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Engine Balancing Traditional and Niche Market Opportunities, John Witt
By John Witt
Like many segments of the auto market, automotive machine shops have seen technology changes, changes in marketing/distribution channels (crate motors, for example) and the consolidation of shops. Staying competitive and profitable can be a daily challenge.
The selection of services you offer and the direction in which you grow your business has never been more critical than it is today. Balancing services are one operation that can offer stability and growth in what is otherwise a mature market. Balancing allows a shop to offer services that cross the traditional lines of an automotive machine shop.
We often hear someone saying how hot the performance market is. In reality, the performance market has been hot or at least in a growth mode for 25 years. One reason we may notice it more today is because of the consolidation which is taking place in the traditional rebuilding market.
For years, the performance market has embraced the benefits of balancing and sold these services to its customers. This market segment has a couple of unique characteristics that are worth discussing. First, the dollars typically allotted for the services are driven by an individual’s wants rather than his or her needs.
Second, emotions become a bigger factor in the decision making process. Third, in many cases you are dealing with an individual’s discretionary income as opposed to dollars that have been budgeted to vehicle expense or basic transportation expense. These traits allow the progressive shop owner to compete for services that offer higher gross margins and require less salesmanship at the counter.
What does the end user demand from today’s premiere automotive machine shop offering balancing services? Bob Fall, owner of Fall Automotive Machine in Toledo, OH, can sum it up in three words: quality, service and price, in that order.
Quality starts with having the right equipment for the job and having a thorough understanding of the balancing process. Fall Automotive’s balancer is a Hines HC500-CC balancer offering the latest in computer technology.
The balancing process includes weight matching con-rods, pistons and balancing the crankshaft. In addition to this standard procedure, Fall’s balancing process includes checking piston pin fit. While this procedure takes a few extra minutes, it has proved to be a valuable part of the process for some of his customers who are assembling their own components. Fall looks for .0009˝ to .00015˝ clearance. Street motors are closer to the .0009˝ while race motors favor .00015˝. This procedure helps eliminate premature bearing failure and the chance of breaking a rod. For the less knowledgeable performance enthusiast, this process can save frustration, time and money.
What are acceptable balancing tolerances? One must understand the effect of unbalance to properly answer this question. As engine rpm increases so does the force created by the unbalance. For example, 7 grams of unbalance at a 4" radius spinning at 8000 rpm will create a force of 114 lbs. This force will reduce the life of the engine. Also note that unbalance in the con-rods and pistons will add to this equation.
For performance and most street applications, less then a gram of unbalance is the desired target for pistons, con-rods and crankshaft. While this may seem to be overkill for a street application, it only takes a few extra minutes to achieve this level of quality. Fall notes that after many of his stock rebuilds it is not uncommon for a customer to return and comment on how smooth the motor runs.
All balancing work is typically done within one to two days of customer drop off. Customers receive complete documentation, including before and after unbalance readings, bobweight card information and part setup information. The part set information and bobweight card are also stored on Fall’s computerized balancer for future reference.
Customers dropping assemblies off for balancing will have their pistons, con-rods and crankshaft returned, final cleaned and bagged.
Are you charging enough for your services? Or, are your services worth what you are charging? This probably depends on how you manage the previous two items. Balancing can be one of the best returns on investment in your shop if managed correctly. Fall Automotive’s standard balancing operations start at $200, which includes balancing the rods, pistons and crankshaft. This covers V8 and V6, internally and externally balanced engines. Heavy metal installation is typically billed at $75 per slug.
Correctly charging for your services depends on several factors, including your fixed overhead and material cost. Your prices should not be based on what your competitor is charging. In the case of the heavy metal installation, Fall bills for one hour of labor installation ($60 per hour) and generates a 30 percent margin on the heavy metal sale (3/4 x 1.20 slug at $13 cost divided by .70 = $18.57 selling price). Sublet work for other shops receives a 20 percent discount.
While the majority of Fall’s business is performance related, he continues to offer a premium stock rebuild to his customers as well. These jobs include disassembly, cleaning, boring, decking, line honing and balancing as needed. He is not interested in competing in the $1,000 rebuild market, but provides a $2,000-$2,500 solution with a potential life expectancy of 100,000 miles. All rebuilds include a one-year warranty. Fall says that there are very few customer relation issues associated with this end of the general rebuild business.
Other balancing opportunities within the traditional engine balancing market include flywheel matching and conversions. These types of services include neutrally balancing a flywheel, duplication of an existing externally balanced flywheel or the conversion from internally to externally balanced flywheel or externally to internally balanced flywheel, and these services will require the use of a mandrel. Fall Automotive does a couple of these jobs a month with prices starting at around $50.
One niche market that has been in the growth mode for the last several years is marine. Fall Automotive is located in Toledo, OH, with access to the Great Lakes, so his business has experienced growth in this segment. Fall states that the marine business shares many of the same characteristics as the performance market. The customer’s decisions tend to be based more on emotion, and he is typically dealing with an individual’s discretionary income. Marine motors require the same type of balance tolerances as race motors due to the high continuous rpms they run. An added benefit to doing marine work is that you typically get two rebuilds when dealing with the larger boats.
Another niche market is motorcycle and small engine (Briggs & Stratton, for example) race applications, which often put excess strain on an engine. Proper balance is essential for prolonged life. Fall’s standard balancing charges for these applications start at $100.
Light industrial balancing can offer additional revenue opportunities to the progressive machine shop. Common applications include the balancing of hubs, shafts, pulleys and impellers, all of which can be done on most traditional balancing machines. Some of these applications will require a mandrel. If you would like to pursue these markets, you may want to investigate paper mills and pump rebuilders in your area as they require balancing services.
Cash flow is king
Balancing can offer increased cash flow versus other types of machining applications. The balancing portion of a rebuild is usually one of the last tasks performed in the build process. Customers assembling their components are in the final stages of the machining process and are anxious to start the assembly process.
A second benefit to "balance only" work is that minimal capital is tied up in parts inventory. As we all know, the process of securing all the parts for a complete motor rebuild can be expensive and time consuming.
We can’t write a balancing article without at least touching on the topic of over- and under-balancing. We are referring to the reciprocating-mass percentage used in the calculation of the bobweight card, specifically the weight of the small end of the rod, piston, pin locks and rings. Standard practice on a 90° V8 is that you take 100 percent of the rotating weight (large end of the rod ) and 50 percent of the reciprocating end. The calculation is based on two rods per throw and the fact that all the rotating mass affects the crankshaft while only half the reciprocating mass has an effect on the crank.
Some engine builders change the reciprocating-mass percentage to achieve an over- or under-balance situation. Some also believe that high rpm engines should be over balanced for peak performance while others say that large displacement engines experience longer main bearing life when they are under-balanced.
What is agreed upon by most engine builders is that, if you over- or under-balance an engine (balance it for a specific rpm), you will create an unbalance situation when it is operated outside of that range. This is why over- or under-balancing does not lend itself to street applications. Until there is further testing on this subject, Hines Industries and Fall Automotive subscribe to the standard practice of 100 percent rotating and 50 percent reciprocating.
One of the most time consuming parts of a balance job can be finding the correct reciprocating and rotating percentages. A current list of Hines Industries’ reciprocating mass percentages is available at no charge to anyone who wants one. Just contact John Witt as directed below.
Are your balancing services tuned up for the challenges of the 21st century? If they are, you could be reaping the financial benefits!
Bob Fall, Fall Automotive, Toledo, OH
Bob's experience includes 16 years teaching experience with Dana and Federal-Mogul. He is also an ASE-Certified Machinist. He owns and operates his own automotive machine shop.