SAN DIEGO — Many golf club makers and golf shaft sellers acquire their graphite shafts offshore, but a machinery and equipment maker suggests ways to bring the work back to the United States.
``We believe you can make a golf shaft in the U.S. for the same price or less than one made in Asia,'' Robert J. Basso, president of Century Design Inc., said in an interview at his San Diego office.
More than half of shaft production occurs overseas, and foreign output is increasing, Basso said. Dozens of golf-club makers use low-cost plants in Taiwan, Bangladesh and South Korea to make large volumes of shafts. ``High-price'' factories in Japan produce some, and shops in North America and Norway make others.
The ability to supply automated turnkey factories positions Century Design ``to bring business back to the U.S. from offshore,'' he said.
According to Basso, a shaft uses $3 worth of prepreg and 12 minutes of labor. A shaft producer making carbon-fiber prepreg in-house can save at least $1 per golf shaft, he said.
``We can save at least half of the labor cost by automating the factory,'' he added.
Shaft makers have been showing more interest in automation.
``People are coming to us and asking us specifically, `How can we cut our labor costs?''' said Mike Cagle, Century Design's technical director.
``Most of the time, we are pushing automation and having to work hard to get it to go through,'' Cagle said. ``Almost everything we build now is automation-ready.''
Since 1995, Century Design has installed several fully automated lines, each costing $450,000-$900,000 and occupying 20 by 100 feet, in a Connecticut, a Mississippi and several California factories.
In an eight-hour shift, linked modular finishing systems can cut, grind, sand and inspect 4,500 shafts, kicking out any with defects. Two roving technicians maintain each line.
``What gets through is a perfect golf shaft, every six seconds,'' Cagle said.
A machine to combine, or preimpregnate, fiber with resin, can cost $700,000 to $2.2 million, Basso said. Lead time is 22 weeks.
As a technical partner with customers, ``we pass along ideas and upgrades'' and deal with a user's materials, ovens or release-agent problems ``no matter where they are in world,'' Basso said.
Both Basso and Cagle hold private pilot licenses and fly often to domestic customer locations from Montgomery Field, an airport about a seven-iron shot from the plant.
Nearby firms using some or all of Century Design's automated systems include Aldila Inc., Horizon Sports Technologies Inc. and Penley Sports Technology LLC, all based in San Diego; Fortune Brands Inc.'s West Coast Composites unit in Carlsbad; and Quadrax Corp.'s golf unit in Vista.
In May, Century Design structured a demonstration at the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering exposition in Anaheim, Calif. About 350 people rolled prepreg and wrapped tape on shafts in making composite golf putters.
Industry segments are "blending together,'' Basso said. Fiber-reinforced plastics producers ``have been dealing with polyester and glass for years — now they see they can make stronger, lighter structures in the same marketplace using carbon-fiber prepregs.''
Equipment to make golf shafts dominates Century Design's business, but ``equipment for fishing rods is coming up fast.'' Some customers make archery arrows, violin bows, ski poles and commercial tubing.
Debt-free Century Design employs 20-25, had 1996 sales of about $6 million and is enclosing an outdoor roofed area to enlarge its facility to 23,000 square feet. Basso forecasts sales of almost $7 million this year.
Decades ago, Basso applied his engineering talents to supplying end products.
``We were the original producer of carbon-fiber golf shafts and fishing rods,'' he said.
He sold that business to 3M Co. of St. Paul, Minn., in 1974 and, subsequently, has stayed on the equipment side.