Early July,2010, found us in the Swiss canton of Solothurn.
Sitting at the foot of the Jura mountains, the town of Grenchen – more famous for its watch making – will slowly become more famous as we were about to find out. For a start it was the venue for BMC’s Excitement Research days.
Despite the somewhat Teutonic moniker, there was a definitive air of expectation amongst the 30 odd members of the worlds cycling press. With journalists from as far afield as California and Japan, Moscow and Melbourne and pretty much everywhere in between, it’s a fairly safe assumption that this was going to be a big announcement.
So after a morning of hearing about all the ‘standard’ new stuff for 2011 – the assembled BMC staff and athletes could obviously sense the growing unrest – we wanted to see the main feature film. While we were happy to peruse these ‘trailers’, it was the summer blockbuster people had traveled half way around the world to see.
A five minute stroll from the main offices to the new facility. That’s all we knew it was thus far, an all new ‘facility. As we rounded a corner a billboard hinted at what lay ahead.
After entering the darkened foyer, we were all handed electronic headsets (Phonak, naturally) for a factory tour and made to hand over all camera’s and mobile phones. It was at this point the assembled masses realized that those BMC folks were serious about all this and it must be something pretty big behind those doors!”Ok, so we are all ready?” crackled through the headsets, and that was it – the doors opened and we were in.
It’s hinted at in the picture, but even to anyone who has never been in a bike factory before, this is something very, very, different. For a start, there is space, and a distinct lack of humanoid life-forms. This is where we learned ‘ it’s all computers these days’.
Well, computer controlled robots anyway! The first part of the production line we see is known in the factory as ‘the stargate’
128 carbon fiber wound bobbins weave and rotate around the central silicon form, over which the new frame tube takes shape. Each tube’s weave and make up (there can be different types of carbon ‘thread’ on each of the bobbins) is unique to its position in the frame, expected load and size. This process is known as LSW – Load Specific Weave. This is the first unique element to the impec system. Other brands that weave their own tubes from scratch do not change the weave dependant on the size of the tube – this prevents access to the level of ride tuning available to BMC’s engineers.
Once wowen, the tubes and their formers are transferred to the next stage; mini autoclaves where they are impreganated with resin and cured. From here they move along to the automated cutting and finishing zone. Here they are cut to length and mitered to perfectly mate to other frame elements.
Throughout the whole of these three processes, there is not a single element of human contact. High tech electronic, industrial robots are at the centre of impec.
Each robot has an electronic ‘eye’ which reads a coded chip on the silicon former or tube cradle before going on to carry out the correct operation based on the system’s corresponding data: be that weave make up, amount of resin or mitre angles. Tubes are transported between these zones on a conveyor belt. The end result? Impeccable tubes, with no possible human error – identical in every way, every time.
At this point The ‘lugs’ join the party. In traditional tube and lug constructed frames tubes slot into lugs with glue spreading on the surfaces to be joined as they come together. The impec engineers were unhappy with the randomness of the adhesive dispersal. The answer? Come up with a process that allows perfect control of the gluing process within the lugs internal structure, during the whole construction process – 100% control.
The Shell Node Concept is the result. Highly compressed half shells made from a newly developed, proprietary, composite material. During the frame building process, these shells are inserted into a template and glue is applied – yup, once again by a computer controlled, robot – before the tubes and lugs come together and go through the final autoclave cure.
However, we are getting ahead of ourselves slightly. Before they are glued – both tube and shells have to be loaded onto cradles – to go through the fully automated paining booth. A six axis robotic arm paints the pieces as per their pre programmed data (as read from their cradles chip). Inside the dust free, inert atmosphere is – in effect- a rather large waterfall that takes away the overspray. Huge amounts of water – 700 litres a second rings bells – run through the booth and BMC are very proud of the whole system – so much so that there are no photo’s allowed – even official ones.
After paint is applied, they go through the paint ‘oven’ where the component parts are cured. It is after this that human hands briefly touch the parts for the second time (the first being when they are loaded onto cradles for painting). Graphics are applied by hand before the parts go onto the final assembly stage. Lugs are glued by yet another robot – applying exact amounts of a custom made adhesive to very particular parts of the shells.
Tubes are laid onto the glued shell halves, the top section added before the whole assembly is put through the final big oven. After that what pops out is arguably the most unique and perfectly formed road bike around.
Suffice to say, in our 40 minute trip around the production line, we saw numerous large, orange robotic arms, a myriad of technological innovations and the results speak for themselves.