There’s a slow-moving trend across the bike industry of brands ‘re-shoring’ to take ownership of their own manufacturing. In recent times we’ve seen the likes of
Bianchi, 3T, and Pirelli announce new manufacturing facilities; all projects that were in the works before the ongoing pandemic. And it’s a trend that will surely continue as the pandemic-led cycling boom has shown the bike industry that it shouldn’t have all of its eggs in one manufacturing basket.
The reasons for the re-shoring can be varied, and there’s often more than a single benefit to doing so. For smaller brands, it’s a guaranteed way of controlling the supply chain that can often shift schedules based on the demands of larger brands. In other cases, it can be because a brand wants to push a technical development and/or the product performance, and its existing outsourced manufacturing partners don’t want to stray too far from the well-beaten (and profitable) path. Some also cite benefits in the ability to control every step of the production, with in-house testing, and continuous improvement along the way.
The much higher labour costs of manufacturing in developed cities can be partly offset through shorter delivery lead times, not having to freight products across the world, or more efficient manufacturing processes. Meanwhile, eco-conscious brands cite similar benefits to local manufacturing. And while it’s rarely reason enough alone, many brands re-shore because there’s prestige in doing so.
Based in Santa Cruz, California, Ibis Cycles is another industry example that has made a significant investment to control its own destiny and bring a small part of its production in-house. And all of the reasons above arguably apply.
In 2018 the company acquired what would become its 15,000 square foot carbon frame manufacturing facility, a building that feels impressively spacious for the current headcount of around 15 staff – many of whom are veterans of the industry, with a few having been involved with pioneering monocoque carbon frame manufacturer Kestrel.
The following gallery is a tour of the Ibis Cycles facility and a look behind the scenes at how the new
Exie cross country race mountain bike is created – the only model from Ibis Cycles currently being produced in-house.
It’s worth noting that our sibling website PinkBike has previously featured the
backstory to Ibis’s facility, however, I figured that while I was in town for the 2022 Sea Otter Classic, why not check it out for myself and take a deeper dive into Ibis’s process for making a carbon frame. While you’re here, be sure to check out an older feature of ours that takes a more detailed look at what carbon fibre composite is and how carbon bicycle frames are made.
Surrounded by strawberry fields, the Ibis carbon manufacturing facility sits in a nondescript building near the agricultural area of Watsonville, California. The building was initially constructed to be a terminal for an undersea fiber-optic cable, something that was never put into use. Ibis funded much of its facility outfit by stripping out the enormous amount of copper wire that came with the building. Part of that outfit includes 320 solar panels on the roof that power the entire facility with excess going back into the grid.
This is the greeting sign at the entrance. Carbon 831 Lab was the name given to Ibis’s original carbon construction and testing lab based out of its headquarters in Santa Cruz, California. That lab opened in 2014 with the goal of research and development, and it soon became a feasibility study for future local full-scale production. And that led to this factory that’s currently turning out 3-4 frames a day.
A quiet hero of Ibis’s 831 Lab was Luis Valerio, a development technician who had over 30 years of carbon composites experience. In a past job Luis had helped produce countless Kestrel frames. Luis passed away from COVID-19 in early 2021. A tribute to Luis, with a frame he helped create, sits in the entrance.
The materials and methods used by Ibis to create its Exie frames are closely alinged with how a great number of carbon monocoque frames are produced. For Ibis, everything is done in-house and under the one roof, with rolls of pre-preg carbon composite coming in the door, and a boxed ready-to-ride frameset heading out. Here this large automated cutting table, operated by Jonathan Villarruel, precisely controls the cutting of the pre-preg carbon into specific shapes for the layup.
One of the big labour efficiencies (and therefore cost reductions) Ibis has realised is that by using frame size-specific and unique shapes for the layup, they can greatly reduce the number of individual pieces required for the layup of the frame. Frame layup is an extremely labour-intensive process, meanwhile the more detailed shapes also reduce redundant material overlap, something that saves weight in the final product, too. Ibis uses approximately 125 individual layup pieces in the creation of its Exie frames. That figure is less than half the number often used in mass production facilities. The negative to this process is that the cutting and placement of the specific pieces needs to be far more precise. Photo: Ibis Cycles.
Each frame has its own cut sheet, providing an itemised list of what’s needed and which batch of material it was cut from.
While the pieces are being cut, staff in the next room are working on another part of the puzzle. Before any layup can begin, technicians must first create the base mould which the layup is wrapped around. Ibis uses a bagged EPS foam mandrel. This is a common approach that helps to provide consistent compression of the carbon composite layup. Pictured here is Martin Ortiz, one of the technicians who creates the mandrels, lays up the frames with the carbon sheets, and then sees them through the moulding process.
The mandrel is compressed using what’s effectively a grocery-style vacuum sealer. This creates a smooth and consistent surface for the carbon layup to be wrapped around. Note the relieved grooves for the guided internal cable routing.
Those 125-odd pieces of prepreg are carefully wrapped around the foam mandrel. It’s a slow process and mistakes can result in a whole lot of time and material waste. This frame is almost ready for baking.
