Frames: Core of the bicycle industry

Frames are the core component of any bicycle, the very essence of the product. A bicycle frame has differing variables; designs, materials, weights, and so on. With consumer expectations and market perceptions shifting product development over the time since the bicycle's inception, what trends can be seen in current frame production? Is the market shift to e-bikes leading to new developments and production location? What is the impact on the supply chain? All this and more, as we explore... the ‘simple’ bicycle frame.

In this article:

Catering to the market needs for frames

It’s only a few years since the (re) start of (alloy) frame production became a topic in the European bicycle industry. Investing in and setting-up frame production here is seen as a major move towards adding flexibility to the industry’s supply chain.

Producing enough aluminium frames to meet market demands has long been identified as a problem. Bigger challenges have also manifested as demand rocketed due to the anti-dumping measures in place on e-bikes imported from China. This has forced the production relocation of a big part of the 750,000 electric bicycles that were imported into the EU from China in 2018. Read how well equipped e-bike frame production in Europe is to cope with rapid expansion?

Emerging European frame producers

Portugaland Poland were the first European countries to recently establish their own frame production facilities (see below; Robotized frame production). Bulgaria became the third country in Europe with its own aluminium frame production when it opened in January 2020. The newly founded company,Cycle Gets, will have an annual capacity of 200,000 units

Sitting on the fringes of Europe, Turkey is a major exporter of (electric) bikes across Europe, thanks to a Customs Union agreement. The country is also making strides in frame production through KorelElektronik. In addition to complete bikes; the company is a volume-maker of alloy bike and e-bike frames with a current frame making capacity of million units annually.

Robotized frame production

The Industry 4.0 philosophy focuses on quicker, more flexible and more efficient production processes using modern IT technologies in combination with high-tech research centres and robotized production lines. Robotized frame production enables increasing production capacity, reducing lead-times and reducing the speed-to-market for (electric) bike frames. The shift to robotized frame production has been reported in several countries. The leading developments can be found in:

A shift from aluminium to steel?

Rocketing e-bike sales in Europe are causing a limited availability of aluminium frames. Production in Europe has to increase; and fast.

Red Dot Design Award winning bike made by thyssenkrupp with ‘dual-phase’ steel frame. – Photo thyssenkrupp Steel Europe
Red Dot Design Award winning bike made by thyssenkrupp with ‘dual-phase’ steel frame. – Photo thyssenkrupp Steel Europe

But starting (robotized) production of alloy frames as mentioned above is complicated. Steel is much easier to process. However, there’s no going back to chromoly tubing. Is a new highly durable steel grade with higher strength and stiffness than aluminium with the forming capabilities of carbon offering the solution? Read the full article: Will new hi-tech steel grade revolutionize frame production in Europe? Steelworks by Thyssenkrupp was a front-runner in developing lightweight steel frames, but in March 2021, announced that it was discontinuing the steel frame division due to internal restructuring.

Developments in frame welding technology

A team at the University of California (UCLA), Los Angeles, US has developed a new welding technology for high quality aluminium. It takes alloy frames to the next level as it offers the possibility to weld AA7075 alloy. This enables superlight and superstrong frames which have the potential to compete with the ones made of carbon. Read how this could offer opportunities for a new generation of e-MTBs?

In Poland, theAG Motors aluminium frame factory in the East of Polandaims to contribute substantially to improve supply chain flexibility in the bicycle industry. The new factory, which opened in August 2019, claims to have the capability to manufacture a complete aluminium frame in one uninterrupted welding process.

Carbon frame production technology

Besides exploring the return to steel frame alternatives and the added interest in aluminium capabilities, the industry is seeing a new impulse in carbon frame production technology.The first production ready carbon frame made by printing in one piece was launched in November 2019, by Atala in Italy. Accell Group, who owns 50 percent of Atala’s shares, selected this Italian company to launch this ground-breaking production technology. “This new production technology will change the market for both carbon and alloy frames,” said Atala’s R&D technician Marco Borgonovo at the presentation of the new frame at the bicycle and motorcycle show EICMA 2019 in Milan.

In May 2020, Velosione’s frame production facility in Germany celebrated the commercial launch of its first injection-molded open-mold carbon city e-bike frame. With a daily capacity of 1,000 frames per mold, the opening of the facility is seen as an important step for frame production close to the market and a more flexible supply chain.

Is 3D printing the future?

As early as 2014, manufacturers were embracing the developing technology of 3D printing. Competition on the 3D printing market is strong, but not limited to the established players in the bicycle industry.American start-up,Arevo Inc., which made its European debut at Eurobikein September 2019, has partnered with Franco Bicycles to offers a carbon monocoque bike frame without any glued parts. “By printing in one piece instead of assembling different composite components, we achieve superior structural stability. In addition to these performance benefits, the 3D-printed frame is cheaper and faster to produce, explains Arevo’s Business Development Manager Magda Zydzik.

World’s 1st e-MTB with 3D-printed aluminium monocoque frame; the 20,000-euro costing Kinazo E1. – Photo Kinazo Design
World’s 1st e-MTB with 3D-printed aluminium monocoque frame; the 20,000-euro costing Kinazo E1. – Photo Kinazo Design

Aluminium frames made by using so-called Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) technology has been launched by the recently founded Kinazo Design in cooperation with Volkswagen Slovakia. The Kinazo E1 aluminium frame is being produced by a metal 3D printing process.

Additionally, Urwahn Engineering GmbH – a spin-off of the Magdeburg University, together with a 3D prototyping partner based in Dresden is introducing a 3D-printed Chromo steel frame targeting the use in city e-bikes.

Challenges for frame manufacturers

InTube frames are the latest e-bike trend. But this trend is causing major problems for makers of electric bikes due to the abnormally high failure rate when these frames are tested before being used in final assembly. Underestimating the requirements of this new technology is a key concern as thehigh failure rates are leading to production and delivery delays.

New technologies come and go as the German car parts manufacturer and polymer and plastics expert,Rehau, found out. When announcing the termination of its e-bike brand Nuvelos, the company confirmed that it is also ceasing its e-bike composite frame project. At Eurobike 2015, Rehau presented the prototype of a fully recyclable injection-moldedebike frame made of composite materials. Initially, it was hoped to attract Europebased ebike manufacturers for Rehau’s close-to-market as well as innovative production of injection-molded composite frames,but this failed to materialise.