The UK doesn’t just win gold medals for riding bicycles – the UK’s bike-manufacturing sector is undergoing a renaissance, and establishing itself as a production winner. James Lawson reports.
At first glance, the once-proud British bicycle industry is a sad sight. Famous UK bike makers have disappeared or become just a label on an Asian import. Raleigh, once the world’s largest manufacturer, now makes not a single bike in the UK.
Contemporary brands like Islabike, Stanton and Bird might be designed and even assembled in the UK, but the frame, forks and most other parts are made in Asia. Even London’s Boris Bikes and their docking stations are built in Canada.
But that’s where the bad news ends. Pashley, Orange, Mercian, Shand and many others are building thousands of complete bicycles in Britain. Brompton, the largest UK producer, makes tens of thousands of bikes in its new London factory every year.
Vast quantities of components, clothing and accessories flow from Fibrax, Renthal, Exposure, Rapha and many others. Fuelled by a 25% rise in bike use over the past decade, and the UK’s taste for high-end machines, innovation, design and manufacturing are growing apace.
However, it’s tough to improve on the traditional ‘diamond’ frame design. To advance, UK manufacturers are looking to composites and materials like titanium and graphene, marrying traditional techniques like casting, milling and turning with carbon fibre layup, robot automation and additive manufacturing (AM).
Although far from widespread due to its cost, AM is well established in this industry. Charge produced frame dropouts at EADS Airbus’s Filton Centre for Additive Manufacturing back in 2012.
In 2015, Empire designed (and Renishaw printed) the MX6-EVO prototype – the world’s first AM bike frame. Built in titanium and stunningly light, it generated endless press coverage. The production version is equally eye-catching, employing Empire’s award-winning cast aluminium frame.
“It’s a one-piece casting that we then machine, so the tolerances are brilliant,” says Empire’s managing director, Chris Williams. “It’s light and incredibly stiff so performs very well.”
“AM is still expensive compared to machining,” he continues. “It needs to be a complex component that couldn’t be manufactured any other way or that is more attractive from a branding point of view.”
For both those reasons, AM is the lynchpin of Robot Bikes’ new R160 mountain bike frame. This employs 3D-printed titanium lugs which are bonded (via intricate double lap joints) to straight carbon tubes.
“AM lets us make a high-end frame without using moulds in exactly the right size for each person,” says Robot’s CEO, Ed Haythornthwaite. “Without AM, it would be pretty much impossible to make the lugs. It’s great for small complex products and the cost will only fall.”
But unusual materials and designs can sometimes struggle in what is essentially a conservative market. Mainly for reasons of fashion, Empire is now moving to a more conventional machined aluminium frame. assembled using both welding and structural adhesives.
“These adhesives are ridiculously strong,” says Williams. “Removing the heat avoids distortion so you get a more accurate, consistent part.”
Machined aluminium alloy components, both anodised and sparkling, is what Hope Technology has built a very successful business on. Expert at matching capacity to demand, the company runs small batch production on over 60 milling machines, lathes, laser cutters and other state-of-the-art equipment. Robotised pallet loading and brake disc heat treatment helps boost efficiency.
“One guy runs six machines which work 24/7,” says sales and marketing manager, Alan Weatherill. “But because we work with small batches of six to nine parts, it’s still a highly manual process.”
In its recent move to carbon production, the company has been able to draw on experience within the domestic bike and other industries. “There’s a wealth of knowledge on composites in the UK from sectors like aerospace,” says Weatherill.
Dassi has also exploited this expertise, with its carbon frame and forks made by a Formula One supplier. The difference here is the prepreg (preimpregnated fibres with a thermoset polymer matrix such as epoxy, and supplied by South Wales-based Perpetuus) contains graphene.
“We wanted to produce monocoque frames with aero geometry [complex tube profiles] without increasing weight and we stumbled across graphene,” says founder and CEO, Stuart Abbott. “We immediately took 260g out of our road frameset, that’s a 25% weight reduction.”
Adding just 1% graphene to the epoxy resin gives more carbon-to-resin adhesion, a claimed 70% greater inter-laminar shear strength and “50% more fracture toughness”. Dassi also employs AM to produce graphite and aluminium frame fittings.
Numerous cycle companies have trialled graphene, but the challenge has been to retain its performance advantages when scaling up from the nano-level. Only Italian manufacturer Vittoria has put graphene into production tyres and wheels. So, is this as much about marketing as it is performance?
“A little sizzle always sells, but graphene has many benefits,” says Abbott. “It helps cancel out road buzz, there’s over 60% less vibration. We’re currently researching the mechanism that causes that.”
Following F1 practice, the company uses carbon rather than metal moulds. As both frame and mould heat and cool at the same rate, the frame is less likely to twist during curing.
This labour-intensive process makes for an expensive product: the finished frameset costs £6,000. “You can’t automate carbon layup – or bike welding – and we can’t pay someone $25 a day like they do in Asia,” says Abbott.
Automation and reshoring
Where automation is possible, it’s helping companies like Superstar compete head to head with Asian cycle parts suppliers. Putting his money where his mouth is, managing director, Neil Wilkinson has now reshored most of his production to Lincolnshire.
“It takes well over three weeks to machine 600 pedal bodies with a human loader who does nothing most of the time,” says Wilkinson. “With automation, it takes three days.”
As well as selling his own-branded components direct, Wilkinson plans to let other vendors white label them – increasing his share of the market. With a lead time of three or four weeks, he reckons he can match or beat Asia on price.
In a joint venture with an aerospace supplier, Brompton has reshored titanium manufacturing for its Superlight model from Russia to Sheffield. Investing in automatic orbital welding to join titanium tubes has helped bring down labour costs.
