Friday, November 20, 2015

Something From Nothing

Motocross racing is a rough sport. The tracks are full of tight curves, punishing whoops, deep ruts, 80-foot jumps, and more tight curves. Dropping the gates at the start of a race unleashes a swarm of forty or more riders fighting to get through the first turn ahead of the pack – all trying to occupy the same space at the same time. Rivals on high-performance motorcycles push and power over one another for the lead. A stalled bike or broken part here could mean a heap of wrecked bikes and injured riders in the middle of the track. The action is very quick, very close, and very personal. Bikes and riders get pushed to their limits – drive chains snap, forks bend, engine covers crack, and tempers flare. Throw in plenty of dirt, rocks, and mud, and you have one of the most popular sports in the world!

But to win, you have to finish. Motocross and off-road motorcycle riders demand rugged bikes that stand up to lots of abuse and deliver lots of power. But the bikes often suffer extreme mistreatment – a fact recognized by Nihilo Concepts, a Stuart, Florida, shop that designs and manufactures tough, critical components for motocross and off-road motorcycles. Bikes that are less likely to break are more likely to win.

The company got its start back in 2000, when a group of Florida motocross enthusiasts – although devoted to the dirt, dust, and stiff competition of the sport – decided they were a less than satisfied with the equipment. They wanted bikes that functioned better – giving them an edge over the competition – and they wanted their bikes to flash a little glitz!

These riders not only had a passion for bikes, but also a knack for machining. They formed Nihilo Concepts to manufacture innovative billet parts for off-road and motocross racing motorcycles that enhanced the durability and functionality of the bikes, while increasing the riders’ chances for success – and adding a touch of style.

“My father, Bob Brewster, rode bikes and raced when he was young,” explains Joe Brewster, the owner of Nihilo. “I’m four years younger than my brother, Bobby, and I started riding his hand-me-down bikes at the age of seven. We’d ride at local motocross tracks, as well as some areas close to home – but always off-road.

“Although I was a pretty good rider, I gravitated to the mechanical side of the sport,” he continues. “When I was about 17, I bought a knee mill through a newspaper ad, so I could make and modify small bike parts. It has just grown from there. I still have that machine today, and I will probably never sell it.”

Although his first mill was manual, Joe Brewster definitely saw the CNC light: Nihilo Concepts is an all-Haas CNC shop.

“My family owns WMR, the local KTM and Husqvarna dealer,” Joe says. “I own Nihilo Concepts, but my father and brother work together with me in both businesses. We’ve owned a motorcycle shop for 20 years, and we’ve always had an interest in racing bikes. Many of the competition teams made their own parts, or got them from China. But, to keep the cost of production down, they used plastic side covers and other components that were functional, but could be stronger – and they didn’t look that great. We decided to make our own products, because we wanted best-quality components, made here in the U.S.A.

“Our first product was what we call a skew,” he recalls. “It’s a rear chain-guide protector for 65cc KTM dirt bikes. We made the first one by hand – the long, hard way. Word spread quickly, and after a few weeks, the orders started to come in. We had a meeting and decided that if we sold 10, we’d buy a CNC mill. Sure enough, we quickly sold 10 – and the rest is history. We started with a used Haas Mini Mill, but we sold so much stuff that we could not keep up. So, we decided to expand and get more machines.”

But it isn’t enough for Nihilo components to just be rugged and functional; they also need to offer what they call the bling factor. Many of their customers enjoy spiffing up their bikes with parts that not only function better, but also look better. So Nihilo is especially attentive to style and finish: They design some parts with bold colors, some parts have the cool Nihilo tiki-mask logo, some sport the rider’s name – and all deliver a little island pizzazz.

“We use Haas machines,” says Joe. “And we especially appreciate the fact that Haas machines are made in America. We have three VF-2SS machines, a TL-2 Toolroom Lathe, and a Mini Mill. The high-speed spindles help us produce an excellent finish, while cutting down run times.

“We mostly use 6061 aluminum,” he continues. “We also cut some 303 and 304 stainless steel, and some Delrin?. We found that if we run insert cutters at .200" depth of cut and 100 ipm with full stepover, the spindle load is only at around 25 percent, and it cuts run time drastically. By switching to the Super Speed machines with the programmable coolant nozzle, we can easily run these numbers. At this rate, the cycle time is low, and inserts hold up very well.

“One of our most popular products is our ignition covers,” Joe points out. “We make these in two ops, starting with round stock cut into slugs. It is pretty straightforward: We face it off, cut the contours for the inside, then drill and pocket. For the second op, we use a custom soft-jaw setup, then face and contour with an insert for roughing, and then finish with a 3/8" carbide mill. We switched to custom-made taper mills instead of surface machining to save time.

“Another popular product is our clutch baskets,” Joe says. “We use 7-inch round 7075 aluminum, and cut it into 2.5-inch-thick slugs. Then we mill-cut the backside (the side with the lugs), before drilling and tapping. The part is then bolted into a dedicated fixture for facing, turning, and drilling. We keep the basket on the same fixture and transfer it to the 4th-axis to cut the teeth for a final part, ready for hard anodizing.

“We use a Haas HRT160 4th-axis rotary table to make our clutch baskets,” he adds. “It saves lots of set-up time, and it’s an easy way to increase the function of one of our VF-2SS machines. At first, we thought we would be taking it out when not in use, but it has not been removed from the machine since it was installed. We are continually finding new ways to use it. The rotary table operates with the machine’s control, and it is easy to program and use on many parts.

