After-market exhaust systems-maker reinvents itself, adds contract manufacturing services
July 20, 2011
It wasn't that long ago that Joe Fabiani decided to make a custom exhaust system for his Porsche. A member of the Porsche Club of America (PCA) and racing enthusiast, he soon found himself making exhaust systems for fellow PCA members. That led to founding a company, FabSpeed Motorsports Inc., which initially relied on outsourcing for nearly all of the fabricating. Fabiani recently opened a new division, FabSpeed Precision Services, and invested nearly $1 million in equipment in the new division to eliminate outsourcing.
It wasn’t that long ago that Joe Fabiani would read Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and a handful of other magazines in his dad’s office, dreaming about the day he’d own a high-performance car. The articles and photos made an impression on Fabiani, even though he was a youngster. Years later Fabiani would join the Porsche Club of America (PCA) and try his hand at fabricating an after-market exhaust system for a Porsche he liked to race.
A finance professional by day, he didn’t have any fabricating experience to build on, so he outsourced the work to a local fabricator, Bill Lemke, who built the system to Fabiani’s specs. The exhaust system worked well, and before long Fabiani was supplying them to other Porsche owners. One thing led to another, and eventually Fabiani got out of the finance industry and became a full-fledged manufacturer of after-market exhaust systems for exotic brands such as Maserati, Ferrari, and Lamborghini under the name FabSpeed MotorSports.
Fifteen years after making his first exhaust system, the Philadelphia-area fabricator moved his company out of his garage and into a mixed commercial-residential area in Ambler, Pa. Five years after that he turbocharged the company when he invested nearly $1 million in new equipment and opened a new division, FabSpeed Precision, a fabrication shop that offers services such as CNC mandrel bending, five-axis waterjet cutting, plasma cutting, and laser engraving (see Figure 1).
Comparing Fabiani’s fledgling fabricating efforts with FabSpeed Precision’s current capabilities is a lot like comparing Lamborghini with a Hyundai. The exhaust systems haven’t changed much—street-legal cars need exhaust pipes, catalytic converters, mufflers, and tailpipes now as they did then—but Fabiani overhauled the business model and put an end to nearly all of the outsourcing.
Bending. FabSpeed used to order quantities of 90-degree bends and U-bends from a vendor. FabSpeed had to order in quantities of 30 to 50 and stock the extra inventory. It also spent quite a bit of time welding them together, then grinding and polishing the weld seams.
The company now bends tubing on a Unison Breeze, a CNC machine with mandrel bending capabilities and capacity to handle material up to 3 in. OD. The bender allows the company to make exhaust pipes from a single length of tubing, eliminating the weld-grind-polish process that used to chew up quite a bit of time and energy. It also eliminates inventory and gives the company the freedom to get creative with new designs and take on outside work.
A big concern is the ability to bend to tight radii. Anyone who spends a lot of time working on automobiles probably knows that electrical cables, brake lines, and exhaust systems are designed last. The designers in charge of these systems have to make do with however much—or little—room is left after the major components and systems, such as the engine, drive train, steering, and suspension, have been designed. Bending to tight radii often is necessary because they don’t have room for big, sweeping bends ( see Figure 2).
“Our exhaust systems are made from 0.065-in.-wall stainless steel, and we can bend it to 1D,” said Tony Wells, product development manager. “I don’t know of anyone else in this business that can bend to that radius,” he said, referring to the four or five main companies in the world that produce after-market exhaust systems for exotic brands.
A side benefit is that the bender follows the company’s sustainability ethos. FabSpeed recycles everything that can be recycled, and in keeping with these practices, Fabiani invested in an all-electric machine, eliminating hydraulic fluid. Quick changeover is another key benefit.
“We can change from 2¾ to 2½ in just minutes,” Wells said.
Wells and Sal DiGirolamo, coordinator of research, development, and design, bent quite a bit of tube using manual systems when they worked for a racing car manufacturer. The biggest change for them is CNC capability (see Figure 3).
“Going from manual bending to CNC is like learning math, then someone hands you a calculator,” Wells said.
Tooling. Bending 304L stainless, a relatively tough material, is no picnic. FabSpeed, which uses tooling from Eaton Leonard Tooling, has experimented with smooth and serrated tooling. Choosing one or the other is a tradeoff. Smooth tooling doesn’t grip the tubing as well as serrated tooling, so it requires more pressure, which puts a lot of stress on the machine and can lead to tubing failures. Serrated tooling requires less pressure but leaves indentations on the tube’s surface.
“The indentations aren’t deep,” Wells said. “We can polish them out.”
Software. In the old days exhaust system design was largely a matter of intuition. These days another of Fabiani’s investments, SolidWorks® 3-D software, helps FabSpeed design systems faster and maximize their performance. The company also uses a fluid flow simulation module to analyze back pressure, velocity, and even heat.
It seems counterintuitive, but eliminating the exhaust system’s back pressure isn’t the goal.
“You need some back pressure,” Wells said. “A little bit of back pressure creates a scavenging effect, which sucks the exhaust out. It increases the exhaust’s velocity, which is critical to performance,” he said.
“Imagine you’re running water out of a hose,” Wells explained. “The water might just go a few inches. Then imagine how much further the water goes if you hold your thumb over the end of it. That’s what we try to achieve.
“Increasing the back pressure increases torque,” Wells continued. “This is what you’d notice at low RPM—the acceleration you get right off the bat. Increasing the flow increases the horsepower, which is your top-end performance. Too much back pressure inhibits flow, so we use the software to find the best balance between the two.
Dynamometer. No self-respecting custom exhaust shop would be complete without a machine to measure an engine’s horsepower. The software and the dyno are like two bookends.
