DIAMOND BAR, Calif. (July 23, 2013) --- "Why should we celebrate gearheads?"
So asked Colby Martin, manager of the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Action Network, to the crowd gathered recently at SEMA's headquarters in Diamond Bar. He paused for a bit to let the gravity of the question sink in.
"Because we're awesome!" came a shout back.
Mr. Martin chuckled a little, then continued. "There's National Talk Like a Pirate Day," he observed, less preaching to the choir than giving a sermon to the Pope himself. "There's National Bacon Day. There's 7-Eleven Slurpee Day. Why not our turn?"
In fact "our turn" was Collector Car Appreciation Day. And car shows were popping up around the country today, Mr. Martin told us, all to celebrate the cars and their collectors. And that, he said, is what SEMA does.
To celebrate, we toured SEMA's new garage, officially known as, uh, the SEMA Garage, located conveniently next to its headquarters building. SEMA opened the garage this year in conjunction with the Auto Club of Southern California, which owns the building.
The idea for SEMA is that it's equal parts testing laboratory, equal parts clubhouse: member companies can stop by and use the facilities to try out their performance parts without resorting to expensive third-party testing, and prototype parts effectively for pennies compared to traditionally making and remaking parts.
There is a two-bay garage for testing product fitment. There's a dynamometer and four-corner scales. There is an entire room dedicated to 3D scanning and printing -- more on that later.
SEMA is renovating a former conference room into a photo studio; as we toured, two rare pickup trucks (that aren't sold in America, irony of ironies) were parked inside it for the benefit of the member companies who will develop 170 parts for the Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux, mostly headed to the United Arab Emirates.
Then there's the lab, designed for testing parts for CARB and EPA emissions standards; it's regulated at a calm 72 degrees, but can also vary humidity levels and simulate temperatures from minus 30 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Here, SEMA companies can test individual parts, but they'll most likely test combinations of their own parts: keep the exhaust, swap out intakes, add a downpipe to the mix.
The 15,000-sq.-ft. facility houses nearly $2 million of equipment, including two vehicle lifts, a portable coordinate measuring machine (CMM) for 3D scanning, a 3D printer for fast prototyping, digital race car scales for the vehicle weight measurements and a dynamometer for power output measurements
Dizzying permutations, every company seeking that vaunted Executive Order exemption to sell exhaust parts in California. It all amounts to one test per part, even with different numbers of components. For a company to test and retest based on EPA standards, the process takes a week. No wonder member companies are happy that SEMA can provide lower rates for lab time.
"Many members go into this business not because they're businesspeople, but because they're car people," said Mike Spagnola, SEMA's vice president of product development. They're mom and pop shops. And we just help them produce products more efficiently, cost-effectively, and accurately."
For example, the 3D room: SEMA purchased a 3D scanner and printer combination so member companies can scan production cars and start building outrageous body kits and fast, furious bumpers. Scanning a fender takes 10 minutes.
Mounting points and those silly little brackets that always break are also included in the scanning process, drastically cutting down the time it takes to develop new bodywork. The scan goes right into a 3D modeling program (Polyworks, in this case) for NURBS modeling, allowing designers to stretch shapes to their hearts' content. Over the past 13 years of being in this industry, Mr. Spagnola said, he's seen OEM companies work more willingly with aftermarket companies, even going as far to supply confidential CAD files
"We don't share which members are building which products in here," said Spagnola. "It's kind of a neutral zone. But some members are building some pretty cool stuff here."
A representative from Faro, the company that manufactures the phaser-like Faro Edge scanner, declined to tell us how much the machine cost -- but SEMA is estimated to have paid a minimum of $30,000 for savings enjoyed by its members.
Once the beautiful shiny new part is complete, companies can create a prototype seemingly on the fly via the 3D printer. Want to develop an intake? How long are the tubes? Not long enough? Go back and change the model, then print another one. Mr. Spagnola said that the plastic resin used by one member company on its prototype part was so robust, it elected to use the same plastic for the entire production run. 3D printers can develop intricate shapes, and even moving parts without assembly, all from one part: things like the piston pin and connecting rod are all molded from one piece. Fascinating stuff.
The future is chugging along just fine, and Colby Martin laid claim to the quote of the day:
"There's lot of boring industries out there, but this isn't one of them."
This article appeared on autoweek.com, the website of Autoweek magazine, a sister publication of Tire Business.