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by Matt Wikstrom
August 21, 2017
Photography by Matt Wikstrom
TECH NEWS BROUGHT TO YOU BY BIKEEXCHANGE
Plane Frameworks is a new bespoke framebuilder that works exclusively with carbon fibre. Rather than employ conventional techniques, the company has developed a novel positive-moulding process for creating monocoque frames with custom geometry. In this review, Australian tech editor Matt Wikstrom takes an in-depth look at Plane’s manufacturing process and reports on the performance of its bespoke road frame.
At face value, it is easy to dismiss custom-built frames as niche products that are largely irrelevant to the general consumer. After all, bespoke framebuilders seem to take too long and charge too much for a product that is quicker, cheaper and easier to source from a major manufacturer.
And while the output of any custom framebuilder may not amount to any more than 100-200 frames/year, there are at least a couple of good reasons why this cottage industry carries more weight than its manufacturing capabilities would suggest.
First and foremost, custom framebuilders are able to adopt new directions in design and specifications much faster than the major manufacturers. For example, bespoke framebuilders were able to build frames to accommodate electronic groupsets and disc brakes long before the majors released their first efforts. In addition, custom framebuilders are better able to accommodate a wider ranger of specifications, so buyers are able to fit all of the parts that they want to use, even if it is a belt-drive or a Rohloff hub.
With the time to devote themselves to crafting the final product, custom framebuilders often come up with design solutions that are as attractive as they are functional. I’ve heard rumours that major manufacturers will send their designers to NAHBS and other custom bike shows when they need some inspiration for their new bikes. If nothing else, a bespoke frame is very often distinguished by one or two distinctive finishing touches.
Finally, custom framebuilders are able to experiment with and embrace the kind of materials and production processes that might be overlooked or dismissed by the majors as too labour-intensive. As a result, their bespoke products often have something to offer that can’t be found elsewhere.
Which brings me to Plane Frameworks, a new bespoke framebuilder that embodies all of this potential. Established mid-2016, Plane specialises in composite frames. The company launched its website in December and has been taking orders ever since.
Matthew Andrew and Sam Froud are the men behind Plane. They share a workshop in Perth, Western Australia where every step of frame production takes place with the help of a couple of assistants.
Matthew has a degree in Fine Art and Design as well as Landscape Architecture, while Sam studied Industrial Design. Neither chose framebuilding as their first profession, instead gaining experience in architectural and project management (Matthew) and collaborative product design (Sam) before coming together to establish Plane.
That’s not to say that the two were inexperienced. By this stage, Matthew already had several years experience building frames, having established Flying Machine on the strength of 3D-printing technology. By his own admission, Flying Machine had a lot to teach him about frame- and bike-building as well as running a successful workshop.
“From a business point of view the main lesson learned from Flying Machine was not to try and do too many different things at the same time,” said Matthew. “It all developed organically but ended up being too much. Being spread too thin makes things pretty stressful trying to satisfy numerous competing objectives with the potential for results to suffer. Now with Plane we have a much more singular focus which makes a big difference to outputs and general wellbeing.”
One important thing to come out of Flying Machine, which ceased trading with the advent of Plane, was a new carbon manufacturing technique. Matthew and Sam could see it had enormous potential, but they needed a new business model. “We knew we were on to something really great that could compete with the other major players in the field,” said Matthew, “but we needed to focus only on our frames.”
As a result, Plane is in the process of creating a dealer network to take care of retailing its framesets so that the Perth workshop can concentrate on manufacturing. After chatting with Matthew for over an hour, it’s clear that this is where his passion lies, and where his obsession with every detail best serves the business.
The majority of composite frames are constructed using a combination of bladders and a clamshell mould. It’s an approach that lends itself to distinctive styling but there is no freedom to modify the geometry unless a costly new mould is made.
