“Designing bicycles, it’s not rocket science,” says Phil Dempsey, founder of Aprire Bicycles and manufacturing firm Cycles Perfecta, as he takes a sip of tea and points to a CAD drawing of his latest aero road frame on the computer screen in front of us.
Launched in 2009, Aprire Bicycles is a successful road bike brand and sponsor of the Aprire Bicycles / HSS Hire professional women’s cycling team. But it’s so much more than a bike brand. We’ve just toured the company’s facility in south London; it’s no gleaming F1-style garage, but the place is packed with all the tools and equipment needed to make a frame, from huge machines for cutting the moulds to a curing oven, a precision carbon cutting device and a spray booth.
When I arrive the machines are humming and whirring away as Phil makes final adjustments to them, ahead of an ambitious plan to bring carbon fibre frame manufacturing to the UK later this month. He's spent the last few years getting to this point, with the first production frames scheduled for later this month. Before this big day, I sat down with him to find out how it's going and what the plans are for mass producing carbon frames.
road.cc: What was the motivation to go from launching a bike brand to manufacturing frames in the UK?
Phil Dempsey. It started for me when I was at school when at the age of 14 I wanted to be a bike designer. I designed a full suspension mountain bike for my GCSEs and my first carbon bike for my A Levels. And then when I went to university, where everyone said we’ve sent our CVs to loads of companies and none of them has got any designer jobs, but I just thought that someone has got to be a bike designer, so it may as well be me. So I went round the houses and gambled part of my student loan on a ticket to Taiwan and within one day of being there I had put together a CV on a CD-ROM and found a job within one day. I then moved out there and spent a year out there, and then came back, moved out to LA to work for another company, and I went out to Taiwan a couple of times a year.
But the dream was always to manufacture bikes. To a certain degree, anyone can make their own brand. If you’ve got an idea and a name, we could turn that into a product in a month. I think that manufacturing the whole thing from scratch is something is different because anyone can make a brand in a month. But to make it successful, because there are so many brands about, I think you need to do something massively different like know exactly what you’re engineering. Our marketing is quite poor, I’ll admit, but our engineering is absolutely sound. We’re not like Specialized who have a lot of teams on their bike, and a back cover advert in every magazine, and you’ve got other small brands like us, but they put a hell of a lot of effort into marketing, and built their brand a lot quicker. But designing a bike, it really isn’t an issue. I think for us, though, I’d like for us to be known like Shimano for our engineering because we won’t release anything that isn’t quite right.
For something like Cycles Perfecta, we don’t need to market it, because product managers don’t care, all they care about is how good are you at manufacturing and that, for us, considering we filled two years worth of order books in what is four months, that’s not bad going. All we’ve got to do is deliver, that’s it.
So you launched the Aprire bike brand first, but the idea was always to go into manufacturing then?
It was almost a pipe dream. I thought well we’ll design the bikes and have them manufactured for us because we’ll never, it cost so much money we’ll never be able to do that. And then as the success has grown, we’ve gone ‘sod it’ we can manufacture this. Other people were having just as many problems with manufacture, we wanted to bring it in-house. And we have.
How long have you been setting up the manufacturing facility?
To get where I am now, probably three-and-a-half years. It’s been a long, arduous road and we’ve completely redesigned the way we manufacture a bike, the moulds, even drilling down to how much energy we’re using. A frame will take, in total with paint, about one week. However, when you’re doing 20 to 30 of those a day, we’ll be set up at full tilt to doing 50 a week, including paint and build. That’s the maximum that we can do, 50 a week.
You have a packed order book, but do you have plans to launch any new frames under the Aprire label?
For Cycles Perfecta we have three open mould frames. That’s exactly like China do, and it all works beautifully, don’t change the model. We’ll only show those moulds to properly interested people. You won’t find those moulds sitting on eBay, that’s not going to happen. So we have our own three open moulds, we’ve also opened up moulds for other companies, we’ve got two that we’ve opened up for two companies already, a folding bike as well as a road bike. We also do mountain bikes, we’ll probably do more of that.