Once again, those specific pre-cut shapes help to reduce unnecessary overlap and help to save labour time, too. Photo: Ibis Cycles.
Most Asian carbon frame manufacturers use enormous and heavy steel moulds for each frame. Those moulds are then placed in huge ovens. By contrast, Ibis discovered significant efficiency gains through using far lighter aluminium moulds which conduct heat better, and even more so given each of these moulds has its own self-contained and controlled heating elements. The downside? Well, aluminium moulds are less durable and so are best kept for smaller-scale manufacturing purposes. Likewise, building such heat elements and heat sensors into the moulds isn’t cheap.
The moulds used are mostly fixed without too many moving pieces. There are some exceptions, such as the piece that sits behind the head tube.
A little more layup is done as the front triangle of the frame is placed in its mould. Areas such as the head tube get steel mandrels to ensure consistent shaping. Photo: Ibis Cycles.
Once the frame is in place, the two sides of the moulds are bolted together. The moulds are then heated to liquify the resin that is pre-impregnated with the carbon fibre. And the red plastic bags that surround the EPS mandrels are then inflated to 220 psi to force the carbon against the metal moulds. Photo: Ibis Cycles.
One in the oven. You can see the pressuirsed airline coming in through the seat tube opening.
Each frame size needs its own mould, which you can see occupying the numerous tables in this photo.
While one or two front triangles are baking, Daisy Dayap is prepping a rear triangle for moulding. Across the four frame sizes, the Exie frames all share the same rear triangle. The rear triangles are produced as two separate pieces (left and right), which are later bonded into one.
Near each work station or bench sits a variety of often-used tools. This tool storage method wasn’t covered in my storage-related edition of Cool Tool Tuesday, but it clearly works.
A closer look at the rear triangle mould. These moulds are CNC-machined from single pieces of aluminium billet.
Another prep station and a different set of tools.
A rear triangle all layered up and ready to withstand the heat and the pressure. The process is the same as for the front triangles.
Set the timer.
Ding! This rear triangle is fresh from the mould. It will now wait in the ‘dirty room’ for more time-intensive labour.
The plastic compression bags and melted foam mandrel must be removed. This is often a time consuming process that involves tweezers, picks and other grabby tools.
When it’s not lunch time this station is kept noisy with post-moulding clean-up. Mandrel bags are removed, the squeezed-out excess resin and stray carbon fibre filaments are sanded off. These sanding booths are effectively large extractor fans that keep the air around them fresh.
The post-mould sanding and finishing is a labour-intensive stage. Photo: Ibis Cycles.
These rear triangle pieces await the next preparation step with further sanding before the two pieces are bonded into one.
Front triangles are matched with rear triangles, and await yet another manufacturing stage.
Meanwhile in another corner of the ‘dirty room’ sit a few test jigs. Shown here is a common impact test jig which puts a surprisingly large force onto the frame. Ibis puts one in 100 of its Exie frames through destructive testing.
This jig is used for measuring frame stiffness. The frame is locked into position and loaded up in a controlled way. Deflection is then measured.
Ibis had a bunch of cut-up test frames in this part of the facility. Here’s a pre-production head tube which shows the internally guided cable routing.
A more blunt test involves simply securing the bottom bracket to a rock-solid table and ensuring the frame can take the strain. My tour guide and Ibis manufacturing engineer Travis McCart showed just how much load can be put through a frame this way. With experience you can apparently get a pretty good feel for ensuring the layup went to plan.
This same room doubles as the machine shop. Here basic tooling can be created as needed. Many of these machines were acquired from other now-defunct manufacturers in the area.
The stickers on this tool cart tell a story of past industry work.
Is it a hammer or a socket wrench? Yes.
From the ‘dirty room’ the frames move back into the same large room that is occupied by the carbon-cutting table.
Here a freshly cleaned front triangle awaits some metal components. Some manufacturers “co-mould” these pieces in place during the initial layup of the frame, while Ibis’s method of using a two-part epoxy is more common.
What sort of components you wonder? Well, the moulded frame doesn’t have a workable bottom bracket shell or suspension pivot points.
And that’s what these parts are. These are bottom bracket shells. They’ll be bonded into the carbon frame.
Likewise for these lower pivot inserts.
And these pieces of shock mounting hardware.
Ibis has frame size-specific jigs to assist with drilling in the bottle cage bosses. It’s just one example of how plastic filament-based 3D-printing is being used in the facility.
Dedicated jigs exist for squarely bonding in these aluminium inserts.
Frames are then ready for cosmetic finishing. Ibis uses a clear Cerakote coating on its Exie bikes.
With the Cerakote done, it’s time for the decals.
Decal placement is another labour-intensive task.
Top and bottom. Bubbles in this spot are a no-go.
Francisco Cervantez takes the lead in this part of the process. These front triangles are all stickered up and ready to be attached to the rear triangles.
Finished rear triangles ready to be attached to the front triangles.
A few finished frames from the day before await a wrap of protective packaging and a cardboard box. All up, Ibis suggests each frame takes eight hours of labour, not including the time for any hands-off or automated steps.
Finished, boxed, and ready for dispatch.
The finished product. Photo: Ibis Cycles.