Subscribe to MBR today and get this jacket worth £49.99 free!
Twenty years ago, traditional GB mountain bike manufacture was in its prime. And then the Far East and the internet came along. Now, you can log on to a shiny website for half an hour, pick a colour and a model, and then wait for a delivery from Taiwan to bring you the bike of your dreams. But times are changing, and the economy and environment are top of our list of concerns. As we look to increase our export potential and stay on the right side of the green camp, British bike production has been thrust back in the spotlight.
And frame building in the UK is indeed alive and kicking. We’ve talked to three of the groups making them right here, the most traditional of which is Wiltshire-based Curtis bikes. Literally a one-man show, Gary Woodhouse uses a hacksaw, a few files, a jig and a brazing torch to fabricate classic double-diamond frames from good old steel. At the other end of the production scale is Orange Bikes. In its Halifax factory aluminium sheet is folded like origami and welded to more traditional tubing in a process that is unique to the brand. Finally we visit newcomer Empire Cycles. With its precision sand cast downhill frame, Empire has arrived at the manufacturing process from a complete tangent. By applying technology more familiar to engineers in the aerospace, automotive and motorcycle industries it has created a product starkly different to anything else available on the market.
Two different materials, three different processes, one common denominator; ‘made in Britain’.
Curtis: Gary Woodhouse
Why is steel such a good material for making bike frames out of?
The main reason it’s better than aluminium is it hasn’t got a shear-off factor. It’ll crack but it won’t just shear straight off. It makes a more flexible frame. You can feel the flexibility in the back end when you’re riding compared to an aluminium frame. It’s so reparable as well. You can always repair one of our frames.
A product for life then?
What about the brazing aspect?
The main reason is that’s the way Mr Curtis has taught me and that’s the only way we’ve ever welded. It is a very old school way of welding but it creates such a strong join. If we ever have a frame failure it’ll be a crack along a weld edge, it won’t ever go through the weld because the joint is stronger than the tubing. Whereas if you TIG a steel frame and it fractures it’ll go straight through the weld and out the other side. It’s a much stronger way of joining tube.
What’s the main difference between a brazed and a TIG-welded joint?
Brazing is silent and graceful.
So the material that’s melted into the joint?
Yes. The rod we use has got 12% nickel in it, which makes it so strong.
What are the gases used in the brazing process?
What’s your current product line-up?
As far as mountain bikes go, we do 24in and 26in jump frames: single-speed. A Supercross frame: which is a hardcore 26in frame that you can jump and generally abuse. Then we go into race frames, which use a lighter, thinner gauge tubeset. We do a whole range of cross-country frames: the XC80, XC100 and XC130 and they can be built to suit the rider: different weights and heights and lengths. Different head angles…
So there’s an element of flexibility in geometry and sizing?
Absolutely. Each frame is built to the customer’s spec. You can have frame height to the millimetre; frame length the millimetre; you can have your head tube placed exactly for the fork you’re going to put in that bike. Depending how abusive a rider you are or how heavy you are you can have different tubesets. So you can make it stronger or lighter to suit you. Each frame has its own personalised frame number or a lot of people have their nicknames stamped in. Whatever they want really, even down to their initials in the end caps of the seat and chainstays. We do an 853 cross-country frame as well. The full frame: seat and chainstays as well. Reynolds is very hard metal. It destroys files and hacksaw blades.
What’s the history behind Curtis Bikes?
Brian (Curtis) used to be a very famous motocross rider back in the sixties. He started off his frame building with Rickmans – quite a big motocross brand in the day – worked for various other different companies until he started making his own Curtis Honda motocross bikes. They used Honda running gear but his frame and swinging arm. He got quite well known for that. He even ended-up being commissioned by Yamaha to make 200 500cc Yams: the twin-shock ones. That was quite a big deal in the day. He made motocross frames right up until the point he met me in about ’79. I persuaded him to have a go at some BMX frames right in the beginning, when BMX just arrived in the country. That changed everything. He ended up stopping making motorbikes and concentrating totally on pushbikes. That’s how it all started really. I took over the company 12 years ago. Brian still does the final welding on everything we produce. I run the two teams: I’ve got a mountain bike team and a BMX team, I deal with all the sponsors, I design all the bikes, I put them all together pre-welding. I run the whole show really.
Why do you think steel frames develop such a cult following?