Aprire will have a new aero model, off the shelf and available in five sizes. The Celeste changes for 2017 and there’s an aluminium track bike. And then we’ll do two bespoke options, one will be more angular, new school design, and the other bespoke option will be round tubes. They’ll be available in the Aprire range and available to order by other companies, say if a bike shop wants to do its own branded bike then they can come to us to do that, a bit like a lot of brands buy Sarto frames (an Italian bespoke manufacturer) and have them branded as their own. We’ll do exactly the same.
We really want to push Aprire through, but essentially what we want to do is push the demand for Cycles Perfecta, and if we can increase that through Aprire and through other brands, it means there are certain things that I’d like to do that we can look at. For example automation and collaborative automation between human and machine, so making the human seven times more efficient, will essentially mean we’re cheaper than China. At that point, we go from a maximum of 2,600 frames a year to up to 100,000 frames a year. That’s a massive amount of work we can bring back from China. We’re already planning that now, and I think that could quite possibly be three to four years time.
That’s very ambitious, do you really believe it’s achievable?
Yes. If you don’t jump in with two feet how do you know? For instance, we’ve got a folding bike at the moment that we’re doing for a company and the technology for the folding mechanism is completely alien to anything that’s ever been seen in the bicycle industry. It uses systems from military engineering, from mechanical guidance systems, there are certain things in that to make sure it all fits together nicely. It comes apart nicely, it’s super strong, it’s probably something we’re going to look at putting a patent in for. I think you have to look outside your industry that are pushing boundaries.
Everyone has said so far “you’re stupid, you’ll never get it done” but it was never going to be a short thing. But now everything is in line, in this factory, 23rd November is our first frame coming out and we’ll push out tonnes from there. However, we know our layup, we know how to manufacture, we’ve helped manufacturers to manufacture our bikes, we’ve done all of that, we know exactly what we need to do. We’ve done the manufacture, just not on our premises. We’ve done test samples with the stuff that we need to do, and it’s worked. Now we just need to rattle out what we need.
What else can you offer to compete with China when it comes to mass production?
Within carbon fibre, I’d say the bicycle industry is probably up there with the better ones for sure, but for things like manufacturing, we’re archaic. We’re still 60 to 70 years behind every other industry. I mean, using heat presses, it’s just silly. If it was a monocoque structure, yeah okay possibly, but there are cheaper ways to do it, more efficient ways to do it, and that’s what we have to push; efficiency, efficiency, efficiency.
And that includes efficiency in your quality control. If your quality control is up to spec, your efficiency is increased, because you’re sending more bikes out and getting less back. If you do all the layup correctly to start with, it makes the bike a lot easier to deal with in the end, with something that feels nice and is easy to sell, and doesn’t come back because you’ve put enough layers in certain areas. And not making false claims for something.
What people don’t realise is that actually, England is at the pointy end of the majority of technologies, we just have a very bad way of commercialising them. For instance, the UK is the market leader in the development of robotics, we are the best in the world at that, however, it’s normally somewhere like Europe or America that takes our technology and runs off with it. Graphene found here, I think within six months we had 600 patents, that’s a lot. Not as many as China, they have 2,000! We come up with stuff and kind of don’t do anything. Let’s club together, let’s use collaborative robotics to make us more technologically advanced than the rest of the world, and bring back manufacturing.
Being made in the UK is a big draw for some people, but you can’t rely on that, can you?
For Aprire, we want the made in the UK to be a big draw. The other thing will be quality, just getting a bike that is going to work well, ride well and last. For Cycles Perfecta customers, cost and lead time, that’s it. It’s not cheaper, we’re running about 15% more than China at the moment, but lead times, instead of 90 days you’re looking at 30, shipping anywhere in Europe in five days, in the UK you’re looking at next day. You’re not looking at four to seven weeks, or expensive air freight in three to four days. So, it’s not really an issue. Another thing you’re not getting is the hassle. If something goes wrong, someone just drives from one part of the country and it goes home the same day, they’re not getting on a flight to go to China.
So that's the bold plan, to make carbon frames right here in the UK. There have, of course, been a few other attempts to do this over the years, but nothing has really succeeded. We've got our fingers crossed that Phil can really deliver on his bold plan to put carbon frame manufacturing on the map, and we'll be popping along for another visit once the first frame is completed later this month.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.