IBIS FACTORY TOUR

Domestic carbon manufacturing on a new level

It’s no mystery why the majority of carbon bike frames are constructed in Asia. While designs may be developed in-house, a majority of the big-name bicycle brands manufacture their frames and components overseas for good reasons—number one being that Asia is the main supplier of carbon fiber. Second, the cost of labor keeps prices (and margins) reasonable for a final sale to the rider. With a growing demand to produce bikes, how can the carbon manufacturing process be refined so that products can be made stateside?

This is a the 3D printed mandrel that Sara Passantino called “her baby.” In an actual layup, the plies of carbon are laid up over an EPS mandrel. This printed mandrel helped her visualize and test out the pieces before samples needed to be made.

Ibis wanted to answer this question, so they investigated different manufacturing procedures. The product would need to be priced competitively, so man-hours would need to be kept to a minimum, and the process needed to be environmentally efficient. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Ibis also wanted the bike to be lightweight without compromising frame strength. To get the wheels rolling, Ibis built a small carbon fiber prototype lab for testing at its Santa Cruz headquarters in 2014. Ibis began with manufacturing just the size-small Ripley front triangles so the team could study a feasible process for future production facilities. While experimenting, Ibis was able to cut a standard 86 hours of total manufacturing time down to just 35. The Ripley LS took less time to produce and was lighter and stiffer than bikes produced by their outside vendor.

Travis McCart works on an advance computer file that will be used to cut each piece of the frame.

THE FACTORY

After the success of the Ripley LS, it was time to scale up from their small testing space, so Ibis bought a building and got to work creating a factory. Finding a factory space that would meet the demands of Ibis forced them to look outside the Santa Cruz area. Luckily, Hans Heim (CEO of Ibis) located a building that is only 30 minutes away from the brand’s headquarters.

The building is just off the Pacific Ocean on the picturesque agricultural land of Pajaro, California. Originally, the property was going to be used by a telecommunication company, but they ended up never occupying the building. The building came equipped with fiber-optic terminals that ran underneath the sea, and it also had a massive generator that could have powered a small city. Much of the changes to the building were paid for by recycling the copper wire pulled from the fiber optics and selling the unneeded generator. Prioritizing environmentally friendly designs, Ibis installed 282 solar panels on the roof that currently generate 60 percent more power than the new facility needs. Of course, this is fed back into the local power grid, reducing the need for non-renewable energy generated elsewhere.

For its first bike made at this new facility, Ibis decided to focus on a frame that could perform as a World Cup cross-country-capable race bike. Welcome the all-new Exie to the Ibis family. In designing the Exie, the team was able to maximize the benefits of the molding and layup techniques they discovered when making the Ripley LS. With its new factory, the team was able to take the Exie and further refine it at each step along the way.

Each piece is specific and will be placed strategically on the mandrel before being placed into the mold.

PIECES TO THE PUZZLE

Three fundamental revisions made this endeavor successful: the cutting, molding, and finishing steps of carbon fiber frame production. Overseas factories use automated material cutters to cut generic shapes for their layups. A similar frame layup to the Exie would be around 300-pieces. With the new Ibis layup, they were able to develop specific patterns for each frame size, thus reducing the overall number to 125 pieces. Not only did this enable weight savings, it also improved the strength of the Exie’s construction.

The new layup design that used fewer pieces and would conform to the frame’s shape was developed by design engineer Sara Passantino. Sara used a 3D-printed mandrel that is similar to the EPS mandrel used during an actual layup. This allowed her to cut paper pieces and develop a pattern before any tooling or model samples needed to be made.

Rolls of carbon pre-preg are pulled from the freezer and are then laid on an automated cutting machine and sliced into sheets. Ibis uses unidirectional pre-preg so the strands run in one direction. The stack of cut sheets is then laid in different directions, creating a multi-layer preform. The carbon pre-preg is then placed back on the cutting table so the cut file can be run for the individual pieces. While the specific pieces are being cut, the mandrel is prepared and assembled.

Every station has highly sophisticated controllers that regulate temperatures and pressures consistently each time.

MOLDING THE PIECES

Ibis took the time to reinvent the approach to a carbon fiber frame mold as well. Typically, carbon factories use steel molds weighing several hundred pounds that usually need to be moved with cranes or forklifts. The steel molds are then placed into a large, heated press and baked by conductive heating. Ibis took a different approach by creating molds from aluminum that use a clear, hard-coat, anodized finish. Switching to aluminum rather than steel helped reduce thermal mass and weight. At the end of the day, the aluminum molds required less energy to heat.