People either like steel or they like aluminium: it’s either one or the other. The two metals are so different. Especially with our stuff, they’re so repairable if they do break. Generally aluminium is considered mass-produced and from abroad as well.
With all the advances in bicycle and frame design, are you surprised that steel is still around as a frame material?
No, it’ll be here forever. It’s just a classic material to use, especially for hardcore type riding. You just can’t compete with it.
What are the problems with working with steel as a frame material?
We use very special steel: it’s T45. I don’t know anyone in England who uses it. When they pressure test the tube, it’s 45 tons per square inch before it distorts. With chromoly it’s 41.30 tons per square inch before it distorts. There are some cheaper chromolys that, well, they’re like cheese really. Because I hand cut and file each tube to fit, it just destroys hacksaw blades and files. Keeps you bloody fit though, filing and sawing all day! We’ve tried getting the T45 milled: it just doesn’t allow the mill to go through it.
How long does a frame take to build from start-to-finish?
It takes about a day and half roughly. If you were to include prepping it for painting, taking it to the painters, getting it back, decal-ing it up, wrapping and boxing it, you may as well call it two days.
Where do you see steel frame design/technology going in the future?
As far as the looks of the frame goes, you’re pretty limited because it’s just round tube. Whereas aluminium frames you can make any shape you want. As far as materials go, in the BMX world there’s bars and forks with so many butts in them, they make them so light yet so strong. All those parts are made abroad though; mass-produced. I like the sound of the new 953 tube from Reynolds: it’s a stainless tube. Basically they’re for road frames, but I’m thinking about doing a very lightweight cross-country frame out of it. You can leave it unpainted and it would bring it on par with titanium for weight and strength.
How important is it to be a British brand actually making product in Britain?
It means a lot to the people who buy them. That’s one of the main reasons they come to us. There are not many people I know who do it, hardly any in fact, especially mountain bikes. Our frames don’t exist – it’s just tubing on a rack – until the phone rings and then we cut and file it to suit that order.
Orange Bikes: Steve Wade
How long have you been making frames?
I suppose it all started in about 1984. I bought my first mountain bike and I made a new stem for the bike out of mild steel tubing. I started looking at the TIG welded frame and decided I could make something better so I bought a tube set and made a frame. The back end was 4130 cromoly and the front Columbus Max. Every month or so I would have a new frame made slightly differently. They were for me to ride not to sell: it was a hobby and way more interesting than making office shelving.
Lester and I had known each other from being young and he approached me about setting up a mountain bike company. The aluminium frames started about 12 years later. We had messed about with tubular suspension frames but, to be honest, we didn’t know which direction to go. We employed a brilliant young designer: he came up with a downhill bike we called the 628. This was the first of the folded sheet metal frames. Steve Kitchen from Animal saw it and asked if we could make frames for his team. We came up with the MrO and developed it over the next summer. I saw my first World Cup dual race; the bikes weren’t up to what the riders were doing with them so I came up with the MsIsle. I had also been messing with an XC bike: MrXC. I sat the MsIsle next to the MrXC and realised that if a pivot was welded into the down tube of the MsIsle then the MrXC rear would bolt on the MsIsle front triangle. This was the first Patriot: a great bike and the one I see as really starting the way we still make frames today.
Can you describe the manufacturing process you use?
All the frames are designed and developed using CAD. Once we have the design we want we dissect it back to individual components and then pattern develop those back to a flat shape. Each individual profile, angle of mitre and notch is worked out, not just by model, but also by size and the tooling is developed to ensure a good fit into the other elements of the frame.
Then we take 2.5m x 1.25m aerospace grade 6061 sheets in different thicknesses and use CNC punches and laser cutters to cut the flat patterns. After this we fold the flat patterns using CNC press brakes and rubber dies. This gives us a shaped component that will then be assembled into a finished frame.
Our heat treatment process for 6000 series alloys is a massive aspect during frame manufacture: both costly and time-consuming. Yet we believe it adds a major ingredient to the ride of an Orange. It is a full solution treatment process where the frames are heated to 530 deg. At this temperature the frames are as close as possible to molten aluminium while still being able to hold a solid form. Touching components can weld together during this part of the process.
The reason for this process is to relieve all the stress that has built up in the frame during welding and forming. Stress leads to weakness. After solution the frames are quenched in a polymer and then are hardened at 180/200 deg for eight hours.
