Shock value: Why dealers need to understand suspension

Publish Date: 
Jun 27, 2012
By Dennis Johnson

At Progressive Suspension's La Palma, Calif., headquarters — it houses corporate offices, R&D, production capabilities and warehousing — the atmosphere hums with the buzz of business.

It is spring, and Dealernews is getting an inaugural tour of the company’s newly expanded facilities courtesy of marketing director David Zemla. "We're going into the season, so we're filling shelves," Zemla said. We passed rows of warehouse shelving stacked deep and high with products.

The company has its roots in Orange County, southeast of Los Angeles. It relocated to the California high desert town of Hesperia for a time before returning to La Palma in 2006. Its recently refurbished HQ -- home to its corporate offices, R&D, production and warehousing -- is located adjacent sister company Performance Machine. Both are owned by Motorsport Aftermarket Group.

As Zemla leads the way toward a new clean room and assembly area, he explains the company's lifetime warranty on nearly every shock that retails for more than $500. It’s this warranty on a wearable item that is a strong selling point for Progressive products.v The all-white clean room helps keep contaminants at bay during shock building; impurities can reduce life expectancy and performance of the damper. Custom equipment was installed so that the company could expand applications for its Frequency Sensing Technology, which allows for on-the-fly, dynamic damping control. Watching the building process on a 970 Series piggyback shock, one can see the technical nature of suspension and start to understand what Zemla means when he says Progressive is staffed by a coterie of "overzealous engineers." Seems there's a lot more to shocks than springs.

We were getting a peek behind the curtain of one of the more unique aftermarket companies in the industry, a company that builds a high-end, premium-priced, highly technical product that is applicable to multiple vehicle segments, including the V-twin, adventure bike and trike markets. Progressive also specializes in an aspect of riding that's often viewed as the voodoo science of a vehicle's operation. It's not that people don't get the importance of good suspension, it's that they often don't know the what and why behind sag, rebound, preload and squat.

FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION
Founders Don Rickard and Jay Tullis launched their suspension business with upgraded twin shocks for the Honda Gold Wing. Tullis was also a desert racer, so the company then added shocks for dirtbikes.

"Early on the founders didn't see in the aftermarket the kind of suspension products they wanted to see on the motorcycles," said David Shirley, company president. "Some of [the early work] was service replacement parts — they were filling a need. Then that went more into increasing performance and finding a better spring. It then grew from there."

As the fledgling company moved into building and designing dampers and springs, the work started getting more technical in nature, Shirley said. As the company moved into new markets and expanded its product line, it made a conscious decision to design and build shocks that would outperform stock. Today, ride quality and performance are the primary considerations of any product Progressive develops, Shirley noted. "If we don't see the performance at our [required] price point, we won't do the product. It always needs to be an upgrade in performance, aesthetics and longevity," he said.

The company has a product development process that often starts with a simple customer request and then winds its way from the drawing board to high desert and mountain test rides. Progressive also test rides new motorcycle models to determine the needs of a particular machine. This aspect of development sometimes leads to new technologies, Zemla said.

The process is an exercise in determining at what price point the shock should be offered, which features it should or shouldn't have, and whether it meets market demand. It's also a constant push-pull of making suspension parts that need to be not only technically superior, but also look cool.

The initial development process is almost always technology based and a purely engineering-centric endeavor. The shocks are generally designed from the inside-out. Once the damper is created, the focus turns to aesthetics. "The challenge for us — really any suspension company — is the minimal opportunities on a shock for visual changes to create a unique product," Zemla said.

It's definitely a case where form follows function — of all a motorcycle's moving parts, its suspension takes a licking. It's up to the R&D process to make sure it keeps on ticking. As part of the testing process, suspension components are subjected to a barrage of tests designed to find their breaking points. This fatiguing of shocks happens both on-road and through testing on Roehrig shock dynamometers, the same equipment used in NASCAR. Every damper the company builds gets dyno tested, but it's the on-road portion that's of particular note.

“Progressive North” in Hesperia still handles application work such as fitment and measuring, computer modeling, dyno cycling, and road testing for both on- and off-road suspension applications. The high desert offers plenty of trails and access to twisties and elevations in the nearby San Bernardino Mountains where much of the pavement is beat up to suspension testing perfection.

"Product development for us is a combination of lab testing and real live on-road work," Zemla noted. "Having the opportunity to ride the same roads for decades keeps the data collection very consistent from bike to bike."

The La Palma HQ houses the main R&D room. Two motorcycle lifts take center stage. In the corner is one of the shock dynos and related test equipment. Parked near a metal roll-up door is a fleet of test bikes. Sitting astride one of the lifts is a secret Sportster project featuring products that merely mentioning them in this space could put one on a certain watchlist. It's out of this room that much of the local test riding happens. One of the current bikes is a "Sons of Anarchy"-style Harley-Davidson Dyna, which is sporting a set of the company's "take-apart" shocks, which are built for easy tear-down and quick retuning so they can get the bike back on the road for testing.