Ramon Gomez shown in the final stages of laying on the pieces cut for one side of the rear triangle.

Each mold has electrical cartridge heaters and sensors built in that can be powered by a standard 220-volt household circuit. As with the rest of this factory, this energy-efficient method for their molds is completely powered by the sun. The unique design of the molds for the Exie also allows careful control of the cure cycle. With the ability to control thermal and pressure maps, Ibis can further regulate the desired strength, weight and surface finish quality. These specific settings are programmed into a controller that keeps things running within a couple of degrees of their target temperatures and pressures. An operator can simply press “start” and the cycle runs through its program accurately and consistently each time.

A frame with all pieces necessary and just moments away from being closed into the mold.

Each size-specific mandrel has grooves for internal cable routing where carbon/Teflon tubes are placed and formed into these channels. After the internal cable routing is in place, workers begin placing carbon pieces onto the mandrel. It begins with the larger pieces (downtube/top tube). Each piece is specific, accurate within a few millimeters, and placed in exact order. Once the carbon is laid up, the whole assembly is placed inside the mold. The frame is born when the workers hit the start button on their sophisticated program of controllers managing the heating and pressure of the aluminum molds. After the curing cycle is complete, the frame is removed and prepped for finish work.

So nothing is mixed up or missed, each piece being bonded into the frame is labeled and worked through in steps.

FINISHING TOUCHES

Labor costs and time are not only saved during the layup and molding process, but also in the final touches. At a typical carbon facility, the process of adding filler, primer, sanding, priming again, clear coat and decals requires (at the very least) one day of dedicated labor. Given their refined layup process, the Exie frames can be pulled out of the molds needing minimal finish work. After sanding and some light finish work to ensure the frames are perfect, items are then bonded into the frame (i.e. bottom bracket and shock mounts). After quality-control steps, the Exie is finished with a thin, lightweight, polymer coating and decals. This provides a tough finish that shows off the handcrafted layup work of the Ibis team. From here, the serial number is laser-etched and the frame is taken to be assembled and shipped to the consumer. While the main thing saved is time, these finishing touches also helped reduce the weight compared to a standard painted frame.

Dramatically cutting down labor time, sanding and prep work is minimal.

BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Without an experienced crew making this all come together, the task of manufacturing carbon fiber frames locally would have been much more of a hurdle to overcome. The boss of this new facility is none other than Preston Sandusky, who has an extensive background in carbon manufacturing, from his time being an aerospace composites engineer for the United States Air Force to wearing every hat there is (even co-owner) as an engineering manager/design engineer at Kestrel Bicycles from 1987–2007. Notable is that Kestrel is one of the pioneers in using a carbon fiber bicycle frame-manufacturing process. Preston kept busy working on more aerospace carbon composite designs until 2014 when Hans Heim got in touch with him to assemble a team.

If there are any other noticeable touch ups need, they are circled on the frame then smoothed out accordingly before decal and paint.

Among Preston’s hand-selected team was his friend and former colleague at Kestrel, Luis Valerio. Signing on for the Riley project back in 2014, Valerio provided over 30 years of experience working with carbon fiber layups. Along with that, Luis’s keen insight into each method helped improve production speeds and consistency. Sadly and unexpectedly, Luis Valerios lost his life to COVID-19 after 26 days in the ICU; however, his legacy will live on. The last bike Luis built was a small Ripley LS for his wife. He had been spending time after hours sanding and preparing the frame, and the crew around him helped piece it together. As Ibis reports, “It’s fitting that the last thing he did was for someone else. That’s who he was.”

For a visual, this frame was cut for examination of the sleeved internal cable system.

This seven-year project involved rethinking every aspect of the carbon frame manufacturing process. Not only did Ibis meet its goals to streamline production, it also improved turnaround times when creating prototypes. Sometimes, this process can take weeks (or months) with trusted contractors in Asia. With a building where everything can be done from the ground up and the ability to immediately test prototypes, Ibis was able to oversee each step necessary to accelerate its carbon frame development.

Each frame size has a specific tool for all the hardware to be bonded in the right locations.

For the time being, there are no plans for Ibis to shift all manufacturing to the United States, as Ibis firmly believes that vendors in Asia will be needed to provide the volume necessary for consumers. We shall see what happens over time, but it’s evident that Ibis has done its fair share of research to create a truly unique full-suspension carbon fiber frame.

Beloved worker and friend,Luis Valerio, greets all when they first enter the Pajaro factory.
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