Carbon Fiber Bikes; Breaking The Mould For Lower Prices

Carbon Fiber Bikes; Breaking The Mould For Lower Prices
Generic carbon frame offered on ebay

Let’s face it, most of us get pretty excited when some new game-changing gizmo or gadget hits the market.

We wait patiently, longing for the day when we can experience the perceived ecstasy this life altering technology promises.  We know how this works.  The price will eventually come down.  We need to wait just long enough until this hot item becomes so affordable that all of our friends will have one and we can buy ours the week before.

When VCR’s arrived in the late 70’s, there were a few brave souls who plunked down a grand to buy a device that could only play The Sound Of Music, Patton, and M*A*S*H – at a cost of sixty bucks apiece.  By the mid-80’s, mom and pop shops sprung up to rent movies to consumers who could afford annual membership fees and $400 VCR’s to play a growing list of not-so-new releases.  Prices of VCR’s steadily declined until they were truly as disposable as a Bic razor.  VCR’s gave way to DVD’s which are giving way to streaming video and tablets.

Our consumer experiences tell us that technological advancements and mass acceptance will eventually lead to lower priced products.  Why wouldn’t this be the case with road bikes made from carbon fiber?

For starters, road bikes aren’t demanded in large enough quantities to benefit from mass production.  Even if there was an iPhone-craving surge in demand, carbon fiber assembly is a very tedious, time-consuming, manual process.  If it required thousands of additional laborers to meet demand, there is no assembly line process available that could speed up production.  Tooling costs for the moulds (or bladders) would increase proportionally with demand, negating the benefits of achieving economies of scale.  In short, don’t expect a carbon fiber equivalent of the iPhone 3GS for $49.

So why do carbon fiber bikes appear to be coming down in price?

The answer to this question doesn’t involve advancements in technology per se.  It involves re-using outdated, degraded, amortized tooling to provide yesterday’s performance at a lower price today.

Contrary to the consumer electronics model, advancements in carbon fiber technology – material formulations, assembly lay-ups, tube shapes, bonding techniques, finishing processes, etc – require extensive investments in R&D, prototyping, testing, tooling, and employee training.  The newest technology is still extremely expensive.  Older technology, not so much.

Think about this for a moment.  While you might not have a problem saving money on a brand new fifth generation Corvette after the sixth generation is introduced, you would certainly pass on a “brand new” fourth generation ‘vette that was first engineered in 1984.  In some cases, that budget-priced carbon bike is actually the underperforming ’82 model originally engineered in 1968.  Not exactly anyone’s idea of a new ride…

Bicycle manufacturers have numerous reasons for introducing new carbon frames.  Maybe significant performance improvements can now be achieved with a new assembly process.  Maybe there is a new carbon formulation that is stronger and lighter.  Maybe the extended use of a mould is creating a concern about future product failures.  Whatever the specific reason, there comes a time when the current model is no longer acceptable to the image of the brand and it must be replaced.

Non-current moulds can sometimes be transitioned down the product line to create a lower priced model.  If the moulds are worn, new bladders can be made from the original design specs at a price far cheaper than creating an all-new mould.  More often than not, used bladders become discarded by the original maker and the mould design ends up on the market as an “open mould”.  This means that any brand can now use the design of this frame for production.  New bladders can be constructed from the open mould specifications, eliminating R&D expenditures for the brands that choose this route.  Less popular brands can also purchase the discarded, used bladders and continue using them with no tooling cost incurred.  How reliable do you think a used bladder discarded by a reputable manufacturer will be when used by another brand?

Sadly, there is no way for a consumer to know if an unknown brand is using an open mould, a used bladder, or a design several generations old.  The bike is painted up nice with some flashy graphics and a sticker that reads “high modulus” carbon.  Since off-brands trade on the misconception that “carbon is carbon”, why would a consumer want to pay more just for a brand name?

Hopefully, at this point, you get where I’m going with this.  Not all carbon is created equally.  One would have to be rather daft to believe that the off-brand model advertised in the back of the magazine performed as well as the $5000 frame featured on the front cover.

Still, there are many who see these budget-priced carbon bikes as proof that new technology always prevails and will eventually be affordable to the masses.  If they are smart enough to not be fooled by the off-brands, they can always point to the race to the bottom by top tier brands to support their assertions.

I’ll cover that topic in my next blog post

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