Bicycle innovations on track to succeed
By Laurent Hanen, Development Program Manager
Widely accepted as one of the world's most efficient forms of transportation, the bicycle is arguably one of mankind's most impressive and enduring inventions. With worldwide production hovering around 140 million per year, it takes something really special to make an impact in this incredibly mature market.
Since its earliest iteration in the form of the Hobby Horse in 1816, the bicycle has undergone some major design changes, beginning in 1860 with the introduction of pedals attached to the front wheel. But it is fair to say that in the last few decades, the actual design of the bicycle and the functionality of its primary components have remained relatively stagnant.
With so many large companies involved in the industry, it is an incredibly tough market to get into; and it could be argued that this is one of the primary barriers with innovation. However, with the right mindset, the right expertise and the right product coupled with design, development and processing collaboration with DuPont, the French firm IXOW believes it has what it takes to make an impact.
The company has developed a number of innovative bicycle components, all of which take a fresh look at incumbent solutions, including, in many cases, the replacement of metal with advanced engineering plastics. All of the new products offer cyclists the proven performance of advanced engineering plastics combined with a new way of operating, creating the vital innovation needed to crack the market.
Two of the products—the Magiclever and the Stempark—are innovative alternatives to existing brake levers and handlebar stem joints respectively. The Magiclever is a brake lever incorporating a patented cable-tension adjustment system, which allows the rider to adjust the brakes without any specialized tools; a coin is all that is needed. The Magiclever is much simpler, quicker and safer than the traditional locknut system, which can be difficult to use. In addition, the brake cable comes out along the handlebars, with the cable and casing being protected, freeing up the area in front of the handlebars. This is of particular interest for town bikes, as a basket can be very easily added.
The Stempark is the first stem to include an integrated patented release mechanism for storing and transporting the bicycle in a simple and efficient way. By simply turning a control ring using two fingers, the handlebars can be aligned parallel to the frame and the wheels. The width of the bicycle is immediately reduced by 50 centimeters. The release mechanism is secured in such a way that there is no possibility of incorrect operation.
Both components make significant use of engineering plastics in the form of DuPont™ Zytel® glass-reinforced and toughened PA6, which offers the right surface finish without the need for painting. The Stempark also takes advantages of the loadbearing properties offered by DuPont™ Zytel® HTN. "Engineering plastics are the right raw materials to support our strategy of innovation," explains Christian Gauthier, CEO of IXOW. "As well as these two new products we have further innovations on the horizon—one of which we believe only can be made from plastic. We have the ability to innovate because engineering plastics are flexible enough to help us create the right solutions, while competing with more established companies, especially those in Asia. Asian bike companies have established skills and economies of scale in aluminum and other metals. We cannot compete with them using aluminum, but in France we have great plastic-injection skills."
DuPont Performance Polymers (DPP) was involved from the very beginning of the design exercises and offered significant amounts of design support throughout all the projects. It is also offering processing support for IXOW and the third-party French molders (LFP La Française de Plastique for Stempark and DSI Plastics for Magiclever) that IXOW is employing to undertake the molding work.
"I first met DuPont in May 2010," explains Gauthier, "and discovered very quickly that DuPont had a very similar mindset. It wanted to support innovative products not only in the design phase, but also right through further development. At the beginning I thought I had made a good decision going with DuPont and three years down the line, I am still convinced."
One of the biggest questions asked of IXOW is "Why plastic? Why not aluminium, like many other suppliers?" Gauthier explains his reasoning: "We could make the Magiclever out of aluminum but we considered that it would be better with plastics. Plastics are easier to integrate, they offer more degrees of freedom, both for the design of the outer shell and, technically, to integrate our innovative mechanism. They also provide a nice tactile feel and grip. There are other plastic brake levers on the market, but many of them are very basic solutions and considered by manufacturers to be entry-level products. They are produced with little or no R&D at the lowest price point possible. They also use non-technical plastic, which offers poor mechanical characteristics and finishes."
Gauthier concludes, "We have generated significant interest in the market for our innovative products and, thanks to extremely rigorous and robust in-house testing, coupled with the support and engineering expertise from DuPont, we already have a few leading bicycle companies looking to use the Magiclever and Stempark. The products we are developing are also going to be available in the aftermarket, so it is not just new cycles that can benefit from our innovation."