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HAAS CNC chosen by BMC Cycles

HAAS CNC chosen by BMC Cycles

Added to MTDCNC by HAAS Automation on 10 June 2014

As cycling enthusiasts and industry insiders know, the past decade has proved to be an exciting, but sometimes rocky, ride for Switzerland’s most famous bicycle manufacturer, BMC. Originally founded by an ex-pat Englishman making bikes for the British brand Raleigh, the company was bought in 2001 by Swiss businessman Andy Rihs, who built an impressive new factory in Grenchen, near Bern, with the simple, unequivocal aim of creating a bike and a team capable of winning the Tour de France.

Victory eventually came in 2011 with Australian rider Cadel Evans, and since then, BMC’s reputation as a maker of the most desirable, technologically advanced bicycles has careered ahead. Now, as well as the team machines, the factory makes custom-designed and hand-finished carbon-framed bikes for pro and amateur racers and wealthy dilettantes.

At the other end of the price spectrum, BMC’s mainstream production frames are made in China and Taiwan, where permanently stationed, company-sanctioned engineers scrutinise quality before allowing bikes to be shipped back to Europe.

'When they arrive here, the bikes are 80 percent ready to ride,' says Martin Känzig, BMC’s COO based in Grenchen. 'We simply add the wheels and forks. It’s only the really high-end bikes – the ones with the options – that we make here in the impec factory from start to finish.'

And if the custom bikes themselves aren’t impressive enough, visitors to Grenchen can marvel at the multi-million-Euro, three-stage, carbon-tube manufacturing process, which dominates the impec factory and, claims Mr. Känzig, is the only one of its kind in the world. At present, around 4 kilometres of carbon goes towards making every BMC impec frame.

'The seamless carbon tubes are the critical and distinctive components of a BMC impec bike. Our process starts with braiding, where each tube is robot loaded, then spun with four layers of carbon fibres over a silicon body.'

The robot reads what type of tube it is, loads the appropriate programme, and starts the process to apply the carbon fibre, taking around 7 minutes to complete operations, depending on tube length and complexity. The second process is resin injection, where the tube is moulded to shape and, as the name suggests, is injected with resin and set hard. Finally, the tubes are trimmed to size by a six-axis robot and a diamond saw. 'We currently produce around 1300 bikes a year using this setup,' Mr. Känzig says, 'but we have capacity for more than 2500.'

Smaller and less obtrusive than the tube-making machines, but just as important in the manufacturing process, is the company’s single Haas VF-4SS Super Speed CNC machining centre, which arrived in 2010.

'The Haas is used to create jigs and fixtures, plastic components, and R&D or prototype parts for new bikes,' Mr. Känzig explains. 'In terms of the latter, we design components using 3D CAD, and then machine them on the Haas; we find it quicker and easier than using other technology, such as 3D printing. Plus, you get a part with true mechanical qualities that’s fit for testing in real-life situations.'

The Haas at BMC is also earmarked for future production duties, adds Mr. Känzig. 'For the next generation of product, one idea is to use the VF-4SS to mill frame tubes, to allow them to be located closer together. To implement this strategy in the most effective manner, we’re thinking we’ll need a second VF-4SS. Ultimately, the plan is to make a completely new bike using less parts than on the existing one.'

BMC rarely produces tubes with a conventional round cross section. 'We don’t do this for reasons of technical advantage,' says Mr. Känzig, 'it’s more a design feature that reflects our brand. But, by doing so, we’ve made it hard to make the necessary tooling.' Which was the reason the company bought the Haas in the first place.

When the current production model was being developed in 2010, the engineers at BMC were under pressure to finish the prototyping and testing, and start manufacturing.

'One of our bottlenecks always seemed to be getting jig and tooling parts, on budget and on time, from external suppliers,' explains Mr. Känzig. 'We decided that the system was too expensive and too time consuming. One of our engineers had previously worked for a company who made mechanical parts. He was already experienced with Haas machines and was a big fan of them, so the decision to invest in the VF-4SS was easy. As well as using it for the fixtures and tooling, we also use it for a few of the smaller parts found on some models. We have also begun to mill plastic parts – the tube joints. After we made some technical design improvements, we changed the shapes a little. Instead of destroying and remaking our injection moulds, which would have been very expensive, we decided it was better to machine the parts using the Haas mill.'

The company’s high-specification race machines used in the Tour de France and other major events are also custom-built and finished in the Grenchen factory. The colour of the frame, for example, is changed to reflect the position of the rider: green for points leader (most consistent finisher), white with red polka dots for 'King of the Mountains,' or yellow for overall race leader. Putting a value on bikes tailored for individual riders and customised for different events is nigh on impossible.

'Customers who buy the top-end bikes want something very special. For production bikes, our biggest market is Switzerland,' says Mr. Känzig, 'although we’ve made good gains recently in Germany and France, and sales are now picking up in Italy. The USA is also one of our growth markets, as is the UK. In all, we make around 45,000 production bikes a year. It’s not possible to compare BMC with a manufacturer such as Giant, for example; they make a couple of million bikes a year. But, if you look at the average price of their bikes, they’re addressing a different market. For the impec bikes, our customers can have race fit or performance fit (higher, safer, and looks better), while we have spread the use of Shimano Di2 electronic shifters across all our products. In fact, over all road bikes, we are now one of the biggest purchasers worldwide of the Di2 group sets.'

The growing global demand for bikes is important to BMC; but clearly, it’s the high-end, custom-built models that are turning what once was a small-time, relative unknown into one of the world’s most desirable cycling brands. Having flexible tools and manufacturing processes allows the company to experiment with product designs and innovations, and just as importantly, make the jigs and fixtures it needs for its new frames and components.

'The Haas VF-4SS has already proved itself to be a very important part of our operations,' concludes Martin Känzig. 'We’re currently only using it 70 to 80 percent of the time, and every day we find new things to do with it. It’s very easy to programme and operate, and it’s very reliable.'

Building race-winning teams and bicycles is largely about eliminating problems before they occur, which is undoubtedly what Andy Rihs had in mind when he created his 'impeccable' factory. It’s no coincidence that for the factory’s only CNC machine tool, he chose a Haas.


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