Over the last two decades, every sporting discipline has benefited from new technological advances and material composites. Yet one can argue that because of the sheer complexities of cycling equipment, perhaps the bike industry has benefited from these modern trends more than other sports.
How do today’s bike manufacturers cope with such rapid technological developments and what is in store for the near future? Claudio Salomoni (Product Manager) and Marco Genovese (Engineer) of the Wilier Triestina bicycle brand were kind enough to provide the answers.
The Modern Challenges in Bike Design
Nowadays, anyone shopping for a bike either on the Internet or at their local bike shop will hear/read at least one or more of these terms: Stiffer, Lighter, more Aero.
But at each company’s headquarters, another goal is ever present – manufacturing cost-effectiveness. And in it lies the main challenge for an engineering team of a large bike manufacturer.
Claudio Salomoni, how do these key goals in modern bike design intersect with the need to control production costs?
You are right, cost control is important but it is only one of the aspects that we must work with. Because we are a smaller bike manufacturer, this aspect is even more important for us because we often do not benefit from the economies of scale that bigger manufacturers are able to enjoy due to their large production volumes.
That being said, when we work on a new bike, we always start with a “dream” – the idea of the bike and what it should be like. From there, we step back into the real world and move into the ‘compromises’ area where the initial idea may just be too expensive to realize, or a new technique may be too difficult to produce, or a material proves to be unsuitable. So, it is all about defining where to shave off and where not to.
Yeah, sure, you can build the ‘Ultimate bike’ but it will cost double or even more. You may sell a few units but you will not save the company!
This is true in many ways for all the other bike manufacturers at the upper level of the bike industry. We all produce bikes, which are rather similar in nature, to be honest. Yet some people will pay more for certain brands and less for others.
And if you look in the past, it was the same thing – everyone was using Columbus steel tubing and there was not much of a difference between individual bikes.
You mentioned the word ‘stiffness’ and I want to say that at Wilier, yes, this is an important factor for us but we are not pushing that concept at all costs. The stiffness-to-weight ratio is an important data to look at, I think. We believe in the ‘right stiffness’ instead as it will provide you with a more comfortable ride.
Another concept which we push is called ‘balanced design’ where for each size of a bike frame, the overall dimensions in length and width of tubing are slightly different. This process initially starts with a medium-size bike frame as it is the standard size. From there, we adjust. This way, an XXS and an XXL bike frame will keep the same stiffness properties as the medium size one but their respective properties will slightly differ.
Carbon is currently the material of choice for all large bike manufacturers starting at the mid-level price range and it is literally everywhere. At the lower spectrum of the scale, aluminium is ever present and seems to be regaining traction for top-level bikes due to the latest manufacturing processes. Think hydro-forming or the new welding techniques which allow manufacturers to make bikes frames, which closely compete with their carbon-based siblings. A good example of this would be the Multiple World Champion Peter Sagan riding an aluminium bike at the Tour Down Under in Australia this year.
As far as other materials are concerned, steel is largely confined to custom bike builders while titanium fits the tastes of connoisseurs with a high-end budget at hand.
How do you see the market evolve in the upcoming years in regard to new material composites?
Marco Genovese: A really good question. Honestly, I see that the recent innovations are just technology-related, so based on developments in manufacturing techniques more than on new materials. So far, regarding composite materials, the innovations are still slow. Carbon fibres are the same. Sometimes we see some new addition to the overall compounds but the specifics are still more or less the same.
Claudio Salomoni: If you look at the bike industry, it all pretty much started with steel, then we all moved to aluminium, and now it is carbon and resins. In 2011, we started using a slightly different composite, it was not just carbon but a kind of melt into the carbon fibre that increased the strength against shocks and improved damping properties, which then translated into a more comfortable ride. This is the future, I think. Not sure as to which material(s) it will be, however.
This is an interesting point because as we see it, one of the carbon’s main disadvantages is impact resistance. For an amateur cyclist, dropping your bike on tarmac may result in frame integrity deterioration.
Claudio Salomoni: Absolutely! And this is why the whole industry is working on improving this via the addition of new composites into carbon fibres and resin. It will take the form of nanoparticles/nanofibre solutions, which are like small bubbles integrated in-between the layers in order to help with absorbing shocks.
We are here talking about all of these so-called ‘exotic materials’ such as nanocellulose and others. We are looking into these with our partners in Asia as a possibility.
And what about the newest trends in bike-frame manufacturing?
Claudio Salomoni: Who knows! And if you do, please, tell me. (smiling) Seriously, however, what I do know is that there is a lot of talk about the newest advances in 3D printing where the bike industry may benefit from in the future.
As a side note, Marco won an Award at the #Eurobike for having designed a rideable MTB bike made out of recycled plastics. So you know, in my opinion, 3D is definitely a trend worth watching.
In the same vein, some are claiming that it is possible to print carbon. Today this is still not a reality but it is definitely there. The main advantage of 3D printing for all bike manufacturers would be a significant drop in production costs as it would remove the expensive manual mould building. Nobody is there yet as the concept is still in the labs but it is definitely a possibility for the future.
This leads me to another question regarding the costly R&D development process: how do you usually work with your Asian-based partners?
Claudio Salomoni: It is essentially a two-way process where some ideas will come from them and some from us. This is based on daily exchanges with them. It is not like we place an order and wait for the shipment to arrive.