The alternative is to utilise tube-to-tube construction. This approach is well suited to creating made-to-measure frames with custom geometry, but there are huge limitations on the designs that can be achieved. As a result, the styling of these custom-built frames remains largely traditional.
Plane was intent on creating a custom-built frame that looked like no other, so it needed a different approach. The answer was to create a positive mould from a lightweight and affordable material that could be left within the frame, which is why Matthew and Sam started experimenting with extruded polystyrene.
Sam provided his experience with prototyping and CNC-machining to sculpt moulds for different parts of the frame and from there the first samples were created. At that point, the two men discovered that the material had more to offer than just as a lightweight and cost-effective mould.
First, there was the promise that it could add to the strength of the frame. “The core itself is quite fragile in tension until it is covered with carbon,” explained Matthew, “at which time its great compressive strength comes into play, making a sum that is greater than the total of its parts. The core adds about 100g to the weight of the frame but adds more than the equivalent weight in the strength department.”
Second, Matthew suspected that the foam core would alter the ride quality of the frame, and one ride on a prototype was enough to convince him that he was right. “The EPS [extruded polystyrene] has really great vibration absorption properties that makes the frame super comfortable and quiet. So along with a great fit from the custom geometry, there’s the comfort provided by the frame itself that really adds to the enjoyment of the ride.”
Finally, “positive core” technology could be used to create a wide range of frame shapes and profiles and shorten the time required to development new models. “We’ve been working on a tri-bike,” said Matthew, “and we have a couple of other new bikes in the pipeline — an off-road model with a Pinion gearbox and an all-out track racer — that have only really been achievable because of the internal core manufacturing technique.”
Plane’s custom frames start life as a three-dimensional model that is used to create the polystyrene core. In the first instance, the dimensions of the new frame are designed around the customer’s fit data, and then the frame is shaped to meet the customer’s needs.
“We have a questionnaire that we get customers to complete and send in with their fitting details,” explained Andrew. “We ask for specific details such as weight and height, plus power data if they have it, as well as more general questions like what the bike will be predominantly used for and what their preferences are in terms of stiffness versus comfort. We interpret the questionnaire and use this as a tool for refining the frame and layup design to achieve a frame that will match the rider’s requirements.”
As the 3D-model of the frame is brought to life, it can be modified and virtually sculpted to suit the rider. “We have a standard pattern that we use for the layup that is then varied to suit the particular frame to achieve the desired outcome,” he said. “We can vary the whole frame shape/tube profiles for every build without any real trouble. Put simplistically, for more compliance we would thin down the top tube and seat stays in the vertical dimension and for greater lateral stiffness we would beef up the down tube and chain stays with a carbon layup to match requirements.”
At the same time, Sam also designs the passageways that will be needed for internally routing any combination of cable/hoses/wires. Channels are cut into the foam core for an internal sleeve that will line each passageway to make it easier for threading cables, hoses, and wires through the frame.
Sam is in charge of all of the CNC-machining that is used to create the foam core of the frame. The frame is cut out in three pieces: the front triangle, seat stays and chain stays. He pays particular attention to the quality of cutting, and once satisfied, the parts are ready to be assembled into the frame.
A conventional framebuilding jig is used to align the pieces as the frame is assembled. In the first instance, each set of stays is wrapped in a single layer of carbon fibre to make them more robust to handle. A metal bottom bracket shell — PF30 or T47 — is inserted into the front triangle before it, too, is wrapped in a single layer of carbon cloth. The final part of the puzzle, Plane’s own dropouts that are moulded in-house, are married with the stays with a layer of cloth, and the frame is left in the jig to cure.
The foam core of each frame is cut from sheets of extruded polystyrene.
The CNC-machine used for cutting out each positive mould.
The front triangle is carved out in a single piece.
Practice makes perfect.
Each frame has a metal bottom bracket shell, PressFit30 or T47.
A standard framebuilding jig is used for aligning the parts of the foam core.
Each set of stays must be aligned with the front triangle and the moulded dropouts.
