Zipp: Keeping it in the neighborhood
Nick Legan takes us through Zipp's factory in Indianapolis.
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In 1988 Zipp produced the first all-carbon disk wheel. A year later it introduced the first carbon three-spoke wheel, the 3000. Zipp backed that up with its first win at Hawaii Ironman and the world’s first carbon deep-section aero wheel. With the revolutionary 2001 frameset, Zipp introduced features like aero, internal cable routing that entered the frame behind the stem on the top tube and a hidden rear brake. All this only gets us to 1991 in the Zipp timeline. And all this from a small company in Indiana.
Since then big changes have occurred at Zipp, but its wheels are still cutting edge. Its presence in the European and domestic pelotons is well established. Zipp created the first carbon wheel to conquer the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix and has branched out to produce handlebars, stems and cranks. More importantly though, the company has sold twice, most recently to SRAM in 2007.
Though SRAM’s headquarters are in Chicago, Illinois, Zipp has been left to its own devices for the most part. SRAM acquired a successful company in Zipp. There was no need to mess with that Indiana-based recipe.
But Zipp had grown and SRAM’s purchase is what made the new facility we toured possible. Two months ago, Zipp officially moved from its Speedway, Indiana, location to its new building on the northwest side of Indianapolis, Indiana. Everything, from the heat and humidity-controlled clean room for carbon layup to the front offices, was designed from the ground up.
Design, prototyping, product testing and manufacturing are all under one roof. Both SRAM and Zipp engineers work in house. Zipp manufactures all its carbon rims, wheels and cranks on site. Aluminum rims, extrusions, bars and stems are manufactured in Asia.
The new facility has not only a much larger footprint (70,000 square feet), but also a taller roof, effectively quadrupling the space Zipp has available. Thanks to its size the Indianapolis location also serves as a SRAM warranty warehouse.
The growth of the company is illustrated very clearly in the number of carbon rim molding presses on the manufacturing floor. In 1999, Zipp had two. In 2010, Zipp has over twenty presses. In a clever bit of architectural design, the heat from the molding presses is re-circulated to heat the rest of the building in winter. In summer the heat is vented outdoors. This saves energy and helps maintain optimal temperature when making rims.
Zipp maintains a 96 percent employee retention rate. As former Zipp owner, Andy Ording, put it, “Zipp is 80 percent company, 20 percent social movement.” Josh Poertner followed that up by saying, “We like to hire our friends and keep the environment fun.”
One employee has played a huge role in keeping Zipp’s sponsored athletes and mechanics happy. Martinsville, Indiana native, Nic James, has personally built every wheel to ever grace a Zipp-sponsored athlete’s bike since Zipp inked its first pro team contract in 1999. James used to oversee all wheel building, but with so many sponsored athletes and teams to handle, he now works exclusively on wheels headed their way. Two or sometimes three times a year he heads to Europe to rebuild team wheels at their respective European bases.
Zipp is not in Indianapolis by chance. Leigh Sargeant started the company in 1988 after making a name producing Formula 1 body parts. In fact, until 1999 Zipp was still producing carbon Indy Car parts alongside its bicycle components. The motorsports industry has long thrived in Speedway, Indiana and that’s precisely where Zipp was born.
Technologically, Indiana is still a good place to be. One of the best aluminum anodizers in the world is two miles away. Top carbon suppliers in the U.S. are still in Speedway. Alcoa has an office in Lafayette, Indiana that gives Zipp access to some rare alloys. The rim presses mentioned earlier, while initially built in house, are now made in Wabash, Indiana. The aluminum extrusions on Zipp wheels are produced by Sun Rims (formerly of Warsaw, Indiana before its purchase by Hayes) in their Asian plants. The hub shells laced into each Zipp wheel are machined in Mooresville, Indiana. Zipp is a Hoosier product through and through.
Special thanks to Josh Poertner and Andy Paskins for their taking the time to show us around and patiently answer all our pestering questions.