“We use the software to predict how well a system will perform before we fabricate it, and we use our dyno to measure the horsepower after it’s finished,” DiGirolamo said. Having an in-house dyno means that FabSpeed doesn’t have to wait for time on someone else’s dyno.
Coordinate Measuring Machine. Not exactly a frill and not exactly a necessity, the company’s seven-axis Romer coordinate measuring machine is a big help in productivity. Taking a few minutes to obtain data points on a particular model, say a 1992 Ferrari Testarossa® or a 1998 Lamborghini Diablo®, speeds things up the next time a new customer calls, asking for an exhaust system for the same model and year.
Waterjet. One more capital investment was a five-axis waterjet cutting system from Flow. Fabspeed uses the waterjet for manufacturing all of its exhaust flanges and component brackets in-house.
No two customers want exactly the same thing, but FabSpeed’s customers fall into two broad categories: those who show their cars and those who race them. The first group is mainly interested in how the systems look, so FabSpeed puts quite a bit of time into polishing its products. Wells estimates that just under half of FabSpeed’s customers, about 40 percent, are in this category.
The other 60 percent, those who race their cars, favor FabSpeed’s ability to deliver key performance parameters—durability, weight, and horsepower are important to them.
Most of the original systems are stainless steel, which is the material FabSpeed uses, but the company uses 0.065-in. wall thickness, which is sturdier than the material used in some original systems. And while cutting the weight might not sound all that important, in racing every ounce counts. In some cases, FabSpeed trims away pounds, and lots of them.
“One manufacturer’s original muffler is just a big box, and it weighs 90 lbs.,” DiGirolamo said. “Our replacement saves 73 lbs.”
For the racing crowd, horsepower is the most important. For example, a simple FabSpeed system milked an extra 25 HP out of a Ferrari Italia, Wells said.
Customers also want a good sound—a deep, throaty roar. FabSpeed has found that the size and location of the X-pipe, which connects the left and right sides of the system, have a big influence on the system’s sound.
“The X-pipe helps with noise more than anything,” Wells said. “It allows the sound waves to reverberate, creating nodes and antinodes, but it actually makes the system quieter.”
Wells thinks that FabSpeed’s accessibility is a big factor in attracting new customers.
“Some companies advertise their products by the amount of horsepower they save, and that’s about it,” Wells said. “We have photos at our Web site so you can see what our system looks like and what it’s made from. We get results too—we can put your car on our dyno before and after installing a new system so you can compare the horsepower for the old system to the new one.”
FabSpeed’s willingness to make custom systems is another factor that appeals to its customers. While every manufacturer knows standardization is the most efficient way to make something, FabSpeed does a lot of customization. A customer might want a different tube diameter or a non- standard bracket, and FabSpeed does what it can to accommodate every customer’s request.
Finally, Wells thinks that the company’s emphasis on customer service is just as important as its ability to produce exhaust systems its customers want. It would be rare that a customer depends on a Lamborghini Diablo, but a typical FabSpeed customer wants his car when promised, just as any other fabricator’s customer wants parts delivered on time (see Figure 4).
“Leaving out the engineering and design time, a new project needs at least three or four weeks,” Wells said. “Machining time holds us up,” he explained, citing one of the few processes the company still outsources. “Sometimes the headers have catalytic converters built in, and the next part is a machined flange, and the muffler connects to that. We have to make drawings of the flanges, then send them out, and the machining time can be three weeks, so right off the bat we’re three weeks behind,” he said.
“We try to get all that out of the way first,” DiGirolamo said. “Then Tony [Wells] designs the system and I start working on the solid files, so everything meets at the end.”
FabSpeed also takes pride in keeping customers updated at each stage of progress.
“We send status updates, photographs, dyno information—anything relevant to the project,” Wells said. “A customer with a Lamborghini LP560 wanted the car’s model number etched onto the system. We sent photos as soon as they were engraved. The customer might be 5,000 miles away, but we try to make him feel like he’s right here in the shop, watching every step of the way.”
Automotive isn’t the end of the road for FabSpeed. In fact, 2010 marked a new beginning when Fabiani created FabSpeed Precision. With the new equipment and the new division, FabSpeed is branching out from automotive exhaust and Type 304L stainless. A contract manufacturer with equipment for most aspects of tube and pipe fabrication, the company is ready to use all of its capabilities, knowledge, expertise, and capital to develop and fabricate parts made from other materials for other industries.
Hydroforming has been a boon to manufacturers for a variety of reasons, allowing engineers to design part shapes that aren’t made easily by conventional means. The upside is that it allows the OEMs to make exhaust components that fit into some really tight spots. The downside is that after-market suppliers like FabSpeed are left in the lurch. They don’t have the part volumes that would justify purchasing a hydroforming press and custom-made dies.
“A system might be made from 2½-inch tube, but in some areas it’s so tight that you have just an inch of width, so they hydroform the part,” said Tony Wells, FabSpeed’s product development manager. “That works for them, but it’s a dilemma for us. How do we get a round tube to go where they couldn’t?”
One option is to have a casting made. Another is to weld together several lengths of straight and bent tubes, the way FabSpeed used to do it, cobbling together a system that manages to get through the tightest spots.
“We always find a way,” said Sal DiGirolamo, coordinator of research, development, and design.“It’s not always easy or fast, but we get it done,” Wells said.
One particularly challenging car is the Porsche Panamera®. The exhaust pipes exit the engine, then run straight up, make a 180-degree turn, and run straight down. It takes eight or nine hours just to make a system, and more than 15 hours to install one.
“Space is so tight that customers often call for advice—not for installing our system, but for removing the original,” DiGirolamo said.