Carbon 101

Earlier this week I mentioned I'd be sharing my thoughts on carbon production. Today, I'm going to delve into my first hand experiences during last week's trip to China. I'll share some of my observations and give you a little information on the process of building carbon fiber bikes.

First, a little bit about the factories. I intentionally went into this trip with few expectations. All I knew was that we would be spending 2 days in China and visiting several factories. I was travelling with Steve (Owner), Rich (QBP Director of Product), & Joe (Product Designer). I knew our schedule would be tight. I felt a little bit like an infant learning something new. The first visit we had so many questions. That 1st visit was long as it was the first time we got to witness the process from start to finish. In the end, we left this first visit excited and motivated to learn more.

At the end of the first day, we had visited several factories. One factory even ordered KFC and Pizza Hut for us. Nothing like eating American fast food in China. We left this first day amazed and a bit overwhelmed with information and observations.

A few things stood out to me.

1) Carbon fiber manufacturing is so darn labor intensive. This is why a great majority of carbon manufacturing is moving to China. The labor force is strong, skilled and efficient.

2) The conditions of the factories blew me away. From the rolls and rolls of pre-preg carbon, to the cutting rooms, to the lay up rooms, to the forgings, ovens, presses, etc. Most factories were quite clean. Some were better than others. Conditions were good.

3) They take this business seriously. China is investing heavily in carbon. Many of the factories we visited were either in new facilities or planning to move to brand new facilities. One other note on taking it seriously, one factory had 60 R&D engineers and technicians. Wow!

4) Dorms. All the factories we visited had dormatories to house the workers. The workers work hard. The Chinese government has regulations for # of hours worked and # of days per week worked, but when asked, most of the workers wanted more hours so they could send money home to their families.

5) Process and work flow. Almost every factory we visited had the same process. One thing I found so interesting was the work flow. In every factory, the process went up. Raw material, carbon cutting & lay up, and forging were on the first floor. Second floor always had finishing. If there was a third floor, the final finishing and boxxing happened there. Finished frames on the top floor!? That means every frame they produce needed to be moved down the elevator(s). Seems slow and bulky to me. In my simple mind, I had expected it to be the opposite. Finished product on lowest floor so that it could be put in shipping containers immediately upon completion.

6) If you have a carbon bike or a carbon component on your bike, part or some part of it was likely manufactured in China. I could not believe it. I won't name names, but many products and brands were represented including many that I did not expect. This part was eye opening. Another fact here is that Europe must account for at least 65% of the carbon business and even more if you are specifically talking about carbon road bikes. One factory said that over 80% of their business was Europe!

So...enough observations. Here's a little bit about the process. This is overly simplistic, but should give you an idea of the process. This process is assuming the design and the development is completed. Also, most factories don't let you take pictures so you'll have to imagine some of these steps. Here is the process for monocoque frames.

- Cutting of pre preg into specific angles and cuts. All pieces to build the product are bundled and put together with build spec sheets
- Lay up. Layer by layer the carbon is hand layed up over silicon molds and/or plastic air bladders
- bladders are placed in heavy steel molds and internal air fittings are attached
- Molds are transferred to press, bladders are filled with air pushing the carbon outward into the mold, and heated to roughly 300 degrees
- Molds are removed from presses, cooled and then the carbon frames are removed
- Frames are cleaned, sanded and prepared for final finishing and/or assembly
- Rear triangles are attached to the monocoque front triangle
- Final prep
- Stiffness test. 100% testing is done on stiffness to see if it meets the spec. This step also gives poor results if something went wrong in one of the other steps
- Final finishing if they pass
- Boxxing
- Shipping

Lastly, here are a few photo's detailing some of this process.

Here, two workers are prepping a mold and attaching fixtures to bladders

Here is a pic of the oven and press. Molds are heavy!

Each frame size must have a different mold. Another reason carbon frame are expensive.

Share this post:


Jason Boucher

Growing up as a Minnesota farm boy, I developed an appreciation and love for land and open space. This appreciation has fostered two passions, cycling and photography. Both of these passions provide freedom, encourage me to explore and foster creativity. More importantly though, my journey with a bike and a camera reminds me that the world is big and I am small.


 Anonymous |

I’ve been in a lot of factories in China and it never made sense to me to see the front end process at the top floor and back end process on the ground floor. IMO, the dirtiest wast generating process with the heaviest machinery should be on the ground floor so that raw material can flow in/out easily. Just from the building structural stand point it makes no sense to have all those heavy stamping & molding machinery on the top, and believe me I’ve seen it all. It’s surprising we don’t hear of more structural failures in China with some of the stuff I’ve seen.

