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
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.
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