"Every shock is torture-tested beyond what the OEM piece would survive," Zemla said. "Everything we do has to be superior to the OEM offering."

THE CHALLENGE AT RETAIL
The fact that suspension remains one of motorcycling's black arts presents a particular challenge when it comes to marketing and retail sales. Although moto-journalist David Hough explains in "More Proficient Motorcycling" that any motorcyclist who wants to be serious about riding needs to understand suspension, few are in the general riding public.

Progressive Suspension addresses this dynamic by using social media channels and participating in many online forums. The direct-connection approach allows consumers to learn about the products and get direct technical feedback, which in turn drives more pull-through sales and dealership inquiries. "It would be tough to put a percentage to it, but we credit a substantial amount of our sales to pull-through," Zemla said. The company's aggressive marketing approach is decidedly grassroots. Its shocks can be found on one of the bikes built by custom shop Dime City Cycles during season two of Velocity channel's "Cafe Racer TV." Progressive also supports the adventure riding community through support of Rawhyde Adventures BMW riding academy and some other touring groups. To help at the dealership level, Progressive offers (as do most MAG brands) extensive dealer training for sales personnel and technicians, maintains a certified installer program, and builds and offers branded point-of-purchase items.

For a dealer attempting to dive into the world of suspension sales, such selling tools can make or break a sale. Just ask Scott Holbrooks, brand director at Top 100 Hall of Fame dealer Iron Pony in Westerville, Ohio. Progressive built the megastore a one-off kiosk that Holbrooks calls an "automated sales person." The kiosk — which features a video screen, a lineup of shocks and special cutaways — supplies information directly to customers while they're waiting at the Parts counter, offering what is essentially an expert opinion that reinforces what sales employees tell their customers, he notes.

Echoing conventional wisdom, Holbrook said suspension is one of the more overlooked features of a bike. Not only does it broadly improve the performance of a motorcycle, a good suspension can also aid in rider fitment by lowering the bike or just allowing for customization. "Suspension is tough. It's an expensive thing to have a bunch on-hand, and it's hard to take the time to discuss it.

It seems that no amount of R&D, torture testing or marketing can supplant simple education. "The number of dealers who don't know how to set sag is disheartening," Zemla said.

A lot of people just don't think about suspension," Holbrooks said; hence the value of a visual aid. "A piece like they made [for the store] really proved to be a big shot in the arm for suspension sales."

There are obvious performance benefits to fitting an improved suspension, and then there's the fitment conversation, but there's an issue related to the bottom line (no pun intended) that dealers — as retailers and business owners — should recognize, Zemla said. "Suspension products — at least ours — are generally a high profit margin [product] and can require install work as well."

THE STORY BEHIND THR 970 SERIES PIGGYBACK
Motorcycle suspension can be exceedingly technical, and Progressive Suspension's 970 Series piggyback shock is no exception. Launched in early 2011, the shock began as a concept of the company's engineering team and quickly emerged as one of its halo products. Marketing director David Zemla tells Dealernews that because the 970 Series was an engineering concept, the company launched the project with a solid sense of which features it should have. Extensive dyno and ride testing further refined the components of the very tech-heavy shock.

Dealernews: What's the story on the 970 Series piggyback?
Dave Zemla: Our intent was to show the market the true capabilities of our brand as well as to capitalize on the then launch of the Harley-Davidson XR1200 b producing a high-end, low-volume shock.

Why go with the piggyback configuration?
Piggyback-style shocks allow for better controlled, and more adjustable, damping, with the added bonus of looking pretty cool. But, they are generally more expensive to manufacture. We anticipated relatively low sales volume, and have been pleasantly surprised by it beating all of our projections.

Tell us a bit about the testing and R&D process.
We begin by machining prototypes, creating a baseline damping tune and dyno-testing it to hit a specific curve. We also durability test in the lab and then being the ride test work that eventually defines the performance characteristics of the damper. From concept to completion it can take more than a year to create a new suspension platform.

How many miles were logged during this process?
Cannot disclose. Aside from the piggyback format, what are some of the 970's other features and benefits?
We also use special coatings to help reduce internal friction and combine that with a separate compression adjustment circuit. Threaded preload adjustment also adds to the tuning potential. All of which allows the rider to set up their suspension to suit their riding style — for instance, firmer sprung and damped for canyon carvers.

OK… can you put that in layman's terms …
Look at it this way, unlike a car, the rider is a substantial portion of total weight. Rider/passenger/gear can add up to 50 percent of the weight of the bike, and that has a huge impact on suspension performance. The OEMs have no way of knowing how you’ll ride or how much you weigh, so every stock bike is in some way a ride-quality compromise. At the end of the day, the better the suspension is tuned to an owner's weight, as well as riding style, the more comfortable and controlled the machine will be. The 970 Series shock take that premise and builds on it with additional tuning options.

This is the full version of a story that originally appeared in the Dealernews July 2012 issue.