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Behind the scenes at Progressive Suspension

1 Sep
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.

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 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. Continue reading

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