– By Philip Gale –
Grenchen, Switzerland, on the edge of the Jura Mountains, is better known for its traditional watch production, with Rolex and Breitling based here. This small town has recently come to the forefront of bike manufacturing. Four years ago BMC owner Andy Rihs (Bicycle Manufacturing Company) asked the question “How do we build the perfect bike?” This year he opened a factory dedicated to answer what he feels are the limitations of existing carbon frame production. I stepped off of my train from Zurich onto the platform at the Grenchen Sud station to be greeted by the presence of BMC.
Upon entering BMC you are reminded that their bikes are bred from racing. Three jerseys hang on the wall, the BMC Pro Team jersey, the Stars and Stripes of George Hincape’s USA National Champions Jersey, and the Rainbow Jersey of 2009 World Champion Cadel Evans. Over a coffee, my tour guide Stephan Gnaegi explained how the team is used in research and development as much as marketing “We use the riders to push the bikes to their limits, that way we can continually improve them”. I was then whisked off into the heart of BMC.
The ground floor of the building is dedicated to the assembly of the finished bikes. This clean and highly organised workshop reflects the perfectionist mentality at BMC. I caught a glimpse of an Impec frameset waiting to be built (what I had really come to see).
Don’t mind the blurry shot – Phil could barely contain his excitement upon seeing Impec.
The two mechanics were busy at work, preparing the 2011 bikes ready for shipping. BMC is the number one bike company in Switzerland (in terms of sales), and thus has a very high demand. BMC sells over 22,000 bikes worldwide per year, so there is always plenty of work. Each stock and custom bike is assembled, checked and prepared for shipping here. By keeping it in house BMC keep control, they are 100% confident that each bike leaves here 100% right.
They were also preparing a fleet of demo bikes ready for the Roc D’Azur mountain bike event. Having just returned from EuroBike where the Impec won one of 12 Gold Bike Awards, it is constant promotion of their 2011 range
Upstairs in the offices the rest of the BMC team were hard at work, all passionate about bikes and their brand. I was told about how many employees bring their bikes to work, there was a storage area for them in the warehouse. This means that most lunch times are spent riding around these beautiful mountains on the bikes that they produce and sell.
The press board where reviews of the bikes are proudly put on show.
Markus Eggiman, brand manager, was to be my guide for the Impec factory. After a brief phone call it was cleared “Let’s go to IMPEC” he said. The factory is just down the road from the BMC head office, and as you can see they are very proud of it.
In fitting with the watch manufacturers in the same town, the Impec is aimed at people who are used to the finer things in life. The entrance of the Impec factory is a showroom that a Rolls Royce would not have looked out of place in. Multiple Impecs were on show including the yellow one used by Cadel Evans during this year’s Tour De France. Impecs come in two versions, the red “Team” and the black “Noble”. They are finished with the best equipment, Campagnolo Super Record, SRAM Red and Shimano Dura Ace Di2, pure bike porn…
The Team Impec
Can you say “yellow” as in the jersey.
The full Impec accessory range was on show also. From bike bag and multi tool, to energy drink and portable stand, all come with the purchase of the bike.
This may come in handy for owners who don’t when to to stop riding.
Next on the tour was the production area. “No photos now please, or I will have to kill you.” was the dry request from Markus before I was allowed in.
The first thing that you have to understand upon entering the factory is that it was built to produce BMC’s idea of the perfect bike. Andy Rihs and his engineers set out what qualities this bike would need to have, and what the function of each of its parts would have to be. Then they set about finding a way to produce it.
The result is the Impec factory, BMC’s way of reinventing the wheel. The traditional laminating process, where mats of carbon are bonded together by hand, is not used. State of the art robotic production methods were designed and produced to fully exploit the potential of carbon fibre. At the heart of the bike and thus the production are the two key components, Load Specific Weave (LSW) and the Shell Node Concept.
The Radial Braider
Load Specific Weave (LSW) is creating and controlling the weave of the carbon fibre to allow it to perform a specific function for the bike. LSW takes up the first two steps of production. The Impec is born on a radial braiding machine, originally used in steel cable production. Robots start the process by using a positive mould. This is placed into centre of the machine which then wraps wafer thin carbon fibre strands around it. 100 bobbins work in unison (following sinusoidal paths) to weave the carbon. The form moves in and out of the machine at varying rates to create a weave specific to the function of the tube. The end result is a one piece seamless tube, not a two piece, joined and seamed tube used in conventional carbon tube production. Watching this machine is something that you would not expect to see in bike production, the tube materialises from the machine and the Impec starts to take form.
