Specialty Products Co. “Pro Alignment Team” members take pride in the fact that they operate a multifaceted company that is designed for purpose of helping alignment technicians with nearly every aspect of their jobs.
 
The company is unique, they say, because it designs, develops and tests alignment parts and tools in the USA, and then backs them up with a variety of training and support materials for the technician.
 
Specialty Products pioneered the alignment parts business in 1971 when Frank Bigelow purchased the company.
 
Specialty’s product line consisted of 16 hand tools that were manufactured and shipped from a 300-square-foot of warehouse space in Denver. Bigelow chose Niwot Corp. as the parent company and the Indian Head logo to honor Chief Niwot, an Arapahoe Indian chief who had befriended the early settlers who farmed in the Boulder Valley.
 
Specialty quickly outgrew its space and moved to Longmont, Colo. Today, Specialty Products is an ISO 9001/TS 16949 certified company that supplies more than 1,200 part numbers to customers worldwide.
 
Specialty President Ben Bigelow notes that the company has grown extensively over the years. The son of Frank Bigelow, he said Specialty’s first products were tools that were very different compared to today’s. “A lot of those early tools were designed to bend the parts on cars, which is kind of frowned upon now,” he joked, saying they were described as “torture devices” and included axle benders and MacPherson strut benders.
 
Ted Golas, vice president of sales and marketing, still remembers the part numbers. “There was the F80 axle bender and the 8105 strut corrector.”

 
By the 1980s Specialty Products was solving more problems for alignment technicians in the form of alignment shims, kits and training. Repair chains and franchises, as well as independents, were all advertising alignment as a stand-alone service, Bigelow said. “I think the challenges in the ’80s came about because the cars weren’t built quite as well, with not as much alignment adjustment capabilities.
 
“Even today, there are a lot of cars that don’t have the adjustment capabilities that are needed to fix the problem,” he said. “In addition, a lot of chassis sales are driven by an alignment. You might need a new bushing or you might need a new control arm. What is showing itself as an alignment problem and is going to the alignment tech, could be a need for a replacement chassis part, and when they do need an alignment part, we always want to be here for that technician.
 
Quality Engineering & Manufacturing
 
Jesse Weifenbach, manager of research and development, said that Specialty is much more than an aftermarket parts supplier.
 
“Even though we are a small aftermarket company, I like to tell people that we design and manufacture more like the OE rather than the typical aftermarket company,” he said. “When we are engineering parts we’re looking for OE-quality materials, OE-quality finishes and are really analyzing the original parts on the car and looking for those little subtle design elements that are often overlooked by the aftermarket.”

 
Specialty takes pride in being an ISO/TS16949 registered company. ISO/TS16949 is an International Organization for Standardization technical specification aimed at the development of a quality management system that provides for continual improvement, emphasizing defect prevention and the reduction of variation and waste in the automotive industry supply chain. It is based on the ISO 9001 standard, and is used by original-equipment suppliers.
 
The OE Connection
 
And though the majority of Specialty’s tools and products are sold through the aftermarket, the company supplies specific parts to vehicle manufacturers through their dealers.
 
“We sell to their aftermarket divisions, so whether it’s their customer service division or one of their performance divisions, we will sell to them. Sometimes a TSB will recommend our part. So they use our shim,” Bigelow said.
 
Doug Hardy, Specialty trainer and technician, noted that years ago car dealership service departments were receiving customer complaints of a “launch shudder” on take-off on specific models of Chevrolet pickups.
 
“It was caused by a bad driveline angle,” Hardy said. They needed an axle wedge to change the driveline angle and we at that time had the proper sizes they needed. GM parts distribution didn’t have the right sizes so they were sending us all the information. We set up all the dealers with the proper part number to wedge that rear axle for the proper driveline angle.”

 
Answering the Call
 
Weifenbach said that many new-product introductions are driven by calls coming to Specialty over its hotline and through its training programs. “We see or hear a demand for a part, or its when we get a car in and our own techs are looking at it, and say ‘this would be a really handy tool’ or ‘a really handy part.’ ‘This is a good place to put an adjustment. This is a bad place to put an adjustment.’ Both internally and externally, we listen to the techs because they are the ones who have to touch it and they are the ones we want to make happy.”
 
The Evolution
 
Specialty Products kits and parts cover domestic, European, Asian, older cars, newer cars, as well as performance, off-road and heavy-duty trucks.
 
“We do muscle cars, we do a four-wheel-drive and high-speed off-road items,” Wiefenbach said. “So we spend a lot of time talking to the different types of sporting enthusiasts as well. We’re not only looking at the cars that come out of the factory, we’re looking at how people are modifying them. What are the common modifications? When we are designing a part, we are not only looking at how much adjustment does it need normally, but how much adjustment does it need for a typical user in the aftermarket as well.”
 
“A good example of that is a project that Jesse and his team are working on now where we have seen an evolution of how people are modifying ’60s and ’70s muscle cars,” Bigelow said. “They are putting on bigger brakes or lowing the vehicle and they want different adjustments and a different alignment setting than the factory setting was. We need to be prepared for what is a modern suspension or what a modern alignment looks like being put onto an older car, but also what other components are being put on that older car, so that our part will work with those parts.”
 
