Big Stones, Little Rocks

Big Stones, Little Rocks

When I went to visit Allied Cycle Works, I had some idea what I’d see. I knew I’d see carbon fiber frame production, some offices and a paint booth, at minimum. I wasn’t really sure how much of any of that I’d see in detail. It turns out, I needn’t have wondered. Short of climbing in the paint booth with Jim Cunningham, I saw pretty much everything there was to see.

So why the lack of an NDA, a lack of any sort of secrecy? Simple. To CEO Tony Karklins, there’s no mystery to carbon fiber frame production. None of the techniques involved are closely held trade secrets. They are using many of the same techniques you see in frames like the Cervelo Rca. What separates a frame like the Allied Cycle Works Alfa from the Rca is just how far they are willing to push the envelope. And what separates the Alfa from the vast majority of production frames is the layup and the skill of the production staff.

With the exception of the Inegra, which is used to provide a small measure of damping and impact resistance, the Alfa is made with what the industry commonly refers to as intermediate modulus carbon fiber. They aren’t using any crazy ultra-high-modulus fibers. But where many factories will only allow square or rectangular sheets to be cut at 0, 45 and 90 degrees, the Alfa features sheets cut in a wide variety of shapes depending on the position of the layer in the layup, and they cut in a greater variety of angles than most factories will allow.

Here’s something I never knew about producing carbon fiber frames in a factory you don’t own: While there could be exceptions, normally the layup schedule that may have been modeled carefully by the bike company’s engineers is ultimately determined by the factory. The engineers may want some plies oriented at 22.5 degrees, but the factory may tell them to pound sand. Worse, whatever that layup schedule might ultimately be, however compromised from the engineer’s original vision it is, that schedule is the factory’s intellectual property, not the bike company’s. That works out fine for Giant, but not for virtually everyone else.

Removing a mold from the platen.

Part of the advantage to offering nothing but squares and rectangles is that the factory can use a large die to cut large sheets into much smaller ones—kerchunk! Nested strategically, it’s possible to end up with zero waste. Crazy efficient, right? Yes, except you end up with fiber inside the frame that is doing nothing to aid in the bike’s structure. It’s material that could have been trimmed from a ply before it ever got added to the frame. Sam Pickman, the head of engineering walked me through how you don’t have to use crazy materials if you use only as much material as necessary and lay it up to make sure the plies are oriented to account for the stresses that a frame encounters.

There’s a room in which a large plotter zips over a table cutting large sheets into much smaller ones. As it makes each cut it goes back and writes a number on the sheet to show which step in the process it corresponds to. All these sheets are then stacked together in what’s called a kit. There are kits for each different process: top tube, seat tube, down tube, fork, bottom bracket, main triangle, etc.

The BB shell must be bonded in and the frame is heated to allow alignment.

These kits are delivered to a room next door where a team of women produce each of the components that goes into a frameset. Karklins told me that when he began building the team at HIA Velo he set out to bring together the most diverse workforce in the industry. He wanted to be an example to others of what was possible. Alas, his workforce isn’t quite as diverse as he’d hoped. While you can hear two different languages spoken in the facility, the production staff are entirely female and almost exclusively hispanic. As much as he wanted a diverse array of people, what he found is that his most detail-oriented and conscientious workers who were least likely to decide they could dream up a better way were the hispanic women. Which is to say they performed the best work at the highest rate of production.

The Alfa is laid up in three sections. The main triangle is molded as a single piece. That’s the single biggest section you can produce without creating colossal headaches for how to get the mylar bladders out once the frame is complete. Something else I didn’t know: How you position the mylar bladder inside the frame matters big time. position it wrong so that it kinks or is asked to stretch too much and—pow!—it breaks and that can result in a crack at the site of the break.

Head of engineering Sam Pickman walks me through the process for co-molding the rear triangle.

What was interesting to watch was as the various components of a main triangle were added to the mold, the different women who had just laid up the head tube or the down tube, would pick up their finished piece (finished from the standpoint of layup) and walk it over to the mold and work with the person who had finished the piece to which they were joining theirs. They had to work as a team to fit together two flaccid tubes. What I saw of their work spoke of a determined and egoless work ethic.

In addition to the main triangle, the seatstays are molded in another operation, as are the chainstays. The other component is the pair of dropouts which run into the lower third of the seatstays. Once these parts emerge from the four molds, they are assembled together in a jig (they were mostly from Don Ferris’ operation, Anvil) for final bonding. The technique used is pretty common in the industry. The pieces are swabbed with a black epoxy that does not smell like chemical death and secured in the jig to make sure the epoxy hardens in alignment.

Liberal application of epoxy is in order.

Once those six joints have hardened they are then wrapped with carbon fiber and the frame is cured as a whole.

From there the flashing is cleaned off, the surface prepped and then the frame heads to paint.

Right now, Allied is a tiny operation that can’t match the output of even a company like Cervelo. They are utterly dwarfed by an outfit like Trek. But they stress process and attention to detail. Sam told me they are running around 5 percent on their reject rate, maybe a bit more at times, but think they are establishing procedures and practices that will bring them down to as low as 1 percent; he believes it is achievable and is something they can keep even as they scale production.

The joint between the dropouts and seatstays is epoxied and then wrapped in carbon before being baked again.

