CyclingTips podcast, Episode 27: What lurks beneath carbon fiber’s mysterious surface?

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Of all the materials used in bicycle frames and components, carbon fiber is perhaps the most commonly misunderstood. While it has a reputation for automated manufacturing devoid of human contact or soul, it’s actually far more labor-intensive material than metals. Modern modular monocoque frames, for example, comprise hundreds of individual pieces of carbon fabric, almost all of which are laid by hand before eventually curing in a mold under intense heat and pressure.

It’s only through such elaborate manufacturing processes that we’re able to get so much performance out of such incredibly lightweight structures. However, that complexity also introduces greater possibility for human error, and despite most carbon-fiber frames and components looking perfect on the surface, it’s common for those products to be less-than-perfect underneath, even on brand-new items fresh from the factory floor.

Voids and wrinkles are the most common defects, and their severity can vary from item to item, as can their impact on a product’s strength and performance.

Carbon fiber bicycle frames are made of hundreds of individual pieces of pre-preg carbon, which are almost always placed by hand. Such detail is what allows carbon structures to provide such incredible performance for a given weight, but it also introduces the possibility of human error.

In most cases, those defects have minimal (if any) real-world impact, with plenty of structural redundancy to offset whatever structural deficiencies there might be as a result. That’s not always true, however, and companies are constantly striving to reduce — or even eliminate — the frequency of those defects from the manufacturing process.

For this week’s CyclingTips podcast, U.S. technical editor James Huang invited two guest panelists to lend some considerable expertise: Chris Meertens, senior composites engineer for new U.S. bike manufacturer HIA Velo; and Raoul Luescher of Luescher Teknik, a carbon fiber inspection and repair guru based in Melbourne, Australia, with a long background in the aerospace industry.

Luescher outlines some of the manufacturing issues he’s found in carbon fiber bicycle products over the years, and Meertens discusses some of the innovative processes HIA Velo has instituted to improve the quality of its frames. In short: things are definitely getting much better industry-wide, but they’re still not as perfect as many would like to believe.

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Episode 27 Direct Download

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