Some hot rodders have an inherent disdain for billet; in truth, garish billet dress-up bits aren't for everyone. But when doled out in tastefully restrained quantities, billet looks sweet. More importantly, billet is the material of choice when low mass and high strength are the top priorities at hand. That's why everything from ultra high-end blocks and crankshafts to connecting rods and wheels and brake calipers are all carved out of billet.
Few companies know the performance and aesthetic benefits of billet aluminum better than Eddie Motorsports. While the company is a fresh face in automotive circles, it traces its roots to the marine industry and has been around for quite some time. After working in the parts distribution business in the marine industry for several years, Ed Borges founded Eddie Marine to try his hand at the manufacturing side of the business. As the economy tanked in 2008 and custom boat sales dropped significantly, Borges wasn't content to merely scale back his business. Instead, he identified a new business segment where his company's manufacturing capabilities could be adapted to, and that segment happened to be the automotive aftermarket. Eddie Motorsports was born, and today the company offers a diverse product line of billet serpentine accessory drive systems, pulleys, hinges, and dress-up items.
To learn more about the nuances of billet manufacturing and the latest in serpentine drive systems, we solicited the expertise of Eddie Motorsports' Chief Operating Officer, Joe Rode. Here's what he had to say.
Billet aluminum is increasing in popularity in everything from connecting rods to wheels to pulleys to brackets. So what exactly is billet, and what advantages does it offer over metal that's cast, stamped, or built from pot metal? "Billet aluminum is a solid block of extruded aluminum, the purest form of the metal. Extruding is a metal-forming process that uses high pressure to push hot metal through a die," Joe explains. "In its molten state, before it is extruded, the aluminum is treated to ensure that it is clean and free of any impurities or porosity. It is then heat-treated for strength. We use only 6061-T6 billet aluminum for our parts because of its superior strength and brilliant finish when polished. Knock-off billet parts are made from inferior forgings so the finish will be cloudy and dull. That is why most imported billet parts are usually chromed, since they can't be polished to the same brilliance as true American billet. Cast aluminum can be porous and contain impurities, so it will not have as nice of a finish and will not be as strong. Castings are generally cheaper, but the higher quality of billet often makes it worth the added expense for many hot rodders."
Most people know that billet is lightweight and looks cool, but the manufacturing process necessary to achieve those end results is anything but simple. Transforming a block of billet into a finished part requires substantial time and effort. "A billet part is first designed using a software program. We usually start with the original part to get the basic parameters, and then refine it to look the way we want it," says Joe. "Our programmer will tell the software what tools he wants to use to cut the part, and in what manner he wants the machines to operate in terms of the tool path and cutting speed. The software program will take all of this information and develop the code that we then send to one of our computer-operated machines, either a mill or lathe or sometimes both. Our programmer also designs the fixtures needed to hold the raw aluminum in position while it is being machined. We don't use a 3-D printer for the first prototypes, but rather prefer to machine them from aluminum. No matter how much time you take to engineer a product, you never completely know how it is going to look until you make one. Many times we think we have a home run, but the first prototype, for whatever reason, just doesn't look as expected. As such, we'll tweak it and continue to make revised parts until we get it to look just the way we want. To simplify the process, we buy the raw aluminum in an extruded shape that is close to the size of the part we are making. When we are ready to go, we attach the aluminum to the fixture in the machine using clamps or fasteners. As the CNC machine runs, it will whittle away layers of the aluminum a little at a time until it ends up in its final shape. We call this process ‘cutting chips,' and there's no better sound that a bunch of CNC machines singing along and cutting chips. Most parts are made in several operations, which includes flipping the parts over to machine the other side."
Eddie Motorsports prides itself on manufacturing its parts in the USA. According to Joe, machining products in the USA offers several distinct advantages. "Starting with superior raw materials is the first and most important advantage we have. With billet aluminum, there is just no way to make as nice of a part with inferior imported metal," he says. "Our company is concerned with our brand and the reputation. We put our logos on our products and focus on quality first, so the product we offer will always be produced with that in mind. The overseas guys care only about price and you usually don't know who the manufacturer is. They have no brand to concern themselves with, and wash their hands of any product liability once they sell the part. Whenever we do a cost analysis for a new product, we always look at what similar knock-offs are selling for. We can usually match these prices with high-quality American-made products, and because we control our own manufacturing destiny, we can react quicker to changes or problems. No matter how much time and care we take to manufacture a new product correctly, parts will inevitably change and evolve. When something is produced overseas, it can become outdated very quickly. And because those guys have very little concern for the end user and their distributors, once they make a bad part and flood the market with it, they are not going to spend the time or money to make them right. We can also offer the various custom finishes that you can't get on overseas products."
As a company that cut its teeth in the marine industry, Eddie Motorsports has a wealth of experience manufacturing parts that can survive in extremely unforgiving environments. "Billet parts on boats are exposed to a much harsher environment than those on cars. Our experience with building parts that are polished, anodized, or powdercoated has made it easy to apply the same techniques to car parts," says Joe. "Every part that we powdercoat or anodize is bright-polished first. It's like painting a car. The final product is only as good as its prep work, and we perform all our powdercoating in-house."
Serpentine Accessory Drives
The multi-belt accessory drives used in factory muscle cars are a disaster in terms of packaging, reliability, and complexity. Likewise, piecing together belt-driven accessories one by one, and trying to integrate them into the accessory drive system, can be a real pain. As such, serpentine belt systems not only look better, they provide headache-free performance as well. "I would venture to guess that every person who purchases a serpentine-belt kit has owned and struggled with the installation or operation of a traditional V-belt system. When you buy nice-looking aftermarket components to build a V-belt system, the fit and alignment almost always presents some degree of challenge, and this is not necessarily the fault of the manufacturer," Joe explains. "When you are trying to adapt bracketry to your existing components—which could be from any number of manufacturers—and factor in the variances in the mounting holes in blocks and cylinder heads, you are going to have issues. And once you do get it all together, there's a very good chance that you are going to have at least some minor misalignment, which will probably lead to performance issues. And at the end of the day with a V-belt system, even if all goes well and the kit was affordably priced, you will have spent good time and money on a system that employs old technology that will not perform as well as a serpentine system. It will not be as compact or clean looking on your engine, either. With a well-packaged and prepared serpentine pulley system, you are going to get everything you need to easily bolt on your components in a concise, perfectly aligned system."