You can sense it in the air: There’s an urge among pioneering U.S. brands to bring their manufacturing back home. That used to be what set these iconic names apart from the rest. We’re seeing efforts like the one-off frame Santa Cruz made for Danny Macaskill, or the carbon labs that have popped up deep within nearly every brand’s back warehouses. Those are just experiments, though. Nobody is truly working toward actual production in the U.S. It’s labor-intensive, and our labor is expensive.
But Ibis just announced it will soon be offering a production, off-the-shelf, U.S.-made Ripley LS frame … sort of.
Since 2014, Ibis has had its own in-house carbon laboratory where it experimented with materials and techniques to improve its carbon production overseas. One of the canvases Ibis used to perform those experiments was a small-sized Ripley LS, which made sense given that the current-generation Ripley LS was missing a small, much to the chagrin of Roxy Lo, Ibis designer, co-owner and small-sized-frame candidate.
The goal in the refinements Ibis made during its small-size experiments was to shorten the production time of its carbon frames. Ibis engineers found that if they could improve the quality of work in the initial build, it would significantly lessen the amount of finishing labor needed to complete the frame. But that was just the start.
They then started cutting down the number of panels needed in the Ripley LS’ layup. The Asian-made Ripley LS front triangle might be made of more than 350 carbon panels. But they were able to cut that to around 100 in the U.S.-made version.
Next, they turned their attention to the mold. Traditional molds are solid blocks of steel, which, to say the least, are unwieldy and take a lot of time to heat and cool, a necessary part of the molding process. The mold Ibis made for its in-house Ripley LS frame is aluminum, and lacks the extra mass around the actual mold that takes so much time to bring up to temperature.
The result is a frame that is stiffer, lighter and takes up to 40 percent less time to make than an Asian-made Ripley LS …
But according to Ibis CEO, Hans Heim, it’s still significantly more expensive to make than it would be using the existing methods employed in Asia. So we reached out to Heim to get a few more details.
-Any perceivable ride quality differences in the updated frame?
We don’t have an apples to apples comparison because many other things have changed since we last made small Ripleys, but it’s lighter and stiffer. Additionally, it now accepts 2.6 tires and has a steeper seat tube angle and slacker head angle than the original geometry Ripley. Internal cable routing as well.
-The images look like they're just of front triangle production. Is it just the front triangle for now?
Yes. We will expand to include the swingarms and all sizes of front triangles on our next project.
-I guess it would defeat the purpose here, but I gotta ask: Couldn't these time-saving/weight-saving techniques be ported over to Asia to further reduce cost of frame manufacturing?
Some of them can, generally the small changes that help production are interesting to our factories. The larger changes in process, for instance aluminum tools instead of steel, self heating tools, the way we do the layup, stuff like that, would require a big disruption in current operations and they shy away from that.
I did get some real interest from one of the factory owners when I told him he could save most of the $22,000 per month he spends on electricity.
-Am I right to assume the smaller volume of sales of small frames is a factor in why this is feasible to be done in the US?
It’s one of those projects where you know that you will eventually reduce the cost, but you have to start in order to get there. If you price it based on the costs in the beginning, the frames would be $10K each. It’s aerospace levels of quality, but we are getting faster as we go, optimizing each part of the process. We can afford to do it since the volume is modest. We’ve already improved to the point that we are profitable on them, but may need to charge a bit more in the future.
-What do you hope could change to help reach a sustainable cost? Is it mostly a matter of scaling up?
It should continue to improve--scale, practice and continual improvement of the production system should allow us to do it.
Ibis has its own in-depth explanation of the manufacturing process here.