Wiefenbach said that many times his team will get a call and the necessary product seems like a good fit that they can tackle.
 
“We always try to get a vehicle in right away to look at,” he said. “Some projects evolve pretty quickly. Recently, I talked to a gentleman who had a rather rare Cobra Mustang that was manufactured in the early 2000s with an independent rear suspension. He told us that Ford only sold the whole knuckle in the rear and when the ball joints wore it cost quite a bit of money. We were able to quickly take an existing design and modify it to fit this car. He was able to lend us some components and we turned that project around pretty quick. It’s a niche product and Specialty is the only one that has it – and there is a real need out there for it, because the OE ball joint does fail so quickly.”
 
The engineering department also has hardcore off-roaders who look at high-speed off-road and rock-crawler applications. “All of those categories get good attention from us and are strong categories for us that we are leaders in,” Bigelow said.

 
Training
 
Specialty is in the business to sell parts, but Bigelow noted that providing training to the technicians is a “must” for technicians and Specialty to be successful. The company trains thousands of technicians each year.
 
“Customer service and training get 30 to 50 calls per day,” Hardy said. A lot of people are looking for parts for cars, and we encourage them to do that.”
 
If it’s a complex question, customer service forwards the call to the tech hotline where seasoned veterans have the answers. They include Craig Pettybone, who cut his teeth as a young man working closely with Hunter Engineering founder Lee Hunter. The other is Jim Berry. Both have taught alignment classes for Specialty throughout the country and the world, he said. Both enjoy talking to technicians, young and old.
 
Berry continues to teach one-night field clinics throughout the world, as does Mark Willis, another trainer who will be returning to Taiwan this summer.
 
Bigelow said the majority of training is driven by warehouse distributors who carry the Specialty Products line and want their customers to be alignment and chassis experts.
 
“These are three-hour training sessions,” Hardy said, with students ranging from entry-level tire busters to guys who have been aligning vehicles for 30 years. We try to give information that will help everyone. You start with the basics and then you move through towards the advanced. And then you move into what we do – make alignment solutions.”
 
In addition to the three-hour clinics, Specialty offers three-day factory-training clinics at its headquarters, along with an optional two additional days of training for advanced technicians.
 
“They are hands-on classes where we provide about 40% classroom and 60% hands-on training where we are doing alignment with a new Hunter machine and a new John Bean machine,” Hardy said. “We really concentrate on getting these technicians up to speed. We get a technician to be comfortable doing a basic alignment in a three-day class. Then we add on a two-day advanced class if they want it. We talk about SAI and included angles and more diagnostic angles. We also discuss setting steering-angle sensors because there are so many different ways of dealing with that.
 
“The fun part of the class is when you see ‘the light bulb’ come on for a particular student where he understands the theory or the procedure,” Hardy said. “It’s especially gratifying with the entry-level students. Once they latch onto it they really love it. They see it happen and all of a sudden they say ‘hey, I can do this for a living!’”
 
“In many instances,” Bigelow said, “a shop will take someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience and they are told ‘the alignment machine is yours, go run it, and the alignment machine will tell you everything you need know.’ They don’t have the science behind it to understand what those angles are and how they work together and why is this machine telling them to do this.” Doug can teach them all of the angles and science behind it so they can understand what the machine is telling them to do.
 
“Doug has technicians coming in from all over the country every other month,” Bigelow said. “Last year we had a group of technicians come in from the Far East. We’ve got hotels that are right down the road at the right price and most of them think it its really nice to wake up with a view of the Rocky Mountains.”
 
Golas noted that Specialty also provides on-line video modules that technicians can sign up for. They include basic and advanced alignment training.
 
Four different modules are available, with a fifth being released soon. The cost is only $25 per course and allows technicians to take the courses their own pace. Each course includes a booklet and a certificate they can print out at the completion of the course, he said.

 
Specialty’s Source Book
 
One of the most valuable tools that Specialty Products offers is The Alignment Sourcebook™, Golas said. Designed especially for the alignment technician, it is available in print and online. Each section has tabs that allow the technician to flip to the section they need without having to look through the entire book. Each new product is marked with a “New” logo that includes an illustration of Chie Niwot for instant identification. Specific parts can be found in the make and model section, as well as by part number. It also provides alignment definitions and when and how to sell alignments to motorists.
 
When a technician does call asking about a specific part or tool, Specialty also lets them know what distributor near them carries the line to get the part right away,” Golas said.

 
Specialty’s Complete Package
 
“We are the most complete company as far as selling and manufacturing, just not the aftermarket products for alignment, but the tools and the whole ball of wax,” Golas said. “It’s the entire machine that all works together. We answer all their questions by giving them what they need between the parts and the tools and our Source Book. Other aren’t able to offer that.”
 
“We design it here, we develop it here, we test it here, and much of it is manufactured here in the USA,” he said. “For instant gratification it is so easy for them to go on line and go to our specprod.com site. You can search by year make and model, by part number, it’s got FAQs, it’s got videos, product instructions – everything they need is right there. Then they are able to pick up their phone and call their local parts supplier, give them the part number and rock and roll.”
 
Specialty Product Co.
800-525-6505
www.specprod.com