Back in 2014, we began the process of building a small carbon fiber lab in our Santa Cruz, California Headquarters. The goal was to experiment with new manufacturing technologies, materials, and processes. If the concepts worked, we could port them over to our manufacturing partners in Asia.
We looked at every process, step by step, and searched for ways we could improve the product, reduce the overall build time, and make the process more environmentally friendly. In the back of our minds, we also wanted to assess the feasibility of producing carbon fiber frames in-house without raising our prices.
US production is more expensive primarily due to the cost of labor. There are forty hours of labor that go into your typical carbon fiber full suspension frame. The front triangle alone may require up to twenty four hours of labor from layup through painting. To make US production feasible, we needed to reduce that quantity of time.
We theorized that if we could improve the quality of the frame coming out of the mold, we could reduce the amount of time it takes to finish (putty, primer, and paint) frames. This would mean bringing aerospace levels of precision to the layup design, prepreg cutting, hand layup, molding, and bonding steps.
One of the ways we’ve tackled this problem is by adjusting our layup patterns. Our Asian made Ripley front triangles use over three hundred and fifty pieces of precut carbon shapes. Our US made front triangles use around a hundred.
Each of these is pieces uses a shape that’s more precise than can typically be achieved. These minor adjustments help us reduce weight and layup time while increasing structural efficiency. Our California made Ripley’s take 40% less time to produce than their regular counterparts and are roughly 150g lighter.
To reduce the labor hours that drastically, we built over twenty five prototypes of the Ripley LS front triangle. Each time, we tweaked our preformed carbon layup just a little, to help eliminate any high or low spots that would require extra sanding or fillers. The end result is a frame that’s close to perfect when it emerges from the mold.
Another critical aspect of our process is the mold. Most factories utilize steel molds which can easily weigh several hundred pounds. They’re inserted into a heated platen press, which brings the mold to curing temperature. We don’t use a gigantic platen press.
Instead, we’ve integrated the heating cores and sensors into an aluminum mold, which allows us to more precisely control the temperature/time and pressure/time profiles. A major advantage of using aluminum is that it requires less energy to heat and cool. We also hollow out our tools whenever possible, which further reduces the thermal mass (less energy to achieve operating temperature).
The Carbon 831 Lab has allowed to experiment with a wide variety of new tools, techniques, and materials. It’s served as a test bed for new ideas, as well as a place to do small scale fabrication. The first project to emerge from our lab is the size small Ripley LS.
This frame is lighter, stiffer, and takes less time to produce than our regular Ripley. The small Ripley LS production technology improves all our frames and is the first step toward future US production of an entire new model.