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Go forth and be creative – Oxnard firm diversifies client list to keep business strong

By   /   Sunday, March 15th, 2009  /   Comments Off on Go forth and be creative – Oxnard firm diversifies client list to keep business strong

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Since 1992, Trans FX has kept an edge.

Formed from a core of automotive designers, the company used then-new design software in the 1990s to craft Batman’s car in a blockbuster motion picture and concept vehicles for General Motors. But with major changes in the movie and car business, the firm has shifted to provide full-scale aircraft models for the likes of Boeing and Lockheed Martin and even makes characters for theme-park rides.

The key, said Trans FX founder and Chief Executive Allen Pike, has been to stay creative and go where the business is.

“The future for us isn’t really anything that we have done in the past,” Pike said. “Our competitors that haven’t diversified have gone out of business because the car business and the movie business have dried up.”

Today, Oxnard-based Trans FX has about 25 employees and brings in between $3 million and $5 million in revenue. But it started with a young automotive design team moonlighting during a recession.

Pike learned to be dynamic early on. He’d studied fine art and sculpture in college and wanted to be an artist but realized he’d need to supplement that with industrial design to make a living. He got his start as part of a General Motors advanced design team based in Newbury Park. GM funded then-emerging design software and machining technology. They also gave Pike and his mostly young colleagues the creative freedom to pursue designs that didn’t look like anything on the market.

At the time, car design meant labor-intensive clay models and about six years from concept to showroom floors. But Pike and his team developed new materials and methods to drastically cut that time down – it was the late 1980s, and they had to match the Japanese. “Our competitors were doing it faster,” Pike said. “It’s one thing to have an idea; it’s another thing to make it tangible.”

But then the recession of the early 1990s hit. GM told Pike and his co-workers to quit chasing far-out ideas and work on production vehicles. “It was the kiss of death for the studio,” Pike said.

Pike and his team began moonlighting in the GM studio to build a car for a television series. The show never got off the ground, but the experience gave them the confidence to put in a bid to build the Batmobile for Warner Bros. “Batman Forever.”

The group planned to take a leave of absence from GM for the Batman project. Soon after, GM told them the Newbury Park studio would close.

“They told us we could go to Detroit and have a job or go on unemployment,” Pike said. “It was a no-brainer – we wanted to stay in California and turn our hobby into a business.”

Pike and his team took a financial plunge – software and computers weren’t cheap in the early ’90s. “At the time, it was about $100,000. Now you could get the same thing for about $8,000,” Pike said.

The newly formed Trans FX built Batman’s car, boat and airplane. Coming from the automobile industry and armed with their formative experience at GM, Trans FX found itself ahead of movie industry competitors who would “basically take existing cars and buckets of bondo and put something together that wasn’t really well  -ngineered,” Pike said.

“The directors loved what we could do. The producers loved that we could get it done in time,” Pike said. “We made really good margins on what we did, but we were tasked with difficult things.”

Trans FX continued to do movie projects but also branched out into producing advanced designs for car companies – even GM. But the game changed as computing power and software became more widely available the firm’s competitors.

“We were still making payments on software that we had purchased years ago, and for two of those payments you could buy the software new,” Pike said. “You pay a premium to be first, but then you pay a penalty for being first. Believe me, your customers don’t care – they’re going for the lowest price.”

At the same time, money from the movie and car businesses was unsteady and drying up. So the company shifted its focus to aerospace projects and “creative fabrication” – creating custom parts for architects and even theme parks. Using efficient technology paired with its team’s creative skills, Trans FX has managed to compete against European shops to put the right artistic touch on characters machined from metal.

Trans FX has also undertaken the process of having its 25,000-square-foot facility and manufacturing processes certified to win aerospace contracts with players such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

“On the aerospace side, they liked usebecause we had this engineering capability but we were also craftsmen and artists, so not only would it meet their specs, but it would also look good,” Pike said. “We were also faster than they were accustomed to. They would say, ‘Can you get that done in 180 days?’ and we would say, ‘Are you kidding?’”

As Trans FX pushes toward becoming an aerospace manufacturing firm that can handle complex fabrications, the focus is still on taking an idea and making it real.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” Pike said. “A real, full-size physical model is worth a zillion words.”

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