In 2014, we built a small carbon fiber prototype lab. Our goal was to expand our knowledge of different manufacturing techniques and to explore the possibility of US manufacturing. We began by examining every step. We tested new materials, mandrels, and tooling technologies with the goal of finding efficiencies, process improvements, and becoming more environmentally friendly.
After two years of experimentation, we developed a formula that allowed us to cut the standard 86 hours of total manufacturing time down to 34. With those time efficiencies, we could theoretically build frames in the United States for nearly the same price as our overseas models.
To see if that was feasible, we began a pilot production program with one size of one model. That first bike, the size small Ripley LS, was a success; the frame was lighter, stiffer, and took less time to produce than our vendor-produced Ripley LS. It also taught us what we would need to scale. So we bought a building and set to work creating a factory.
For our first US-made bike, we decided to focus on a category where every gram matters. We built a World Cup cross-country capable race bike. The all-new Ibis Exie is designed to maximize the benefits of the molding and layup techniques we developed when making the US-made Ripley LS.
We revisited and refined every detail along the way and challenged ourselves to hit even more challenging weight and stiffness targets. We also improved aspects of our original tooling, from how we heat the molds to the hinges and clamping mechanism.
Here’s how we did it:
Our overseas factories use automated material cutters to cut generic shapes in their layups. We took the process further, by developing specific patterns for each frame size, reducing the overall number of parts by 70%. This cuts our layup time in half, while also enabling weight savings and improving the strength of the final frame.
We rethought the molding process, starting with the tools themselves. Typical carbon factories use steel tools weighing several hundred pounds and moved via crane or rollers. These tools are put in large heated presses and baked by conductive heating through contact with the platens.
Our tools are aluminum with a clear hardcoat anodized finish. Using aluminum instead of steel helps reduce thermal mass and weight, so the tools require less energy to heat. Each tool has electrical cartridge heaters and sensors built in and can be powered by a standard 220V household circuit.
The energy efficiency of our self-heated, low thermal mass tools allow us to use the sun to power the entire facility. The 282 panel solar system currently generates 60% more power than we use, which is fed back into the local grid reducing the need for non-renewable energy generated elsewhere.
The unique design of our tools also allows careful control of the cure cycle. Our ability to control the thermal and pressure maps is key in achieving our desired strength, weight, and surface finish quality. These specific settings are programmed into a controller which keeps things running within a couple degrees of our targeted temperatures and pressures. You simply press “Start” and the cycle runs through its program accurately and consistently.
We strive for the best out-of-the-tool finish possible. Our careful work during the layup and molding process eliminates extra work later in the finishing process. At a normal carbon facility, the process of adding filler, primer, sanding, primer, clear coat, and decals requires at least a day of labor. Our precisely designed carbon patterns and careful layup procedure allow our frames to be pulled out of the molds requiring minimal finish work. Our frames are then finished with a thin, lightweight polymer coating and decals, providing a tough finish that shows off the beautiful layup work. This saves time and further reduces the weight compared to a standard painted frame.
Building our own manufacturing facility wasn’t easy, but the knowledge we gained was invaluable. By examining every step, we were able to improve our knowledge, our designs, and our manufacturing process. This ability to rapidly build and test new frames has encouraged experimentation and accelerated our product development. Everything we’ve learned and developed here, will help us make better products — whether they’re produced by one of our vendors or in our own factory in the United States.