At its main London factory, Brompton employs three bespoke auto-brazing sets that attach the substantial cast hinge onto the frame. The whole jig rotates to evenly distribute heat from multiple gas burners while cameras monitor metal colour to ensure the correct temperature.
“You need to get enough heat in it without distorting the thin-walled tube,” explains COO, Paul Williams. “We’re a mix of Edwardian and very modern technology.”
Brompton’s volumes justify sophisticated in-house capabilities, but subcontracting small or even large orders locally can be a struggle. Robot Bikes reluctantly went to New Zealand for its carbon tubes while forged parts like pedal axles are particularly tough to source economically in the UK.
“Bike parts are medium volume with high tolerances, but a very low price,” says Wilkinson, describing aerospace suppliers as “astronomically expensive”.
“When I tried subbing parts out, the quotes to machine the pedal bodies were more than I sold the whole pedal for. To get the right price, the big suppliers want a 10-year contract with a million parts a month.”
“SKF were the only ones who responded to my request for a bearing quote,” he continues. “Now I buy £300,000 worth of bearings every year.”
But there are still plenty of UK suppliers whose prices and lead times match or outperform Asia. Hope’s Weatherill cites a local seal maker while Robot’s Haythornthwaite praises Renishaw’s approach: “They let you use AM machines by the hour. We’d like to see more initiatives like that.”
The recently plunging pound has given a helping hand to all the manufacturers interviewed. A low exchange rate plus stagnant or lower wages in a post- Brexit UK could be good news for those that add most of their value here – even with European tariffs. As Asian production costs rise and automation increases, reshoring may look still more attractive.
“When the pound was at $1.20, we were 20% cheaper than Asia,” says Wilkinson. “Brexit is the stupidest idea ever, but I can see competitive advantages for our company.”
But rather than bespoke high-end models, the real engineering challenge is to produce competitive mid-range and entry-level bikes domestically. However, automation has its limits and overcoming the cost of hand-building frames is the big hurdle.
Though some Chinese and Portuguese firms are getting there, no-one anywhere yet uses robots to handle the whole frame-building job. It looks like cyclists will still have to pay handsomely to ride elegant UK-made bikes for a long time yet.
Brompton – AM for R&D
Designed in 1975 and produced since 1981, Brompton’s production of its renowned folding bike really took off a decade ago. Output has grown at 20% annually ever since to reach 46,000. 75% are exported, many sold through 10 Brompton Junction-branded stores located from Tokyo to Munich.
In 2016, the company invested £2m in a new Greenford, West London facility. There, each customer’s bike is made to order from around 16 million possible permutations. A sophisticated, barcode-based component tracking system built in-house enables this mass customisation.
Brompton use additive manufacturing (AM)to make jigs, fixing and moulds for the factory but not for production parts as yet.
3D printing arrived in R&D seven years ago, allowing quick iteration of prototype parts like brake levers to test their functional and ergonomic fit. The company recently worked with Williams Advanced Engineering to develop its first e-bike.
With London’s high cost of living, recruiting engineers and other specialist staff at the right rate is a serious challenge. The 50 workers that braze their frames together and the titanium welders employed in Sheffield are all trained in-house via apprenticeships.
Hope Technology – keeping it all in-house
Starting in aerospace machining in the late 1980s, Hope Technology has expanded steadily, turning over £15m in 2016 and posting 20% growth. Last year, the company produced 85,000 wheel hubs, 30,000 brake callipers and discs, and 25,000 finished wheels among many other products. Just under half go for export.
As 95% of its processes are in-house and it holds a sizeable supply of raw materials, there’s always something Hope can make to keep its machine shop running. With a constant stream of back order to fill, it aims for almost zero finished stock and makes to order. Once a part is machined and anodised, it goes out the next day.
After years of testing, the company moved into carbon production in 2017. It now makes 200 of its £7,500 HB.211 carbon-framed machines annually, as well as many more carbon handlebars and seat posts.
Displaying Yorkshire pragmatism, Hope uses a standard household freezer to store its prepreg in. Its toolmaking expertise meant it could make its own moulds, costing “considerably less” than the up to £60,000 quoted to make each one in Asia.
Robot Bikes – bespoke high-end
Founded in 2013 by four college friends, Robot Bikes’ output numbers in the tens rather than the thousands. But with each mountain bike costing £7,500, mass production was never the plan.
The design employs 3D-printed titanium lugs to handle high, complex loads, connected by light, stiff, unidirectional-fibre carbon tubes. Working with modelling specialists, Altair, to optimise the shape of the lugs, along with additive manufacturing (AM) experts, Hieta and Renishaw, allowed Robot to build a prototype very quickly.
AM also lets them make bikes to order, with lugs arriving ready to assemble apart from a little hand finishing.
Carbon tubes are all they need to stock. Robot inputs each customer’s fit and handling requirements to its CAD package that then automatically produces customised design geometry. Production is straightforward: cut and bond the tubes, install bearings and seals, then build up the bikes with wheels, brakes, gears and other components.
Superstar – CNC-based reshoring
Superstar started out selling imported bike parts on eBay back in 2006, later making high-value items like disc brake pads and pedals in Taiwan. But as Taiwan’s costs rose and lead times lengthened from 30 days to 7 months, reshoring looked attractive.
The first milling machine arrived in 2011. The company now has 12 CNC machines at its Lincolnshire base making everything from pedals to chainrings. They use fully-automated robot production cells, with robots also employed for tasks like screwing pins into pedals.
The latest set of four CNC machines and robot loaders are customised specifically to make wheel hubs, boosting production speed by up to 10-times over general-purpose manual machines. Costing £1m, they can make 25,000 hubs a year – or more with weekend and shift working.