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U.S.- Made, Custom Molded Cases Are Engineered for Superior Drop Protection
A UAV case showing the UAV inside.
Photo courtesy of GizzMoVest LLC.
Quality and “1960s style” customer service define the operations of GizzMoVest, a small manufacturer that’s found a winning combination: satisfying end user needs and the booming demand for American made parts.
When people think of California startups, business models involving software, the Internet, or chip design often come to mind, even though the state has a strong manufacturing history. But in Goleta, California, just north of Santa Barbara, a young company that doesn’t neatly fit this paradigm is beginning to spread its wings. GizzMoVest LLC, a four-year-old company with nine full-time employees and “well over 100 percent” growth every year to date, designs and manufactures physical products—rugged, custom molded cases for outdoor handheld devices—in its own U.S. factory.
“We can’t all be writing code or running dot-coms,” says Jeff Krause, vice president and co-founder—along with president and manufacturing engineer Steve Molina—of GizzMoVest. “Someone has to manufacture.”
GizzMoVest, whose clients include a number of Fortune 100 aerospace companies and the U.S. Army, has placed quality and customer service at the forefront of its operations. And with strong commitments to fulfilling end user needs and satisfying the growing demand for American-made parts and products, it has positioned itself squarely at the center of two key product trends.
The company states on its website that it’s driven by the principle that “a high-value handheld device deserves a proportional level of true protection, but such protection should not interfere with the use of the device in the field.” Its 5-Star reviews on Amazon.com are said to indicate “an unusual enthusiasm, bred by a real connection between end-user needs and a brand both designed and made in the USA.”
For Molina, the creation of GizzMoVest had a lot to do with seizing an opportunity to make a better, higher-quality product by exercising strict control over the manufacturing process.
“For me, it was more of a control thing, of making products better,” Molina said in a phone interview. “I’m a spender, so I don’t mind buying stuff, but I don’t like purchasing something that’s going to come apart, and then I’ve got to repurchase the same item. So my whole thing was to make a better product and control it every step of the way so that when the end user got it, he was happy with it. And it’s sort of proving out—we get a lot of feedback from people that say, ‘Oh, wow! Nice style part! We beat these things up and they just keep going. And that makes me happy that they were looking for the same types of [high-quality] items.”
GizzMoVest designs and manufactures custom protective cases (“vests”) for outdoor handhelds, like handheld GPS devices, satellite texting handhelds, and handheld optics. Uses range from industrial and commercial handheld devices to wearable computers. The company also makes custom cases and holsters for instrumentation, UAVs, and medical devices. At the core of its work are some new types of proprietary composite materials, developed by GizzMoVest, which incorporate carbon fiber in ways that allow the company to offer extremely lightweight, rigid cases with what Krause calls “dramatic textures.”
“We can offer the strength of an injection molded transport case at a quarter of the weight and a quarter of the tooling cost,” Krause said in an e-mail. “Our solutions can be completely custom 3D shapes, and yet with textures that would be impractical with other processes.”
Krause calls these special materials “Tactile Composites,” which he describes as a “relatively rare form of thermoformed product, based on infinite possible combinations of foams, plastics, textiles, and even selectively-placed carbon fiber.” The materials offer tactile adhesion that helps the case stay in your hand, and GizzMoVest can mix and match the materials to provide just the right texture for the application.
The technology employed by GizzMoVest isn’t like most other types of thermoforming, according to Krause. Components are always molded with complete two-sided molds that don’t involve vacuum or air assist. “We do have many optional tricks, which involve tooling slides, vacuum, or air pressure only to obtain various types of undercuts in our molded composites,” he said in an e-mail. “We also mold solid plastic components that look injection molded, but at a fraction of the tooling cost and close to the same piece cost. By combining all of these capabilities, we offer components with rare properties.”
As an example, the company created a UAV transport case for a Fortune 100 aerospace company with the crush resistance of a pelican-style case, but at a quarter of the weight and a quarter of the tooling cost, Krause said. The result was a totally custom, 3D shape that closely fit the UAV so that it could be easily portable while saving a whopping 9 pounds.