The stays are wrapped with one layer of fibre to make them sturdy enough for aligning the frame.
Plane moulds its own dropouts as well.
A cross-section from the finished product showing how the polystyrene core remains in place after the final layup.
A look at each stage of production: alignment, layup, and painting.
All of Plane’s frames are constructed in their Perth workshop.
Three different fibre types and two different weaves are used for the final layup, which is done without the jig. Plane makes its own pre-preg for this job so as to take advantage of a unique thermoset resin that cures at a low temperature. “The low temperature cure is important for us,” said Matthew, “because normal curing temperatures will damage and deform the core material. The resin we use also has amazing mechanical properties giving the frame additional strength over the alternatives.”
Once the layup is complete, the whole frame is cured as a single piece using heat and a vacuum. From there, the frame is prepared for the application of paint, a labour-intensive process that involves a lot of fine sanding. According to Matthew, each frame requires about 45 hours’ work from the time CAD-modelling starts until it is ready to ship.
While the whole process is relatively easy to describe, Matthew was at pains to emphasise that the practice is highly nuanced. There are multiple variables that must be carefully managed to achieve a consistent outcome, and for Plane, that has meant a lot of trial and error: “We are now at the point where we are only making very minor refinements to the frame, which is nice, but it’s also a process that never really ends. We keep on searching for perfection with the understanding that nobody actually gets there.”
Buyers are free to choose between rim and disc brakes for Plane’s road frame. For the former, the frame features single-bolt mounts and dropouts to suit standard quick-release axles, while flat mounts and 12mm thru-axles are provided for the latter.
As for the rest of the specifications, Plane builds its road frames with a 44mm head tube that can accommodate a tapered fork steerer, a seat tube that accepts a seatpost with a diameter of 27.2mm or 31.6mm, and as mentioned above, there’s a choice of a PF30 or T47 bottom bracket shell. A braze-on tab is supplied for the front derailleur, if needed.
All of Plane’s road frames are mated with a Columbus Futura fork (to suit rim or disc brakes) and the frameset can be finished with any single colour the buyer chooses. There are, of course, other options for the fork and finish, but they will add to the final price of the frameset.
Speaking of which, the frameset sells for AUD$4,500 (~US$3,550). That price includes the frame, fork, and a lifetime warranty. I doubt Plane will woo bargain-hunters, but in the realm of bespoke composite framesets, it’s very reasonable.
At present, the current lead time is 10 weeks but that may vary according to demand. Plane is appointing retail partners around the world to make it easy to place an order, and if required, source the parts for the rest of the build. For those that are located outside this network, they can get in touch with Plane directly to place an order.
Plane provided a prototype for this review, which was assembled with Lynskey forks, Shimano Ultegra Di2 groupset, 3T cockpit, and a custom carbon wheelset. The result weighed a modest 8.57kg with cages but no pedals.
It was a bike that I found immediately attractive thanks to the combination of swooping lines and sharp edges. In the current era of raised aerodynamic awareness, the styling of Plane’s road frame might seem ill-informed, but there’s more to riding a bike than marginal gains. Of course, this is a highly subjective matter, but Plane deserves to be applauded for creating a distinctive frameset.
Picking up the bike and moving it around, it was easy to forget that the frame had a foam core. I could give the top or down tube a knock with my knuckles to prove it was there, but otherwise it had no obvious bearing on the bike.
That was, until I started riding it. I expected the chassis to be quiet, but that word doesn’t do the bike justice. Within moments of throwing a leg over the bike, I felt like I had entered a vacuum or void where sound does not exist. It didn’t matter if the road was smooth or uneven, the bike refused to make any noise.
It was incredibly smooth, too, like sliding down the glassy face of a perfect wave. On clean suburban roads, there were no vibrations to distract me and I found myself revelling in a sense of pure motion. On rougher terrain, the bike would move around, but its threshold was very high and the feedback was always muted.
