Oct 26, 2018
FINDING THE WAY FORWARD
After nearly 2 years of development and testing, Hinton Bikes [Edit: now Flit] is getting ready to ramp up towards manufacturing.
Our job has been to design an ebike that folds easily, is as light as possible, and can survive the wear and tear of daily use in busy cities. After countless hours of sketching out ideas, building prototypes, testing them to destruction, and then returning to the drawing board to do it all again, we feel that we are as well prepared as anyone can be for this task.
What we have spent the past few months looking for is a bike manufacturer that can deliver the level of quality and consistency that our design demands. This is a vital part of bringing any new product to life, but is especially true for electric folding bikes where the quality of the frame is key to ensuring that it lasts for longer than a couple of years of regular use, and there are dozens of electrical and mechanical components that have to be integrated and work together seamlessly.
Initially, we had tried to do this as close to home as possible. But after speaking to a few old industry hands, we found that mass manufacturing aluminium frames in the UK was going to be beyond our reach for the moment.
The problem that we came up against again and again was that the UK manufacturing supply chain simply isn’t set up for making aluminium bike frames at scale as things stand. There are a few reasons for this: the bike industry lost most of its skilled TIG welders to the automotive and aerospace industries in the 30+ years since Raleigh stopped manufacturing aluminium frames in Nottingham; a lot of the know how and tricks of the trade have been lost in that same period; and the UK doesn’t have the tightly integrated ecosystem of relevant suppliers (eg. fork specialists, fixture builders, heat treatment) needed to build aluminium frames at scale.
The UK does still have a very proud tradition of making steel framed bikes, and a much smaller number of carbon fibre frames, but for aluminium frames, we would have to set everything up from scratch. Based on some recent bike factory openings elsewhere, this would cost about £10m, money that we, as a small team with big dreams, simply do not have access to.
After months of research and talking to riders, bike shop owners, and bike manufacturers, we were sure that we wanted to build our ebikes in Taiwan. Not only is Taiwan one of our favourite countries to visit, with incredible food and dramatic cycle routes across tropical mountain ranges, it also has an advanced economy that sits at the hub of the global cycle industry. Whereas some other countries in the region specialise in making low cost bikes at high volumes, the bicycle manufacturing that remains in Taiwan itself is among the world’s most sophisticated, with dense supply chains, advanced manufacturing processes, and a rich pool of highly skilled designers, engineers, welders, machinists, and assemblers. It is no mistake that a country which leads the world in manufacturing complex products like medical equipment and semiconductors also makes some of the world’s best bikes and ebikes.
The next stop to getting manufacturing set up was to visit as many suppliers as possible. In Europe there is only one place to do that: the Eurobike trade show. Held every year in Friedrichshafen in the south of Germany, Eurobike is the biggest bike trade show in Europe with thousands of visitors and hundreds of companies from all over the world who make everything from brake levers to bike frames to electrical systems. After warming up with a 16 hour drive from Cambridge to the shores of Lake Constance, the Hinton [Edit: now Flit] team spent 3 furious days checking out all of the new tech on offer at the show and meeting with dozens of suppliers. We were impressed by much of what we saw, but also had a very specific idea of what we wanted. Luckily, Eurobike is one of the only bike shows big enough to have exactly what we were looking for and we were able to not only pick out a few new components, but also to identify a number of manufacturers whose skillsets and ethos aligned with our mission: to build a high quality, practical, lightweight folding ebike.
Within a couple of days of driving back to Cambridge, the team was on the road again with Dave and Alex boarding flights to Taiwan to meet manufacturers and inspect their factories. During a hectic 2 weeks, we visited manufacturers, assembly factories and battery suppliers to develop a much better understanding of how the local supply chains and partnerships worked. Meanwhile, Joe was holding the fort overseeing design projects by one of our summer interns and planning our operational strategy from logistics to after-sales.
After a couple of tips from friends who had gone out to Taiwan to build bike products before, we quickly identified one manufacturer in particular who perfectly matched our goals. We began cooperating closely to begin the process of having prototypes built to the manufacturer’s requirements at the end of July.
This is a vital early step in the design for manufacturing process as, by working closely with the manufacturer, we can ensure that the ebike that we design will be as easy and reliable to manufacture as possible. This includes not only adjusting our design to match industry standard processes, but also designing our own tooling, including extrusion dies, forging dies, and injection moulds. Getting the tooling wrong can be an expensive mistake for bike companies as making tools is one of the biggest up-front costs of making a new bike frame.
This is why Dave Henderson, our Technical Lead, will be spending much of the next few months working alongside our manufacturer’s in-house technical team and factory management at their HQ in Taichung to ensure that everything goes smoothly from the design board to having ebikes rolling off the assembly line. Dave, who learnt his engineering skills during an undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford and an early career at Jaguar Land Rover, and speaks fluent Mandarin after completing a master’s degree at Tsinghua University in Beijing, is already fully immersed. He reports that he is particularly enjoying working with the factory managers to learn more about the intricacies of bike frame tooling, and that the food at Taichung’s night markets is especially good (棺材板 is a particular favourite).
We are really excited to be moving into this next phase of the project and expect to have a lot of news to share in the coming months. We have been more cautious than most ebike startups in sharing our progress as we understand and respect the complexity of getting such a difficult product right, and are wary of making promises that we cannot keep. However, once we have the next round of prototypes ready, we expect to be able to share much more.
Keep an eye out for updates!
[Edit: Hinton Bikes was renamed Flit in October 2018 – links have been redirected to the new website:www.flit.bike]
If you have any questions please feel free to get in touch.