Carbon Weave tubes
With the carbon weave complete the tube now has to be finished in the second stage of production. This is the resin injection. BMC has developed the first fully automated injection moulding process for composite materials. Again robots take care of this process to create a zero error product. The recently woven tube is placed into a female mould to which specific amounts of resin is added and left to cure. This machine manipulates the amount of resin used on each tube, keeping weight to a minimum and allowing control of how the tube functions (and thus the ride of the bike). Resin cured, a hard tube exits the machine and is placed by robots on the conveyor belt for the next stage of production, cutting.
One of the many robots at the Impec factory.
Again BMC use robots to control and cut the length of each complete tube. The positive core is removed from the tube and a diamond bladed saw cuts it. It is precise to 1/10th of a millimetre and the end result does not have to be hand finished. This is a crucial stage in production, because if not done correctly the tube will not fit together perfectly during frame assembly. Cutting is the last stage of tube production.
The second part of the bike to be produced is the Shell Nodes (Shell Node Concepts). These are the half shells which are the junctions of the tubes. It took BMC‘s engineers many hours to come up with the solution of how to join the tubes together so each part’s function would be transferred into the performance of the complete frame. The eureka moment came with some thinking outside of normal production methods.
As with the tube production BMC have created a first, their Shell Nodes are made out of a new composite material. They are produced by a separate Swiss firm who has the same perfectionist mentality as BMC. These nodes give the Impec its unique appearance and BMC designers decided to show off their design solutions with pride. The SNC allow for a frame joint of maximum stiffness and rigidity. Without these the Impec would be little more than a nice collection of tubes.
The yellow Shell Nodes on Cadel Evan’s Tour Impec
With both of the key components of the BMC frame produced it is time for paint and printing. To create the perfect finish on the perfect bike BMC have again turned to robots. They use a six axis robot (allowing it to move like the human arm) which looks like something out of a high-tech car production facility. The tubes are lacquered so that the weave can be seen. The Shell Nodes are painted in either of the current two colours which the Impec comes in. Printing is next, the frame components are branded using a pad printing system, no transfers for the best. The end result is a finish which is extremely resistant to impact and scratches, keeping the Impec looking …impeccable.
The Blue Eye Robot
All of the components produced and painted it is time to assemble the frame. Continuing with the Zero Error philosophy, robots are again used. This one has a blue eye (camera) which identifies each component of the frame, places an exact quantity of adhesive in the correct place. The pieces are then clamped together and cured in an oven. Now the Impec frame is born. Like a Swiss time piece all of the robots have worked in perfect unison to create the final zero error product.
Each frame is then quality controlled to see if it meets the high spec set for the Impec. BMC offer a lifetime guarantee on all Impecs.
Impec fit chart
Frames completed, BMC offer a custom fitting for each of their clients. In keeping with the top end production each customer is fitted for their Impec by the dealer. “Why make the perfect frameset if the customer cannot get the perfect fit?” was Markus’s view on it. Two geometries (race and performance fit), multiple sizes (50 to 60cm), seat post options (3 different offsets) and numerous stems are available to tailor each frame to its owner’s requirements. The aim is to create unity between bike and rider.
Impressed and amazed we left the Impec facility. The BMC team truck was parked around the side after a long season on the road supporting their riders.
It is hard not to get excited about Impec; what it means to BMC and to the biking world as a whole. Andy Riis’s visionary new production facility is a step into the future. The automated production eliminates human error from production, meaning flawless consistency, production and end product. It is possible for BMC to get down to the DNA of what gives a bike its ride characteristics. No longer do BMC’s designers and engineers have their hands tied by the limits of human based production. Weaves can be controlled and tailored with the Load Specific Weave. Resin amounts can be controlled to the micron. Carbon fibre as a material can be used to its full potential.
The Impec is the first bike to come out of the factory. It is the first step into the future of frame production.
Di2 Noble Impec
After my short time at BMC I left amazed at what is happening in this small town. Andy Riis is a visionary man leading a group of highly skilled and motivated workers on a mission to revolutionise the bike industry. By the elimination of potential human error BMC can now produce frames frames free of human-influenced flaws – and that should make for some pretty nice bikes. Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to ride one, so how well they’ve achieved their goals is judgement call I’ll have to make another day.
BMC Head office just down the road from the Impec factory.
BMC offer tours of their Impec factory. If you are in Switzerland and are interested to see this amazing facility for yourself then drop them a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
• See the website: BMC-Racing.com