During and after this process every component has to be jigged for alignment and then certain areas of the frame such as the pivot and axle path are machined for overall frame alignment. This heat treatment process increases tensile strength by 60% and triples its hardness rating. It changes the frame into one complete monocoque component with no difference in structure between the welds, tubes, sheet, and machined parts.
Where did the inspiration come from?
I’m a sheet metal worker, so it’s logical to me to make things from sheet rather than tube. In the cycle industry we are unique. Cars and aeroplanes are made from sheet metal so why not bike frames?
What are the greatest benefits of building frames this way?
Different thickness sheet can be used in different areas depending on the stresses involved. With this method the sheet is still the same thickness after folding as it was in flat form. When pressing sheet or hydroforming tube the metal is stretched changing the wall thickness, usually, in the areas it shouldn’t.
How long does it take to build a frame from start to finish?
A team of ten people produce an average of 45 suspension frames a week. That includes the guys that are doing alignment checks and quality control.
What were some of the problems you had to overcome developing this process?
How many pages do you have? It was like trying to be accepted into some secret society. The aerospace industry is paranoid. They wanted to know who we were and why we wanted a sheet of 6061. When we told them we were prototyping a mountain bike frame their response was total disbelief: I think they thought we were making a stealth bomber! Then we had to find compatible grades of welding rods and other alloy components. The next big hurdle was heat treatment. Lets just say it was a very rough ride.
Do you have an idea of the perfect frame in your head?
A perfect frame has to have a front end that can handle steep, loose, very rocky, technical descents; a slackish head angle; it has to take 160mm forks; a low bottom bracket for downhill stability; 5in to 6in rear travel; it has to climb well; low top tube; bolt-through axles front and rear; It has to be durable – a frame that dents when hit by flying rocks isn’t much use to me. No purple anodising, hydroformed tubing or bling: just a frame that is a joy to ride.
Are you any good at origami?
Not really. However we do use some cardboard modelling especially in the early stages of a new design. It helps with the pattern development and feasibility of more complex areas.
What are the tolerances involved in this process?
The CNC machinery used to manufacture the individual components is very accurate: ranging from 0.1 to 0.03 mm. The hand-fabricated assemblies are jigged to 0.5mm. These are way above average industry standards.
How many pieces/parts go into making a Five frame for example (without shock/bolts etc)?
23… That doesn’t include cable guides/ bearings etc. It’s not quite the simple frame some people think.
Where do the tubing and the CNC parts come from that go into the folded frames?
Some of the tubing such as the Five top tube we develop in conjunction with Reynolds in the UK. The rest is tooled up and mill run in the UK in custom shapes/sections. All the tubing comes to us in standard lengths and is cut, mitred and bent in-house.
The sheet is sourced through aerospace suppliers predominantly from the States, but of late it has been coming in from Germany.
The machined components like dropouts, headtubes, bottom brackets etc. are all drawn and developed in-house and then passed on to a local machine shop for manufacture. They use CNC lathes and 3D millers to machine our components from solid aluminium bar. We don’t use any castings.
How important is it for you to be manufacturing a British product in Britain?
For me it’s very important. Britain has neglected its manufacturing all my working life. If we had more small manufacturers in the UK then the financial correction that’s going on at the moment wouldn’t be half as bad as it is. We are supposed to be a service industry country but serving what exactly is beyond me.
Empire: Craig Robertson and Chris Williams
How long have you been ‘making’ frames?
Craig: The original concept was very late 2005. We progressed quite quickly to going onto prototype tooling in 2006. As far as having stuff ready for market, it’s been over the past six months. We knew there would be a long development period, because we were taking on such a challenging project.
Chris: It’s been three years development time, and not just development but productionisation: two very distinctly different things. It’s easy to create one frame; it’s a very different proposition to produce 100 that all do the same thing and don’t come back.
Was that timescale anticipated?
Chris: I don’t think we ever thought it would be easy, but three years is maybe a little longer than we anticipated! At the time we didn’t say ‘by August 2007 we should have a product sitting there’. We resigned ourselves to the fact that it is a tough call to do what we’ve done and it was going to be hard, but how hard, we you’re not going to know until you get in there.