“The ease-of-operation of Haas machines is a big plus,” he states. “Our operators are familiar and comfortable with the Haas control, and that helps keep the process running smoothly. The fact that all our machines are Haas makes moving operators from machine to machine a breeze. I don’t foresee us buying any other brand of machine. We truly are a Haas shop.”

Nihilo Concepts makes ignition and clutch side covers custom engraved with the rider’s name and number. And they make case savers – small, strong parts that protect the engine case when a chain fails. They make performance motor parts, too, such as redesigned clutch baskets, gears, and cylinder heads. Nihilo also stands out because they make many parts not offered by their competition.

Nihilo products are designed and manufactured by racers who know how to recognize a problem and work out a solution. Their products evolve from ideas to the racetrack, and also from the racetrack to the shop. Racing also provides a great arena for testing parts, so Nihilo is deeply involved in the sport.

“We sponsor hundreds of racers throughout the U.S. and Europe,” Joe explains. “We sponsor lots of fast racers who really put the bikes through their paces, and every weekend, they are racing somewhere. We focus on the top amateur racers across the country – the kids who have a chance of turning pro – but we also support lots of top riders throughout the world. As part of their sponsorship, we ask them to provide results and updates, so I guess you could say we race every weekend. The feedback is extremely important. We find out pretty quickly what breaks or needs to be better, and start there.

“We will test in-house for a few months,” he says. “When we feel the part is ready, we will put it into the real world. Professional riders really put parts through the wringer, so we typically learn something new, and make adjustments after the pros have had their time testing. By doing this, we are able to produce a part that will stand up to the everyday abuse of motocross and off-road motorcycling.”

Joe’s system for success works very well for him. Racing gives him the ideas for innovative products, his shop makes the products, and he tests them at races . . . which gives him more innovative ideas!

“We constantly develop and design products,” Joe emphasizes. “And our Haas machines help with the prototypes. We like the conversational ability of our Haas lathe control. Many times, we need to make a one-off sample part, and having the ability to design it on the control screen saves hours of CAD time and conventional programming.”

Joe is committed to Haas because, as a customer, Haas is committed to him. He relies on Haas dependability and service.

“We have not had any issues at all with our newer machines,” Joe notes. “But we did have a belt wear out on the older Haas Mini Mill that we purchased used. The Haas Service Tech was fast and professional, and had us back running in short order. We purchased a few spare parts from the Haas Factory Outlet, and the parts were shipped on time and were delivered in good condition. You never feel alone if you have an issue; sometimes, a simple phone call is all it takes to get technical help, and we have fixed a couple issues that way, with no downtime.

“We really like the fact that everything is made here in the USA,” he continues. “Most of our competition offers products made overseas, and they just cannot match our quality and R&D. We use the best quality materials and only Haas CNC machines – and we keep our tolerances and finishes above the industry standard for these types of components.

“We have experienced double-digit growth every year since we started Nihilo, and have grown out of our current location” says Joe. “We are in the process of building a shop directly adjacent to I-95 in Stuart, Florida, and hope to be in within the year. We designed the machine shop to allow room for at least four more Haas CNC machines, and we’ve set the space up for maximum efficiency. We are very excited about the new shop, and can’t wait to get moved in and start making parts there.”

Nihilo Concepts products are made by motocross and off-road sports enthusiasts for their very demanding, rugged, and hard-on-equipment sport. But Joe Brewster has another passion.

“We have been machining Nihilo products for the last six years,” says Brewster. “And I have been teaching machining at Palm Beach State College, a Haas Technical Education Center (HTEC), for the last eight years. I went through their machining program there, and took an adjunct position to help out the night instructor. He retired after two years, and I took over. Now I have been teaching the night program there for eight years. They have all Haas machines there.”

“Our night program is 2 years long,” says Brewster. “It’s on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday nights, and I usually have about 20 students. We provide hands-on training on a VF-2, a VF-2SS with 4th axis, a 5-axis VF-2SS with a Haas TR160 trunnion, and a DT-1 Drill/Tap Center. We also have a TL-1 Toolroom Lathe, an SL-20 turning center, and a ST-20Y turning center.”

Palm Beach State College (PBSC), in addition to its HTEC status, is a NIMS Certified school, and uses all the NIMS projects. PBSC also has a 1-year day program, with about 20 students, and graduates are in high demand. PBSC has a very high placement rate. The machining programs at PBSC work very closely with local industry and machine shops, and many students find jobs locally before they graduate.

So Joe Brewster closes the circle. He went to PBSC to learn the skills to be a machinist, and now teaches others the same skills that he learned. Perhaps his students will also use the skills they learn to start their own businesses – like he did with Nihilo.

By the way, the cool Nihilo Concepts tiki logo is a little misleading, but oddly appropriate for a machine shop. Joe explains that the word Nihilo is actually Latin, from the term Ex Nihilo, and refers to creation – something from nothing. Nihilo Concepts turns aluminum blocks (almost nothing) into complex components for some of the world’s top competition off-road bikes. And Nihilo has a tropical sound to it, ironically fitting for their South Florida location.

“My father told me that if you do what you love, you will never really work a day in your life,” Joe Brewster recalls. “I really feel that way today. I can’t wait to get to the shop and make something from nothing.”

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