Having ridden nearly ever über frame on the market, I can say that the Alfa is kin to those bikes. You can have a meaningful discussion of just which bike is best, but you can no longer debate value. Because Allied’s workforce is a fraction of most of its competitors, their costs are much lower, but more important, they’ve built a system that will allow them to hire more people and scale their output without simultaneously driving up cost. It takes some stones to launch something like this.

So at $2700 for a frameset, the only question is why their backlog isn’t two years.

 

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19 comments

  1. adam

    From the website it looks like the frame set price is $3000, and the frame only option is $2700.
    Are they making their own forks?
    Regardless, it seems like good value, I like the looks and am always a fan of anyone who supports local production.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      For $2700 you get a Fibertek fork. For an extra $300 you get the Allied fork, which they make in-house. Sam Pickman is a self-described fork geek; he loves forks, so I’d definitely drop the extra cash for the Allied fork.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Yeah Jim, they do have a test lab there, and while I saw the room, we didn’t really spend much time discussing it.

  2. Geoffrey

    The reason they don’t have a huge backlog is that everyone (meaning me) is waiting for the disc version. 🙂


    1. Author
      Padraig

      There are plenty of folks like you out there. There are still a (surprising?) number of people happy to go with the rim brake version.

  3. Les.B.

    I’ve never heard of a situation before where the contractor tells the customer how things will be. Maybe that’s a consequence of doing business with countries that don’t have espouse American business values.

    Allied deserves credit for telling the offshore builders that THEY can go pound sand. If more American manufacturers shunned the offshore builders we’d have better bikes and more employment ops here in the US.


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Having limited input into what your factory will produce is just part of the reality of the bike industry. Unless you own the factory, you don’t get complete control. And sometimes, even when it seems like you have complete control, the factory will change things, often to make the item cheaper to produce or faster/simpler to produce.

      It’s inaccurate to say that Allied dissed offshore factories at all. They simply wanted to make bikes here and believed there would be real-world advantages to doing so. After seeing their operation, I think they are right. It’s lean and smart. They don’t begrudge anyone else their success, but they want to do work on their own terms, and we will benefit for it.

    2. TMcD

      There’s a bit of generalization – it’s not that the contractor is telling them what to do – most companies aren’t capable of telling the contractor what to do. That’s to say that most engineers in the bicycle industry aren’t trained enough about carbon layups to know how to build one from scratch, and this is a major reason why construction goes to Asia. Engineers can spend 6 months in CAD just hitting all the standards (chainline, axles, etc) and filling out the 3-D shape of the bike, including size-declinations and all the demands from industrial design – this is no easy feat. And if they’re adding anything novel at all (integrated this or that), that adds quite a bit of time. It’s unfortunate how this aspect of product development gets overlooked as an end product.
      However, most companies have the ability to say “more stiffness”, or “more vertical compliance” but have no idea how to accomplish it and are at the mercy of their supplier. Some of the big players do have in-house composite specialists, but it’s far less common than people think. I get the impression most riders assume an engineer does carbon layup processing and that would be incorrect (again, there are exceptions).
      Manufacturers are also at the mercy of suppliers stealing anything innovative that they bring to the table. There’s a brand out there that makes a lot of bikes for other companies – look at their models and all you see are highlights from the companies that they produce for, and guess what, they do it for less. Imagine that.
      The real reason I support the Allied ambitions is for a reason highlighted in the article. I’ve worked at 2 different companies, that both make great products, that suffered from suppliers changing things up after final approval. Both companies suffered from recalls and both took serious flack for something they couldn’t actually control – Allied wants control, and that should pretty much sum up their motivations, and the motivations of anybody purchasing one of their bikes. I for one am pretty excited to throw a leg over a bike made a couple hours from my home, by people I know, that are taking the time to verify the integrity of every single bike produced.
      And knowing Sam and his passion for bikes, I’m sure it rides fantastic too.

  4. Mike E.

    Love that they have the “headtube+” option for my size (56). This (or the disc version more likely) has made my shortlist for what I am spending this year’s bonus on.

  5. TomInAlbany

    I find it odd that all of the lay-up department is hispanic women. I believe that the culture you’re raised in does drive certain behaviors. That said, it makes me wonder… Maybe a topic for elsewhere.

    1. 32x20

      It’s amazing how almost universal that is in the US. I’m in a related composites business that is by far the biggest demographic doing lay-ups.

    2. Mike

      A few months ago, Padraig’s comment about the lay-up staff being Hispanic women would have surprised me. Now it does not. I am a physical therapist and about 2 months ago I began spending 2 days per week in a clinic that serves the underserved – immigrants, those without insurance, the working poor, etc. The majority of my patients are Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico or one of the Latin American countries. The most striking thing I have noticed is that this patient population actually does what I ask them to do. In a PTs parlance, they are compliant with their home exercise program. If I ask them to do 3 sets of 10, that is what they do. If I say “Do this 6 times/day”, that is what they do. They do not add or subtract or substitute. What are the cultural factors that lead to this? No idea; not my place to say. What I can say is this…I have become confident that if I ask someone who is a Spanish-speaking immigrant to do something, they will actually do it. In my field, that is extraordinary.

    3. Dustin

      “Outliers” and “Hillbilly Elligy” are two good reads on culture and work ethic. I’m not a big reader, but I really enjoyed both.

  6. Gummee!

    I was living in Oceanside, CA and had a buddy working at Reynolds before they packed their bags and left CA. Went to visit him at work. Got a tour of the production area. Production staff was Hispanic too, but male instead of female.

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