Craig: I think we were optimistic about getting to market a little bit quicker than has actually transpired. The original prototypes were so well received; they were always viewed as a raw prototype to see how the whole theory was working, and also with the geometry element of it and the suspension design- besides being able to produce it – whether we’d nailed that down. We got it pretty much spot on first time. So we were excited thinking maybe we can fast-track the process and then we realised that because everyone would be so critical of the new production method that we were bringing to market, that we had to get everything else right. So we’ve gone that little bit further in every part of the process compared to a lot of our competitors, from the heat treating process to the quality inspection to the x-ray element we’ve added so much in to it which, yes had added to development time and cost, but we feel we’ve brought a far better product to market at the end of it all.
Tell us a bit about the manufacturing process you use?
Chris: We’re using precision sand casting which has been adopted by the motorcycle and automotive industry but most of those companies are using a more productionised process which is low-pressure casting, but you always start, more often than not, with a precision sand casting, and that’s our starting place. We’ve chosen a partner foundry that offers both methods. So as, hopefully, our production increases because the product has been accepted into the market place, and we have then given ourselves the option to increase production into the more volume techniques that are out there. And then we will be manufacturing with black tooling (hard tooling), which has benefits and disadvantages. High volume is high cost initial set-up with competitive piece part price. But if you have now demand you’re not going to outlay on the black tooling. For us the sand-casting is the way to go today, with the option of in front of us of where we could go. It’s no big secret any of this stuff, because there are foundries all over the world, it’s just that bicycles have not been made like this before.
Craig: I think a lot of the manufacturers could almost be accused of painting themselves into a corner. They’ve wanted to do the design and the production in-house, they’ve bought the machinery to do that and invested in the correct machinery, and although production techniques in other industries have moved on, they’re now left working within the framework they’ve created. So they might have state-of-the-art welders, bending machines, laser cutters for cutting or mitring the tubes, but they’re invariably tied to fabricating the bicycle from multiple parts. Whereas other industries have looked at the best way of delivering that part to market which is absolutely the normal route for the aerospace, automotive and motorcycle industries. They will sub-contract out parts if there’s a better way to produce them. What we have done, is, we have no intention of buying a unit and putting a 4-axis machine in the corner, if the technology moves on, we will move with it. We’re looking at the best way of productionising the bicycle and bringing it to market with what’s perceived as the most cutting edge technology. It might be a completely different technology in ten years time, and Empire will be in a position to capitalise on that. We won’t be tied to our welding machines.
Chris: the caveat today is ‘made in UK’. We have no desire to hop on a plane and go to Taiwan. The technology exists here and we can make it here and that’s what we want to do. So as the technology moves forward, we still want to make it here. You can never say never, but the ultimate goal would be to keep it here.
What are the processes involved from start to finish?
Chris: I don’t know whether we wish to tell you everything. The problem that if we explain everything in minute detail to you, then we expose our costly intellectual property to you, which then you print. The basics of the casting process; no problem. The detail of that process is guarded.
We probably don’t have the space to print that anyway, I’m looking for the basic production path.
Chris: the basic production path starts with CAD modelling. 100%. No fag packet sketches, they are completely useless to us. Everything is driven through the same processes as the automotive guys do. The CAD model is the absolute key to everything else that surrounds it. It’s the master template. From there you can do your theoretical analysis of how this thing will perform. So that’s the FEA (finite-element-analysis). But on top of that you can do the tooling from the CAD model, you can also do FEA of the tooling through computational fluid dynamics. Which is how you get the material into that cavity. And it all comes down to the CAD model. Then you’ve got the machining fixtures that hold the thing down, and the checking fixtures that are used to make sure the part is straight. Once you’ve found the right people to do the tooling, they cut out that tooling with huge communication between us, the foundry and the tool maker, or pattern maker if you want to use the old terminology. They cut that, it then goes back into the foundry where they do the trial to make sure they can get the material into the captive. From there you’ve got x-ray and dye-penetration testing – crack protection – which is basically quality control.
Craig: and we are running 100% testing. Every frame gets checked.
Chris: from your FEA you’ve identified critical areas. You can see those critical areas on other manufacturers frames because they’ve gusseted them. Because this is a moulding, not a fabrication, it gives you the opportunity to put the material where it’s required. This is all theoretical. You’ve obviously got to go out and ride the thing as well to get real world information and that information is then fed in parallel with the FEA back into the CAD model which is then re-FEAed and goes back out for tooling modifications and the whole process starts again.
