Bicycle Design & The Future of Carbon Fiber
For the past 35+ years, MODYN has designed the future of bicycles. We’ve experimented with different bike seats, redesigned and streamlined frames, engineered new components and worked on every detail, from the bike’s geometry to how the grips are integrated into the handlebar. Along the way there have been some big, impactful innovations. But in all of our years working on bicycle design, there have been few opportunities to take this 200-year old transportation method and make something more sustainable, durable and exciting all at once.
In a newfound partnership with Covestro and REIN4CED, our companies are embarking on a
design study to explore the possibilities for a new, totally streamlined carbon composite gravel bike frame. Designed with Covestro’s innovative carbon fiber composite and leveraging REIN4CED’s high-end manufacturing in Belgium, we’re designing a gravel bike that is more durable, eco-friendly, comfortable, streamlined and exciting to ride. Plus, it can be made right here in Europe.
Together, we just submitted the bike for a Red Dot Concept Award. But, while the jury is still out, we thought we would give you a sneak peek at the bike and explain why the carbon composite market is such an exciting opportunity at the moment.
Carbon fiber is sought after for everything from bicycle design to formula one racing because it’s lighter, stronger and more stiff than the widely-used aluminum. But, the problem is, carbon fiber is still quite impact-sensitive. So, while cyclists have benefited from lighter bikes and the improved damping and torsional stiffness of carbon fiber, the bikes have had their limitations. If you crash your racing or mountain bike, the impact could be enough to total the carbon fiber frame.
However, Covestro’s Maezio® thermoplastic carbon fiber composite can offer much more durability and impact resistance, combining strong carbon fibers with the power and flexibility of thermoplastics, such as polycarbonate (PC). Right now, this material is being used successfully across sectors and within many industries — our study on the gravel bike frame being the latest.
Until recently, much of the carbon fiber production has been centered in Asia. But REIN4CED, which is based in Belgium, is bringing the process here to Europe. Using an automated production process that handles the material in an accurate, precise manner, this design study can become a reality quickly and efficiently right here on the continent where gravel bike riding has become increasingly popular in destinations like Germany and Norway.
The potential of this material is so much more impactful than providing cyclists with a better product — which, arguably, is impressive enough. From improved, automated manufacturing to greater sustainability and more design opportunities, the use of thermoplastic composites has huge potential for the bicycle industry.
1. Improved manufacturing
Today, if you want to manufacture something out of carbon fiber, Asia is the place. It is also a labor intensive process, largely done by hand. The production of carbon fiber bicycle frames takes several weeks. And on top of the lead time it takes to manufacture these products, brands also have to consider how long it is going to take to ship them to Europe.
With our design study partnership, our gravel bike would be produced right here in Europe using Covestro’s carbon fiber composite and REIN4CED’s highly-automated process. This brings the supply line back to Europe, allowing many of the world’s top bike brands who operate here to take back craftsmanship and have more control over the quality of their finished products while also cutting lead times.
2. More and new design opportunities
As designers, what excites us most are all of the opportunities this new manufacturing process allows us. For example, REIN4CED can use the benefits of thermoplastics which allows us to directly integrate essential parts into the frame — like lights, bike lines, electric wiring and cool new finishes. With aluminum, which is most commonly used in bike frame design, these kinds of integrations and design innovations are not only more difficult to make, but more expensive. With this new manufacturing process we can also create more streamlined designs — getting rid of welding marks and easily integrating key components into the frame.
3. A more sustainable product
At MODYN, our mission is to design products that let people move more freely, easily and sustainably in our world. Unfortunately, aluminum, which is widely used in the bicycle industry, is not sustainable. Mining of aluminum has a huge impact on the environment — from disrupting ecosystems to the pollution that comes from dig sites. You also have to consider all the factors that go into manufacturing, from the excavation equipment to the trains, long-haul trucks, cargo ships, and oil tankers that move the raw
material to processing plants. Plus, there’s the condition of the workers who make the bikes to consider, too. While aluminum is recyclable, a huge amount of energy goes into creating it in the first place.
What’s interesting about working with carbon fiber composites like Covestro’s is that compared to conventional carbon fiber, this composite is based on a thermoplastic, meaning it can be recycled — re-melted and re-formatted — into other products. That is
a huge, important improvement for this material that is already being used efficiently in the auto industry and aerospace. We also think that this material could be instrumental in the micromobility movement — which has its roots in sustainability — by providing an incredibly strong, durable and lightweight bicycle for private and public bike sharing programs. The same goes for bike leasing programs, which will play a huge part in the adoption of the bicycle in metropolitan areas around the world.
4. A transformational trickle-down technology
Today we see the biggest potential for this new carbon fiber composite in electric and mountain & gravel bicycle design — even e-mountain & e-gravel bike design. There are two reasons for this, the first being that this is still new technology and it is still quite niche. Because of its impact resistance, it’s great for rough-and-tumble mountain biking and has a greater opportunity to be embraced by this segment of the market first.
The second reason is that the manufacturing process for this new composite material is not cost effective yet. Because of this, we think that e-bikes, which are already expensive to manufacture, may be more inclined to make the investment, since their costs are already higher. Plus, there is the advantage that if they use this new material, they can leverage it as a unique selling point in a competitive market – providing customers with a lighter, more durable e-bike.
But while we see this new material only being used in a few segments of the bicycle market now, there’s huge potential for it to trickle down to the rest of the market. As the manufacturing process is streamlined and becomes more cost effective, this carbon fiber composite will appeal to many more brands for many more of their bike products. Plus, as many more brands integrate more sustainable practices into their manufacturing and business practices, this carbon fiber composite and automated manufacturing process will become much more attractive.
Finally, while we’re working on this carbon fiber composite for the bicycle industry now, it has huge applicational opportunities for the automotive and aviation industry as well. As we continue to investigate this material and refine the manufacturing process, we see incredible, and huge, potential that could span the mobility sector as a whole.