Krause was a product design consultant for most of his career, specializing in robotics, consumer products, thermoforming, and human factors. He was a co-founder of Seabotix, where he designed the components and assembly of the Seabotix LBV ROV, which became, he said, not just a very successful product, “but also the most widely-published product development case study in SolidWorks history.”
Hybrid Compression Molding Process Provides Vastly Different Textures
GizzMoVest uses a hybrid compression molding process that Krause says is similar to “flash-type compression molding” and that is said to provide “dramatic, mold-independent textures.” But unlike conventional compression molding of rubber, in which a “charge,” or wad, of pre-vulcanized rubber is placed in a two-sided, heated mold, the GizzMoVest process uses pre-heated sheets of composites that are quickly placed between two-sided, cold molds. The two-sided molds are said to allow higher-precision fits than are possible with conventional thermoforming. Flashing is removed as part of the molding cycle or is trimmed off afterwards, similarly to thermoforming.
“Our designers carefully match the thickness of the composite to the volume/thickness of the mold,” said Krause. “This allows us to re-heat even solid reinforced composites for two-sided molding. The mold cycle time is actually comparable to that of large injection molded parts, but without requiring a room-size injection mold machine, and also at a fraction of the tooling cost.”
Carbon fiber can be molded into gentle shapes in this manner, Krause said, so no vacuum bagging or autoclaves are needed. “The resulting parts are linearly reinforced by textiles that carry their own textures, colors, and patterns through to the end result. So we can achieve vastly different looks and textures with just one mold set.”
An example of different textures from the same tooling, which GizzMoVest calls “tooling-independent textures.”
Photo courtesy of GizzMoVest LLC.
President Steve (“Mo”) Molina got his start working alongside automotive designer Chip Foose, of Velocity’s reality TV series Overhaulin,’ in Santa Barbara and, later, at a special automotive research company. Steve helped create racing differentials for Indy and Formula One cars and solved many unique problems in the creation of special show cars for Detroit. For GizzMoVest, he’s been able to apply some of the concepts he learned in automotive R&D to the creation of protective cases that, unlike rigid plastic covers, don’t break into pieces when dropped. GizzMoVest’s cases also offer drop protection superior to silicone skin and neoprene cases, which, like rigid plastic, offer scratch and abrasion resistance, but are too soft to offer significant drop or impact protection.
“If you take a silicone case and wrap that around a part, the impact goes directly straight through it,” said Molina. “What I came up with comes from the automotive side. When they design vehicles, they put crumple zones in them, so you can control the way the impact is moving. So you can take that type of design and place that into the parts that we’re making. Our manufacturing and design work together so that we can design those features in and come out with a superior part.”
The company’s protective cases are specifically engineered to provide superior drop and impact protection through one or more features, including crush spaces that trap air around the case and act like gas bags to provide deceleration. Cases can also incorporate ethylene-base composites, which are not as springy as neoprene, or can have a “grippy” texture that helps keep the handheld from sliding off the dashboard of a vehicle.
GizzMoVest’s business model provides it with two income streams because the company operates as both a contract manufacturer that provides custom cases to OEMs, and as an OEM that sells its products to retailers. Whichever hat it wears, GizzMoVest is committed to manufacturing in the U.S., and has found a ready market for high quality parts and products designed and manufactured to give end users what they really want. Forging a direct connection with end users is an important part of understanding their needs and being able to give them what they desire.
“We like to be part of the trend where we’re cutting out the middleman as much as possible and being connected with the customers as much as possible,” said Krause. “We’ve seen that with pretty good success in other companies, and it’s something we like to do. Steve is sort of an outdoorsman himself, and he’s very much into having the right tool and right product for the job. He’s pretty in tune with, especially, the upper middle-to-high end users that really appreciate quality and recognize it.”
This is not the case with many companies, Krause said, some of whom are so sales-driven that manufacturing becomes “kind of the afterthought.”