How the product is made: once you’ve got your tool, you fill it full of sand, you fill the other part of the tool full of sand. You extract the tooling from the sand.
So it’s a female mould?
Chris: It’s half what you see in the final product. The mould is destroyed to get the part out. You create the cavities. You put those cavities together to create the part – they call them cope and drag which is the halves of the part. To create the hollow sections we have in the swingarm and the headtube you need core tools, which are the reverse of what you’re after, put the whole package together, pour the metal in, smash the sand off, into the x-ray while it’s still hundreds of degrees. It’s a real-time x-ray so they’re spinning it around and it’s on the screen and they’re looking to see if there’s any cavities in it or not. If there are, it’s in the scrap bin instantly and they remake more moulds to get the batch. Then you’re into fettling. Heat-treatment, blasting, anodising…
As in shot-peening?
Craig: it is shot-peened, yeah.
Chris: But with all of these things there is the way to do things, not a way. That is the detail that we’ve toiled long and hard to achieve. Like, just on the blasting side, there’s equipment out there that’s automated. That’s not good enough for us. So, the foundry that we have has a guy in a full suit – breathing apparatus on – he gets hold of the part and with a gun he blasts the whole thing by had. It’s the best quality. Once you’ve achieved the best quality blasting you get the best quality anodising. When we anodise the parts, we don’t just do what everyone else does, they’re physically bolted to the equipment so the current passes straight into it. If there’s a problem with any of this, we reject the part.
Craig: the final part of the production prior to a cosmetic sticker is the machining. All those blanks are produced from the same tool so they’re all the same. It’s bolted into the jig which holds it exactly the same position, and each machined surface relative to the other critical mounting points on the frame is identical. We’re working to 2 microns on surfaces. It’s way in excess of the what the standard is within the industry. A lot of other people with very good intentions will do the welding – there’s a lot of distortion that goes on with the welding and there’s an element of brute force whether it’s a guy with a hammer or a big lever trying to straighten the item they’ve made. All the faced contact points that they’ve started with have gone out of alignment. So it’s all a case of how much can they bring it all back into alignment. With us, all of the finished faces are put on at the end. It’s overlaying a very, very accurate template over your blank.
Chris: Now the blank itself may move, and I mean a tiny, tiny amount, but that’s down to your fixing. You’ve got to bolt the thing down in the same orientation every single time. The machining path does not change. You have to have the part presented to the path in exactly the same place for the bore, for the mounts etc. You have to have a tolerance. Everyone in the world has a tolerance. But our tolerance is built into the design of the casting to make sure that that hole goes central by +.5mm, .25mm, whatever it is, but the relationship between the hole at the front, the hole at the back etc, is identical every time.
Craig: We get out at the end, what we design at the start.
Chris: I can prove that, because when the parts come off the machining centre one of the final stages of the quality control is that it goes through goods out inspection which is basically a CMM or coordinate measuring machine. It’s a big arm with a probe on the end of it. you place your arm in a known orientation on the bed. You get hold of the arm and you go round the bore: beep, beep, beep. Inside, outside. You build up a 3D map of the thing. You then get your CAD model. You put it into the CMM and you match the points that you’ve beeped with the points on the CAD model which tells you whether you have the right point. You then get your drawing and you measure this face to that face and you ask is that what this thing is actually at? That’s when it goes out of the door. Most of the other manufacturers apply the tolerance to it prior to welding and then set the part during welding, and that’s ahy you have Park Tools making a range of tools to face bottom brackets, disc mounts, head tubes.
Craig: It’s not a blasé attitude from the other manufacturers. The route that they’ve opted to go destroys the tolerances and then it’s an element of how much can be retrieved. We’re starting from something that’s pretty accurate to begin with and implanting the tolerances onto it as the very final stage. Not even going to anodising afterwards so there’s no heat introduction, no force. And it still gets checked after that! When people use the phrase aerospace quality, that’s what you’re getting.
Chris: we’re trying to make it the best way we can, which happens to be the way which you make these parts. So for somebody like KTM or Honda when they build their products on an assembly line, every single product that comes down that line, every nut, bolt, washer, the lot, has to go into that assembly identically every time or the production line will stop. If the line stops we’re all losing money. We’ve taken the elements that are relevant to a bicycle frame and applied them to that frame. This is a distinctly different attitude to the manufacturing of the same product. We’ve come at it 180º. When people look at the bike, how are they supposed to know that all this thought has been put into it? The initial thing is I hate it, I like it, I love it etc.