 Butcher |

AHA!  When you think of waste, the process does make sense.  Thank you.

 Butcher |

It’s not about shame.  It isn’t our product.  Salsa just thinks it’s up to the company or brand to make that decision.  Not our place.  Sorry.  Hope this helps explain.  Have a good weekend.

 MG |

LOL… I was wondering how long it’d take for someone to ask that question outright.

 Anonymous |

What does it matter?<BR><BR>If there is no shame in having your product produced in China, then why hide whose frame it is.<BR><BR>Sounds fair to me.

 Anonymous |

The guy on the right is wearing tennis shoes.  Don’t they make steel-toed boots in China?

 Anonymous |

“when asked, most of the workers wanted more hours so they could send money home to their families.”<BR><BR>Where is ‘home?’ Are they moving from other towns in China to these Factory/Dorm complexes?<BR><BR>Or are they not Chinese nationals?<BR><BR>In your opinion, how would this compare to someone from the lower 48 moving to work in an Alaskan cannery?

 Captain Bob |

Very interesting.  Thanks.<BR><BR>I bet those are carbon toed tennis shoes…. cause steel is too real?

 Captain Bob |

that frame looks like one of those Gary Fisher Superflys.

 MG |

lol… carbon-toed tennies.  now that would be supa-fly!!!<BR><BR>it’s amazing to think that just a decade ago, you couln’t hardly get a decent hi-tensile steel frame out of china.  today it’s quite a different case.  i have to admit i have reservations about the price the global environment is paying for china’s industrial revolution, but it’s not for me to pass judgment either.

 Butcher |

I sure wish that I could answer some of the questions already put forth.  I’ll try.  <BR><BR>Shoes - It appeared that everyone had “job” appropriate shoes for the jobs they were doing.  I also got to wear some sweet covers on my shoes (as did everyone) in some of the carbon cutting and lay up rooms.  Nothing shocking here.  In fact, the shoes and attire were nothing different that I see in the QBP warehouse.  <BR><BR>Regarding homes.  It was clear in talking with folks that many folks move away from home.  With the industrial revolution that is going on in China, there is much opportunity for work.  Unfortunately, in many cases, China is so large and many factories are closer to the coast and/or shipping centers.  This geographical fact forces them to move away from home.  <BR><BR>Regarding the cannery in Alaska question.  I cannot answer regarding the conditions as I’ve never been in a cannery, but the physical relocation to Alaska or a job is very similar. <BR><BR>I know what frame it is and it IS NOT a superfly.

 Jason |

Great post J.B.. Thanks for the insight. I love see this stuff. I’ll also be anxious to see what/if any future Salsa CF products come forth from you recon.<BR><BR>KFC & Pizza Hut? That would be my luck. Travel to the other side of the world and eat something that I would not even eat HERE! :)<BR><BR>JM

 Captain Bob |

Was the shoe coverings for your protection or the facility?  Maybe both?  <BR><BR>Nice frame regardless.

 Guitar Ted |

Thanks for the insights Jason. I am not at all surprised at what you found. Much of China is rural, the people are hard working, and the fact that they want to work more to take care of their families doesn’t sound so different from this countries history. <BR><BR>Carbon fiber is fascinating stuff. Thanks for the look see into the process. |

I thought for a minute to think why a factory would move its opperations up floors after reading your observation. If your factory has multiple floors, then something is going to have to go up (even if you produce from top to bottom) right? My guess is there is more material, machines etc… so why not keep the bulk of stuff on the bottom, and then work you way up? Then when the product is finished and boxed all you have to is ship that out of the factory? If you started top to bottom then all raw materials etc. would have to be shipped up to the top and then back down as the process continues… Thats the only reason I could come up with.<BR><BR>It is kind of to bad so much manufacturing is moving to China. Just look at the up comming Olympics and the air quality…

 Butcher |

AF - Yes, I think there are many reasons for how they lay things out, it is just very different than what we do at Quality Bicycle Products.  We think of stuff that is up high as slow moving or overstock.  It is just a different way of thinking.<BR><BR>Regarding the air quality.  Yes, it is a concern.  However, in my opinion, it is similar to any industrializing nation.  To me the difference is that as you go back in time, we have different measurements, values and expectations.  The other difference is we don’t fully understand the cumulative effect of what industrialization and consumption means.

 Anonymous |

What frame is it then?

 Butcher |

It’s lower end European road frame not sold in the US.

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.