In 1996, A co-worker and I took the train to Eugene, Oregon for the grand opening of a new warehouse and manufacturing facility for Burley Design Cooperative. Burley was still a co-op in those days; its one hundred worker-owners handled every aspect of manufacturing and management of the business.
During the tour of the new facility, Roger and I were shown the wheel-building department, a large corner of the building given over entirely to rims, spokes and hubs and the systems needed to build and true them. What we saw there blew our minds: after initial, loose lacing by three workers seated at a large round counter, each wheel was then placed on a conveyor belt which led it to a large machine that proceeded to tension and true each wheel using computerized arms with spoke wrenches on the ends. I had recently learned how to build wheels from scratch at Citybikes, where I was still something of an apprentice mechanic at the time. Seeing these machines do what I had understood as a human-based craft. I looked on the scene with equal parts fascination, awe and horror. Turning to Roger, I asked, "why did you just spend two days teaching me how to build a wheel?"
Roger told me not to worry. He believed that many customers would still pay more for a human-made "craft-built" custom wheel. And years later, I can tell you that he was right.
The fact is, machine-built wheels DO save time, and at the lower end of the scale, they also save money. But a wheel that is strong enough to carry a large rider and/or a heavy load stays true longer, and is more durable, than a cheap machine-built wheel. Over the next fifteen years I would watch -- and eventually educate -- a steady stream of overweight American recreational riders, who would whine when told that their thirty-dollar wheel simply wasn't strong enough to support their weight; sigh, and then hand over the hundred dollars or more that it would cost to build them a much stronger custom wheel.
The other fac of life is that, while most shops still sell factory-built wheels -- and many of these now use higher-end parts -- when the wheels arrive at the shop someone still has to spot-check and true them before they can be put out for sale. In otherwords, the final test of a wheel's quality is still up to a skilled human mechanic. Think about that the next time you hear how machine-made products are not only cheaper, but better, than human-made products. That's not always the case.
So when I recently saw this being offered up on eBay, I was surprised, and then amused.
This is exactly what the wheel machines at Burley looked like. And here was someone who was shutting down their manufacturing business, selling off these now-older machines.
Meanwhile, I still know how to build wheels from scratch. Forgive me if I'm feeling a little smug right now, but once again human-based skill reigns supreme.
Go to your local bike shop today and hug your mechanics. Or at least bring them a treat.