Craig: it gets dumbed down too much by people with a little bit of technical knowledge. Yes, there’s value in doing it that way because you remove the welds. Well no: removing the welds is a by-product of productionising it. We didn’t have an issue with the hydroforming process with the welds, the mainstream manufacturers have taken it to an extremely high level but as Chris proposed to produce a bicycle frame from three parts, not thirty, and I can see with the motorbikes that I own that a company as big as Honda is going that route, then it was stupid not to explore the concept.
Chris: When we start we don’t know we can make it from three parts. We know we can make a swingarm in one part, but what’s the rest of the design? It could have been physically impossible to make the mainframe in one part. What would we have done then? We’d have had to make it in multiple parts, bonding it and bolting it as Lotus, Jaguar and Aston Martin are doing with their structures, or shock of horror, welding it together. As it worked out, it is possible physically, financially, viably to make it in one piece so why wouldn’t you do it? That’s our attitude.
Craig: The mentality of not copying design elements but the mentality of what the motorbike guys are doing is really interesting. Once you get switched on to it, you can look at it and see that where there was possibly five or six different looks for mounting chain rollers picking up the engine casing, mounting the stand, airbox mountings: all these brackets have disappeared and been integrated into a single casting. They know that all those, relative to each other, are in a fixed position. So the whole issues of accuracy, cost, assembly… it’s a win-win situation.
Chris: we have found time and time again that people who ride mountain bikes don’t go to the NEC motorcycle show, they don’t look at the back end of a Buell like Craig and I have done. They don’t lie on the floor under a KTM and look at the push-off points for production castings. We seem to be the only ones. We can’t be the only ones: there must be somebody else in the world who thinks like we do. But today, we can’t see them. So we’ve done it: it exists!
What are the greatest benefits of building frames this way?
Chris: We can genuinely make it in the UK. We would not want that to change.
Craig: For the foreseeable future there’s no reason to move abroad. Traditionally that has been done for the cheap labour. But it takes a specific skill set, for which the UK still retains, and I think for the quality control it’s the ideal product to have made over here. Effectively we’re using the aerospace industry to produce a bicycle product and the UK has been a good base for the aerospace or F1 end of the market.
Chris: the trick in this has been to productionise these monstrously high value components. If you’re building an Airbus are you really too fussed that the thing costs £50 more. You are on the overall build, but the price of the thing is such that you’re not having heart failure if the cost goes up £20. We don’t work in that environment. We have to have a viable product to take to market which has to be built to a price. The hard part has been to find the right people that can do the right quality at the right price with the right lead times and then operate in this automotive way of getting everything in and bolting it all together. Us being a specialist in the design element, which is the key really, and buy in the highly specific services for all the other things we want putting into the thing.
Craig: I think the other benefit of using this technology is it puts us in a very good position to capitalise on future developments in the bicycle industry. Gearboxes are one thing people have talked a lot about. I think it’s accepted that it’s a going to be a when not if they come along. The integration of the gearbox into our frame will be far more aesthetically pleasing, will be structurally beneficial and the overlap of components won’t be necessary so there will be a weight saving to be had. It will fit that type of gearing system exceptionally well. Another thing that might go hand in hand with that are the belt drive systems. So we’re not reliant on those things coming along. But would our production style suit those better than the chopping up and re-gluing of tubing and then trying to put a gearbox into that framework, while we can just create a mould that incorporates it straight away? Yes our production would be far, far better suited.
Chris: and obviously the aesthetics, whichever way you cut it is a huge part of selling a product because it’s a fashion-driven market. Now the fashion can work for us or against us, but it’s our job to design a product that fits the market that people want to buy. Our product looks very different to many products that are out there and it’s going to take some time, we feel, for people to warm to the product. Hopefully the performance – that is a genuine performance because of the bearing arrangements that we have and the structural rigidity of the components that we’ve created and you can feel it when you ride it – hopefully the whole package will sell itself and the test riders and the general public will feel that there is an improvement and they’re not just making something to be different. Which has been levelled at us.
Craig: I think that a lot of the public has been reserved about what we’ve shown to them because we’ve almost put ourselves in the category of a car manufacturer when they turn out something particularly spectacular at the Geneva motor show. The difference is we’ve got this concept vehicle that they all think looks fantastic, and yes you can buy it and use it. It’s available, you can use it, yet it looks completely different to everything else in the marketplace.