As much as I enjoyed what the Plane had to offer, there were times when the lack of feedback from the road left me feeling isolated. The sensation was very much like riding an indoor trainer, and if it wasn’t for the surroundings and the changing terrain, boredom might have set in.
As I spent more time riding the bike, I started longing for that feedback. At one point, I locked up the rear wheel while slowing for a set of lights, but I wasn’t aware of what was happening until I registered the sound of the tyre skidding. On almost any other bike, I would have felt the wheel skidding long before the sound of it arrived at my ears.
Thus, for some, the ride quality of the Plane will be a gift, and for others, it might be a curse. I enjoy the way that sound and vibrations can travel through a chassis, so on one level, I really failed to connect with the Plane. That’s not to say that I ever developed distaste for the bike, only that it helped to highlight my appreciation for feedback from the road.
Interestingly, the absence of feedback challenged my appreciation of the bike’s other capabilities. For example, in the absence of any noticeable vibrations, it took some time to judge how stiff it was. Sharp jolts and big hits were always keenly felt at the saddle — but not at my hands — while long rides left me feeling a little saddle sore.
Keep in mind that the bike was supplied with supple 28C tyres that I kept inflated to 50psi for the duration of the review period. That combination would be enough to guarantee the plush comfort of almost any other frame, so I think it’s fair to say the vertical compliance of the frame was pretty low. If I were contemplating a Plane for myself, I’d explore the options for a more compliant shape and layup.
The lack of feedback also interfered with my impression of the bike’s responsiveness. Jumping out of the saddle for a sprint on the flats always resulted in the bike moving forward, but it wasn’t a rewarding experience. It was just too difficult to judge how quickly the bike was accelerating because there wasn’t enough feedback.
The same thing happened when I was attacking climbs. The bike always felt stout under load but the sensation was very much like attacking one of Watopia’s virtual climbs because that’s how much road feel was missing. My only impression was that, compared to a lightweight climbing rig, the Plane wasn’t as nimble, but I wouldn’t classify the bike as slow or cumbersome.
All of this really demonstrated to me that the Plane was built for riding rather than racing. Indeed, it has to be the most serene bike I have ever ridden. Still and quiet like the interior of an empty church, this bike will be perfect for any rider looking for a sanctuary untroubled by the noise and vibration normally associated with riding a road bike.
The steering and handling suited the Plane’s tranquil nature. The bike was very stable, and in the absence of a lot of vibration and feedback, there were no sensations that could unnerve me as the bike gathered speed on a fast descent. At the same time, I’d rate the steering as neutral, so the bike was reasonably easy to turn without ever being demanding.
With that said, I don’t see much point in dwelling on this aspect of the bike since the geometry of the final product is left in the hands of the buyer. As mentioned above, Plane’s design process provides plenty of freedom to explore the possibilities for the steering and handling of the bike, so prospective buyers need only assert their preference.
Finally, one ride in the rain was enough to confirm that water could run freely into the channels for the brake hose and gear wire. Most of the water seemed to drain quickly when I lifted the bike up by the front wheel but I would have liked to see hole on the underside of the bottom bracket shell to make sure of it. I’m told that this is a feature Plane has been working on that will be included on production frames.
I’ve longed championed the benefits of custom-built frames for all of the options they provide a buyer. This applies not only to the finish and geometry but also the fittings and specifications. At the same time, buyers get the opportunity to work with a framebuilder that might be doing things a little differently to obtain a truly unique and distinctive product.
Plane Frameworks provides all of these options and benefits, including a novel positive moulding process for its composite frames that produces a unique ride quality. Plane’s frames do wonders at insulating the rider from the noise and vibration that the road can create in a typical composite frame, creating a wonderfully serene riding experience. It’s not something that will necessarily satisfy all riders, but for those that truly enjoy a bike that doesn’t provide any feedback from the road, Plane’s custom road disc frame is unrivalled.