“We’ve seen that with some companies, it was very easy to have their salesmen working with you to create the specifications, but because there was this translation between their sales organization and their manufacturing organization, the customer never really was able to connect directly with the manufacturer. And that’s often because it was an offshore company or some other company that the salesman’s business didn’t necessarily want the customer knowing about. So you have sort of a disjointed relationship that results in a product that isn’t exactly really what the customer would like.”
Manufacturing in the U.S. is important to GizzMoVest for a number of reasons, including the fact that, as former employees of a company that was burned by offshoring, they’ve experienced the sting of putting a lot of effort into design and manufacturing, only to watch their parts go overseas to the lowest bidder once production reached a certain volume. Krause, Molina, and the rest of the crew at GizzMoVest had worked for more than a decade for a parts manufacturer that employed a similar process. In a typical scenario, after the company had been producing parts for a client for five years or more, the client would eventually send samples offshore to see if somebody overseas could make the parts. When those customers started getting decent-looking samples back from Asia, they would eventually switch to offshore suppliers.
“We learned over a period of years that that was the pattern,” Krause said. “Customers really liked our design capabilities and knew they couldn’t get that in Asia, so they really wanted us to design the part for them. But when it came to real volume manufacturing, the parts were shipped offshore. So we [GizzMoVest] didn’t want to be just a design firm for offshore manufacturers; we wanted to actually manufacture it here. So we simply pick and choose our clients based on whether or not we think they’re likely to stay domestic. Some of our clients are other U.S. manufacturers who make their own stuff in the U.S., and they have their own ‘Made in the USA’ label in their product. And if they want a case or a cover or an enclosed case for it, they want that case also to be made here.”
GizzMoVest produces higher-end cases than are normally seen on typical cellphones, and its emphasis on high quality commands a higher price in the marketplace. One of its strongest market segments is the hunting market, where products typically cost more and buyers tend to have higher disposable incomes than the norm.
“We basically decided that instead of being a cellphone case manufacturer, where you’re trying to make an item for $6 and sell it for $34 or something, we would go after the other [outdoor] handhelds,” said Krause. “Then we discovered that there are quite a few high-value handhelds in the $300, $400, $500, and $600 range that are built in the hundreds of thousands—maybe not tens of millions, but hundreds of thousands or low millions—per year. And that it was a big enough market for an American company, and hopefully, not such a big market that the Chinese companies will be all that excited about it.”
Krause said in an e-mail that the people at GizzMoVest are living proof that 1960’s business practices are still workable and are, in fact, very appreciated by the company’s retail customers and OEM customers. “Our company arose from former employees of a failed company who got together and created something quite different from the old company,” he said. “Those differences, we hope, will continue to grow our business as they have so far.”
What does Krause mean by “1960s business practices?”
“Basically, we try to remove negative experiences that have crept into what are now considered ‘normal’ business practices,” he explained. That means giving customers “real customer service” by talking to them over the phone, and not using answering machines when staff is in the office. “We have real humans answering the phone, even sometimes at odd hours, who actually know something about the products,” he said.
Krause also said that they don’t grill each customer who wants to return a product for any reason. “99.7 percent of our customers have proven themselves very honest, so we see no reason to ruin the experience of 100 percent of our customers just to guard against that 0.3 percent. It is simply false economy to do so. Trust your customer and, nearly every time, they will become your new best friend because they don’t experience that from any other company these days. In this way, we turn squeaky wheel customers into being squeaky on our behalf. There is no better opportunity to promote your business than to provide good customer service. We actually landed our first chain store that way. It started with one customer we treated well; and they, in turn, showed our product to the store manager.”
Today, GizzMoVest is helping to improve the international trade balance through exporting. “Over a third of our retail products go overseas,” says Krause. He also adds that his and Steve Molina’s cars are 1988 and 1989 models, respectively. “We’re not rich yet, but we are very proud of our crew, we have fun, and we have a plan.”
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