I have just gotten back from a long trip to Asia, with multiple visits to Taiwan, China, and a trip to Pakistan, to meet with our manufacturing and production partners. What I originally booked as a three week trip, quickly stretched into six weeks.
I want to spend a moment to give you an update on what we’ve been up to and how things are shaping up on the production side of the Valour.
In China, we have finalized our bill of materials for the electronics. This process has involved the coordination of our contract manufacturer in China and our integrated circuits distributor in Canada. This took a bit of back and forth trying to find components that fit our specifications, were economical, while having short lead times. The production versions of the sonar modules have also been prototyped. The modules will be die-cast aluminum; an ideal process that give us the form we wanted while remaining durable. The next step is to finalize our waterproofing solutions. We have also finished prototyping our main PCBA and are about ready to go into pilot production.
We finished prototyping two handlebars—one CNC aluminum version and another in 3D printed plastic. The aluminum version allows us to better understand how to best manufacture it. It has proven to be very helpful in working with vendors.
The challenge with the bar has been that it is easily the most complex mechanical part on the bike, with numerous design constraints and a high degree of interaction between parts from different vendors. We have to make the mechanical bar accommodate the bulk of the electronics, while still retaining a design which is coherent and consistent with the visual identity of the bike, while still finding a way to manufacture it. That last part has been a persistent road block. Many designers and engineers will tell you “price, development time, innovative—choose two.” While we have found it very challenging, we have been fairly insistent on not compromising on any of the three. Though it’s possible to say that we’ve stretched our original development time expectations, we have accomplished in a short six months what would take many companies years. We are still working out a last few kinks, but feel we are pretty damn close to the end of this road.
This brings me to the bad news.
I went to Pakistan to be there for the opening of our first frame mould. We were able to get a few frames out of our moulds before I left. These moulds were then sent to meet me in Taiwan where we would fit them up with our part specification to check fit and alignment.
The first few frames out of the mould are generally called mould samples. They are not intended to be perfect—that generally happens during what’s called pilot production. However, you can get a sense of what needs to be fixed.
These frames were certainly no exception to the roughness we’d ought to expect out of a mould sample. Generally, I would sort the problems into categories of:
- issues you know how to fix pretty immediately and,
- issues for which a solution will have to be discovered.
Of the first category we had plenty of known problems with known solutions. For instance, we knew going in that the mould inserts would have some issues, so we knew that there would issues with headset and bottom bracket IDs.
Where things got more concerning is with the consequences of having a split chain/seat stay for the belt drive. On a normal unibody carbon frame, the unibody alignment is fairly simple because, as long as the carbon lay-up fills out the mould correctly, there isn’t much room for things to go wrong. This is in contrast to traditional carbon construction, where the frame is split into three moulds, then each section is bonded together. This can be tricky, but experienced factories can do it fairly flawlessly.
However with the split chain/ seat stay for the belt drive, the uni-body frame becomes a whole lot harder. In order to mould the chain and seat stays separately you have to create space between them in the mould. This become tricky, because they need to be moulded outside of the position where they will end up when the bike is put together. This makes alignment really tricky. Conversely, on a traditional three mould process, this is less of an issue because you can effectively put the chain stay and seat stay in their final positions when you bond them together, and with the fungibility of the bonding process, you can make sure alignment is perfect in the jig.
We have some promising ideas for how to go about fixing the alignment issue with the uni-mould frame. However, if we have learned anything in the last six months, its that it is extremely difficult to estimate accurately how much time it will take to resolve an challenge or problem to which you have not previously dealt. We could tell you that we think we can get this all sorted out, with a one or two month delay but the reality is, there is no way for us to know that.
The good news however, is that we are fortunate enough to have found a solution, which while delaying things a little bit, will bring considerably more reliability to the rest of our production process. We are working with our fork manufacturer in China to help shift production to their Chinese facility.
We are confident these are the right partners—they work with all ranges of carbon bikes, from entry level carbon frames to $5000 + frame-sets that push the limits of the process and material. They are one of the first two or three companies to move carbon production to China, and are a leader in their field. Their carbon components are likely in many of the premier road and mountain bike brands that you already ride.
I think it would be fair for us to admit that we underestimated the challenge of making something as nuanced and complex as the frame.
However, it would be considerably more of an error, to fail to learn from these challenges.
By moving to China, we alleviate a considerable risk associated with the product. We are ensuring that you will receive a high quality product that has been thought through—from how it rides to how it is constructed. As a side note, we aren’t giving up on Pakistan, in fact, our partner in China is helping us gain valuable industry knowledge, in order to build high quality frames in Pakistan.
We are now finalizing some minor design alterations to the frame in order to accommodate for the difference between processes. We will be opening the tools in the next couple of weeks. After a couple weeks of tooling, each size will go through testing, ensuring they meet ISO and EN standards. Once everything is ok with the frame, we will enter pilot production. This is where they sort out the minutia of manufacturing—from how to ensure consistency, to how improve efficiency. After about 20-30 pilot units they accelerate into a full production capacity.
This all means that we will be shipping all Kickstarter orders in Spring of 2015, just in time for most of your riding seasons.
As a side note, all of our orders should shipping in fairly quick succession because they will be made at the same time. So no need to worry if you are nearer the end of the queue!
Our goal is to ensure that all of our backers and customers receive a product that is of the highest quality in both design and build. I’m sure that this news will generate a few curious questions as we continue to forge ahead.
With that, we’d like to invite you to an open video live-chat Q&A in the new year (early-mid January) where you’ll have an opportunity to ask your most burning questions to anyone on the team.
As 2015 rolls in, we’ll be posting further details via Kickstarter, email, and social on when and how you can take part!
Follow Devin on Twitter @dbsmcdonald