Hopefully the time is right to have this product now, because there’s countless stories of products that are ahead of their time that have failed because the public doesn’t want it. They’re quite happy with what they have. We’ve got to get that across to them.
What were the biggest challenges?
Chris: I think the biggest fundamental challenge is that you have absolutely no way of plagiarising anybody else’s work. I don’t mean that in a bad way: we all know everybody buys everybody else’s product. Chops them up, has a ride, finds out what materials they’re using. There’s nothing out there to get a gauge off of. The geometry: yeah, but we started from a blank piece of paper and we have slowly gone out there and found our own data and information to create the product that we have today.
Craig: There have been advantages as well which at the time certainly didn’t seem like advantages. But the clean sheet of paper has meant we’ve gone back to basics. We could genuinely put down what we thought was required for this particular product, and it was only if we couldn’t do it that we’d strike it off the list. Thankfully nothing that went down on the list we couldn’t overcome.
Chris: That’s not to say that we’ve done it: end of. We’ve learnt as much today as we’ve learnt last year. It may be different things but it never stops. You’re always finding out more stuff and there are now stages because we’ve done one. Now we have to incorporate it into the next stage. Like all of our competitors. But the stuff that we learn may be different to the stuff that they’re learning about they’re product.
Craig: We’re adopting technology that’s used elsewhere and we know has relevance to what we are trying to do, but we are blazing a trail that others will follow. Yes, there were a lot of problems that we had to overcome. Going from initial idea to getting prototype out we were able to progress with reasonably quickly. Getting it to production where everyone is turned out as a works piece has been quite a challenge, but we’ve achieved that and we’re really pleased that every one that’s going out in a box is, as far as we’re concerned, perfect.
Chris: we would want to own it. If the day arrives that we put something in a box that we don’t want to own, is the day we walk away.
How long does it take to build a frame from start to finish? There are stages to each element of the manufacture. The mould creation has a time, the casting itself happens instantly in front of you and you go from a block of sand to holding the basics of a frame in front of you in five minutes. From there on in there’s a lot of time, the heat treatment takes nearly 20 hours per part, the shot blasting takes X amount of time, the machining takes X amount of time…
Craig: It’s being done in batches, so it’s hard but again, with the product we’ve currently got we can pick up the phone and, providing it fits in with the foundry, we could have 50 frames in two weeks time. The turnaround can be very, very good.
What does the future hold for this process/material?
Chris: the key for us is that we’re creating a moulded product, not a fabricated product. If you look at the evolution of a lot of products, you’ll see that they’ve gone from lots of bits added together to the moulded product. That’s what we want to continue to explore: the moulded element of creating a bicycle.
Craig: I think to date we’ve been tagged as the cast bicycle company, which is an accurate description because of what we are currently doing, but the thing we try and correct people on is that it’s a moulded piece. We can afford to go with the material development, but what will be certain is that style of production is the way it should be done. It’s relevant to virtually every other consumer product I look at and as Chris said, you go so far with fabrication and you hit a wall: you can’t go any further.
Chris: who says it has to look like that? Right now the other manufacturers say it has to look like that because of their process primarily, but who says it does?
Craig: With being the moulded bicycle company, we’re positioning ourselves to utilise further development in materials outside what’s currently offered composite-wise. I think the market will warm to it: they’ve warmed to the idea that suspension forks with tubular lowers and bolted pieces have gone and they’ve made way for cast lowers. Virtually all mbr readers will be running a casting on their bike. I think we’ll be in a position to produce something far more mass market further down the line as regards travel. So five-six inch travel bike. The gearbox technology will be able to run hand-in-hand in that. There are other things that we’ve been looking at that our particular production technique will definitely fit. We could produce something that looks radically different within the next 12 months, but it’s got to fit the components that are readily available and also what the market is ready to accept.
Chris: we don’t have a factory: we are not tied to a press or a punch. If the technology moves away from precision sand casting to whatever, we go out there and source that technology just the same as Airbus would. As long as we can produce it cost-effectively, why do we want to be tied to machines and a factory. This is the fundamental difference in attitude between us and most of the brands out there.
Subscribe to MBR today and get this jacket worth £49.99 for free!