

The devil is in the details

All of our respondents describe pretty much the same process in getting a part to production and out on vehicles. A first challenge could be just getting their hands on a vehicle, especially if it is in high demand. Our respondents describe the process as “painstaking,” since fit is obviously critical. This requires measurements, re-measurements, test fittings, prototypes and mold making.

All of these companies are especially careful to make sure their product is “installer friendly.” This means a minimum of parts removal, if any, and careful attention to details that will ensure a good fit. Bunnell offers this observation: “Regarding the engineering phase, we try to use as many if not all of the factory fasteners, clips, screws, brackets, attachment points, etc. The OEs have done all of the engineering, so using their attachment provisions saves us time and money in the development, especially when it comes to the crash testing certification to comply with the [Ford] FMVSS 5 MPH Canadian and U.S. requirements.”

Clinger notes, “The lead time varies based on vehicle size and kit detail. Because our parts are small, the final plugs on the vehicle usually take only two to three weeks to produce, and the high-temp urethane molds another two weeks. If all goes well we can have a perfect urethane CPX Foiler kit in five weeks. We can build three at a time if and when the demand is there.

So, if you did the math you would start to realize producing a new kit is a very expensive process. Added to hundreds of man-hours of design, fitment, client consultation, etc. is the actual costs of molds to begin manufacturing. Anderson estimates a minimum of $3,000 on up for tooling and molds. Not to be overlooked either is the write-up of installation instructions or installation videos such as 3d Carbon provides.

A gamble, even with research

Each company has a slightly different perspective when it comes to what they consider their biggest challenges. Here’s what each had to say:

•    ATS

Our biggest challenge is moving forward when we send info to be approved. It needs to get back to our R&D department so as not to create any delays in the process. If everybody is working closely it helps everything run smoothly.

•    Razzi by AAC

The major challenge is picking the right vehicle to design a kit for as well as coming up with a design that enhances the vehicle to produce sales. We try to listen to the market and customers to tell us what is marketable. After all, the customer and the marketplace dictate what is needed.

When producing a product it is always key to try to be the first to market. We must get the product in the installers’ and customers’ hands as soon as physically possible without sacrificing the product quality and design.

•    3dCarbon

No question, it is the cost of the engineering/prototyping and tooling.

Most products that we create have no guaranteed volume. We pick a model of a vehicle that we feel will be successful based on our marketing research. So, the volume has to be there to give us the ROI over a period of one to three years before the model changes again.

•    RKSport

I think the biggest Challenge is to be different. You want to make something that looks good and will sell, but at the same time has a unique design that represents the company the best. We always look for ways to be different, and by doing that we have been successful with most of our designs. Again, this goes into doing some research, looking into the vehicle and developing a few designs and then going to the next step of production.-¨

•    CPX

The only challenge is making sure the part doesn’t look like an afterthought. Our parts have to look like the factory “should have” built them. Restyling, to CPX, is more about enhancing and not making a space probe out of a clean Mustang or Camaro.

Making it fit right

With all the effort in design, engineering and manufacturing, a likely question is: “How do the parts fit? How much skill will I or my installers need?” In a nutshell -¦ it depends.

There are factors at work that must be considered. People experienced in the restyling business know that no two vehicles are alike. Dimensions even from one side of the vehicle to the other may vary. A vehicle used in measuring sessions from which molds are then made might be slightly different than the 5,000 that follow it on the assembly line. Vehicles assembled in one plant may differ slightly from vehicles assembled in another. Then of course there are always those “minor” trim changes a manufacturer makes without fanfare but, yes, they happen to be on the vehicle you’re about to work with.

Manufacturers typically recommend “dry fitting” all parts to a vehicle before you begin an install. This is wise since there’s nothing worse than getting halfway into an installation and discovering a piece doesn’t fit correctly and it will take you a week to get another. If you’re using pieces that must be painted, dry fitting is a must since all alterations such as trimming, sanding or filling can be done prior to painting. Occasionally on forums you’ll read Installer X complaining that a manufacturer’s parts “are junk, they don’t fit, and they’ll never use them again.” Such posters will then go on to proclaim that ‘the parts from Manufacturer ABC are much better and always fit.” Well, such blatant claims are not always with substance. If Installer X only does a couple of aero kits a year, then he or she is hardly an expert. Knowing there are variations in vehicles and in the aero kit parts that will require fitment and adjustment will help produce a professional looking job without the tears.

To that end, manufacturers go to great lengths to reduce installs to their simplest, easiest terms. This makes a lot of sense because extra time spent in engineering, designing and manufacturing a product with fewer “surprises” translates into fewer tech calls, less frustration from customers and a happier world for everybody.

While the perception is that “anybody can do these,” Anderson from ATS points out that, “It is always assuring that you have a qualified installer that can solve any fitment problems as they go. For the more complex kits it never hurts to pay the professional to get it done right on the first round. Most body kits are also a good source of revenue for installation.”

Ingram concurs: “The Razzi approach has always been with installer in mind. The easier the installation, as well as the time to put the kit on, is an important factor for an installer and/or customer for choosing to install a body kit.

“We remove no bumpers in installing our kits. We focus on enhancing the vehicle (adding to) as well as retaining the warranty and structural integrity of the manufacturer’s vehicle. Our kits are placed over existing bumper fascias and rockers with the least amount of intrusion on the existing body. The skill level needed to install the kit is very basic, and with very detailed install directions you will be able to install this kit in less than two hours and as you install more the faster that it will become.”

3dCarbon’s Bunnell adds this humorous observation: “We have a saying that we design and engineer all of our products to be ‘Neanderthal-proof.’ This means that any person with a heartbeat and minimum level of mechanical aptitude should be able to install the product.” That kind of engineering and design translates into much easier installations in the hands of professionals.

As for CPX’s Clinger, the company made a installation video “that will be linked to our website and available on DVD.”

“Currently, our techs can easily walk the installer through the entire process,” he adds. “Our instructions are very clear and simple to follow. Never does a factory part need to be removed. The skill level of the installer needs to be a bit mechanically inclined but not a professional. There are no holes to drill, so repositioning only involves some additional 3M automotive tape.”

Additionally, all the companies participating in this article maintain tech support services so any questions that arise can be answered quickly. Like CPX, they make installation videos available on YouTube and their websites. Printed instructions come with the kits, but are also available on the manufacturers’ websites for download.

Installed kits draw attention, dollars

Aero kits can be a profitable addition to your shop’s product line. While they might not be for everyone, they offer the opportunity to help car dealers add unique “niche” vehicles to their customers. Sometimes it’s just the “wow” factor that a dealer needs to stimulate interest in other vehicles on the lot – so an investment in this type of restyling can serve as a draw to get potential customers in the door. Naturally, for enthusiasts such as muscle car owners, aero kits are often a “must have.” Positioning yourself in your marketplace as the “go-to” shop because of a reputation for high-quality workmanship on such vehicles can be very lucrative for you.

Patience, careful fitment, and following instructions closely are the keys to success. Understanding the thinking of manufacturers, knowing the great effort they expend to make high-quality parts and having the parts makers there to guide you through questions or problems will allow you to approach this product category with confidence.