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Why The Best Mountain Bikes Are Built By Skilled Workers – Not Machines

Why the best mountain bikes are built by skilled workers – not machines

Why the best mountain bikes are built by skilled workers - not machines

In a world of automation and additive manufacturing, the cycling industry still relies mostly on skilled workers. Whether you desire a metal or carbon-fibre dream bike, skilled welders and technicians make it. Not robots. The more advanced carbon-fibre road and mountain bike frame production becomes, the more important it is to have workers with the required hand skills. The bicycle might be a very mature industrial design, but the best bikes are still made by people – not machines. On Workers’ Day it is worth reflecting on how and where the best bicycles are made. The bicycle frame is paradoxically simple and complex. In principle, every bicycle is simply two triangles joined together, with axles at each end, for wheels to slot into. Despite the bicycle’s design elegance and simplicity, production has remained mostly unautomated . For metal bikes, master welders still join the tubes to make those frames. And since the advent of carbon-fibre, specific composite layup skills have become even more important. Most of the world’s best road and mountain bikes are made from carbon-fibre. And those bikes’ construction is geolocated in deep Southeastern Asia. Taiwan has been an epicentre of advanced bicycle frame production for decades. Like the Swiss luxury watch industry, artisan skills are appreciated in mountain bike production. With boutique steel frames priced at a premium. (Photo: REEB Bikes) News24 How Taiwan became a Giant Taiwanese bicycle industry fabricators are known as some of the world’s most skilled aluminium welders. But how did Taiwan become such as powerhouse in bicycle frame production? It was all thanks to the once-dominant American bicycle brand, Schwinn. Seeking more affordable production costs at an increased scale, Schwinn contracted the manufacturing of its bicycle frames to Giant Industries, in Taiwan. After a few years, Giant Industries has the confidence to attempt bicycle frame design and marketing of its own, knowing that it has the staff skills to weld world-class frames. The rest is history. Schwinn is now a historical niche brand, and Giant is effectively the world’s most influential bicycle company, with a broad portfolio of products. Composites are tricky to work with and require precision craftspeople. American brand, Ibis, has brought some of its carbon frame production back to California, from Asia. (Photo: Ibis Bikes) News24 China workers are crucial – obviously Across the disputed Taiwan Strait, Chinese contract manufacturers have become the resource of choice for many American and European cycling brands. Carbon-fibre bikes require meticulous layup skills to prevent voids and bubbles forming in the frame structures during curing. Disciplined and skilled Chinese labour has proved to be the ideal production asset for global cycling brands, as the demand for carbon bikes has increased over the last decade. But what about skilled workers outside Asia? Surely there must be great welders and composite fabricators in other parts of the world? There are. This image illustrates the layered complexity of carbon mountain bike production. These are all the bits required to make a single Unno frame. (Photo: Unno Bikes) News24 Bringing frame production back to Europe In Europe, there has been a reshoring of advanced carbon-fibre bicycle production. These frames might be expensive, but they are made to a remarkably high standard, with precision material sourcing and the ethical disposal of offcuts. The benefit of carbon-fibre as a structural material depends on the precision of its layering. The better your composite technicians and workers are, the more precise the frame joints and layering will be – creating a superior frame. One that rides with better comfort, more accurate steering, and superior trail feedback. Unno is regarded as making some of the world’s most advanced mountain bike frames in carbon-fibre. It all happens in the Unno design and production office, located in Barcelona. Traditional steel frames road and mountain bikes are heavier than aluminium or carbon-fibre, and often similarly priced. But they have terrific durability, and there is an artistry to welding steel that harks back to the first mountain bikes made by Tom Ritchey. An eye for detail and feel for precision tooling, makes for a skilled carbon-fibre layup technician. (Photo: Ibis Bikes) News24 Ibis flying with its Californian carbon factory Some American brands have also started reshoring the carbon-fibre bike production. Although Asian contractor manufacturing has perceived cost benefits, labour rates are rising in China and Vietnam. Ibis is one of mountain biking’s original brands, dating back to 1981. Renowned for its innovative frame shapes and bold industrial design, Ibis is also one of the very […]

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Daisie Hobson

Daisie Hobson is a Director at the Reshoring Institute and an engineer with many years of experience in manufacturing and project management.

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