ENVE Composites Factory Tour – Inside Look at Company & Carbon Fiber Manufacturing
ENVE Composites is considered one of (if not the) premier carbon fiber tube and component manufacturers, and we were given a chance to peek behind the curtain at their operation. Well, most of it anyway. There are a few things we couldn’t photograph or mention, but for the most part they opened their doors wide and gave us surprising amount of access.
Based in Ogden, Utah, ENVE produces carbon fiber tubes and frame parts for a very high percentage of US custom frame builders. Brands like Crumpton, Parlee, Independent Fabrication, Calfee and many, many more rely on ENVE’s carbon expertise to make their bikes. And, of course, there’s the lustworthy matte black component line we’re all familiar with.
Follow us along through a shop tour and see how they do it…
THE COMPANY THEY KEEP
Jason Schiers is the founder. He started his entrepreneurial life with a surf wear company, followed by a number of other companies he built and sold. His last venture before ENVE was a machine shop in Las Vegas that made, among other things, some of the safety harnesses and contraptions used by Cirque du Soleil. He built a name for himself by turning around replacement parts overnight (apparently their acrobatics are quite hard on equipment). Eventually, he sold that company to an investment group and got into the bike industry. He learned about carbon fiber in the machining industry working on composite and laminate aerospace and NASCAR projects. Then, he was VP of Lew Wheels until MQC bought them and then Reynolds. He stayed on with them for about two years to develop a wheel line (he started their carbon clinchers). His entrepreneurial spirit led him to start Edge Composites with the idea of making structural carbon parts for cars, which quickly led back to bike parts. Brett and Taylor Satterthwaite (cousins) owned Dune’s Edge, a dune buggy company. They led Jason to a closet full of $5,000-and-up mountain bikes and said he should make parts for them. Edge Composites (now ENVE) was born. That was 2005, and the cousins invested the capital to get things rolling.
Sarah Lehman came aboard in 2010 to help the company grow to the next level.
“I came in because they had grown to a point where they needed someone day to day to run the business,” Lehman said. “I came in on a project basis to build the organization and structure but ended up loving the business. It has all the right components, good people, passion and the financial backing to see it through. My background is in Fortune 100 biotech and pharmaceutical companies (Amgen, ironically, among others), but I’m happier at a smaller company where my impact can be immediately felt and measured.”
Joe Stanish started as a pro downhill mountain biker and worked with Rob Roskopp at Santa Cruz helping them get the Tasman up and running and get their grassroots team going. Then he went to Rockshox working in product development and engineering first, then in manufacturing. He helped transition manufacturing first to Coorado Springs, then to Taiwan as they grew and were acquired by SRAM. He was then recruited as vp operations at Progressive Suspension and worked their for several years.
Now Stanish is VP of operations at ENVE. He’s responsible for taking their ideas and making it possible to manufacture their products in the US. Until he came along, they were running high scrap rates and had a huge backlog. Sarah had come in a year earlier and collected a ton of data on the process, but no one was doing anything with it. Having this available allowed him to quickly streamline the process and reduce errors.
Kevin Nelson is their lead engineer and has worked in the industry since 1997, starting at GT and Schwinn. Then he went to Specialized for a couple of years to work on road. He wanted to make things, though, and moved to Reynolds, where he met Jason and got his start working in carbon. When Reynolds’ California offices closed, he started doing project work for Jason, working mostly on components while Jason worked on rims.
Schiers started in a corner of a small 5,000 square foot building housing the Satterthwaite’s long travel dune buggy manufacturer. ENVE grew to the point where it pushed the dune buggy company out. In 2011, they gambled on future growth prospects and moved into a 22,000 square foot facility (above) thinking it would suffice for about five years. They’re already looking to expand again, less than two years later.
PRODUCTION & CUSTOM TUBES
Our tour starts in the cutting and bicycle tube production room. Everything is tracked by batch and roll number. This lets them trouble shoot any issues and trace them back to the material used and when it was built. Everyone that touches the product has to initial the step they’re responsible for, and which mold and carrier is used. This helps them identify the exact step that may have caused any issue. Scrap rate was once as high as 30%, it’s now less than 5%. Joe says 70% of that scrap is merely for cosmetic purposes.
Pieces are machine cut so they’re exactly right and exactly the same every time (above, left). This keeps weights the same, too. Each kit and final component is weighed and within 10g of the target weight. That includes forks, rims, etc. Freezer storage for the raw carbon fabric on right.
In the same room is the roll wrapping machine where they make tubes to custom frame builder’s specs. For some customers, the builder can specify exact layup schedules, fiber angles and resins. For other builders, they’ll specify certain characteristics and ENVE will develop the tubing to meet their needs. They do roll wrapped tubes for various industries from military to archery, hence the wide range of mandrel sizes (black tubes at right).
Once the mandrels are wrapped with carbon, they’re cello-wrapped and placed in an electric oven for an long, slow overnight cure.
Other than Serotta and Seven, chances are good if a custom builder is using carbon tubes, ENVE’s making them. At first, the tubing was validation for the brand. Now it’s only about 5% of their business, but it keeps them in touch with the artists making bikes. It also let’s them do some pretty trick stuff like wrap wood veneer in for customers like Independent Fabrication.
Schiers says “we’re a really high end carbon parts manufacturer that also makes bicycle components. It’s a balance though between doing sound business and the really fun, creative things.”
One of the more high profile frame projects they’ve done lately is the carbon fiber rear swing arm for the Santa Cruz Syndicate team downhill bikes.
WHY START A CARBON FIBER COMPONENT COMPANY?
“When I started this company, I made my bullet point list of things I thought was wrong with carbon fiber wheel construction,” Schiers said. “With our proprietary design and patents, I solved all of them.”
“I felt like there were really cool brands that were core but struggling as businesses, and businesses that were run really well but too corporate – their product offerings based too much on what the bean counters said. And with composites, it was even more polarized.
“I wanted to create really great products and still make it a viable business. Once you get to a certain price point, the purchase decision is made more by emotions than the price tag. I wanted to build a company that always had that passion and made it clear that our products were always designed so they’d feel right the more you used them and appreciated the small details.”
WHAT MAKES ENVE SPECIAL
What largely sets ENVE apart is the tooling and the manufacturing process. Schiers says many foreign carbon manufacturers have twice as much factory space for finishing (patching, filling, painting, etc.) than for the actual production, a byproduct of less-than-ideal manufacturing processes.
“Our composite theory is about molding as many features as possible and doing as little finishing and drilling as possible,” said Nelson. “Our rims come out of the mold perfectly smooth and require almost no finishing. We don’t even clearcoat them. We do have to paint the components, though, since they’re in the direct sunlight more, the resin would yellow over time. With the wheels, it really isn’t an issue. Even the ENVE products with any sort of ‘cosmetic’ exterior carbon layer, that layer is structural.”
From there, it’s the small design touches that make the products user friendly. Having stealthy, understated good looks certainly doesn’t hurt either.
The secret sauce for ENVE’s rims is the tooling, something they wouldn’t let me photograph. And there are other parts of it we can’t even tell you about. But the process is really cool. And very time and labor intensive…which helps explain why their rims cost so much.
The bladders are a proprietary material, which is far more expensive than nylon. Further adding to the cost, their internal bladder isn’t reusable, so they need a new one for each rim.
Many carbon wheel manufacturers use cheap nylon bag bladders that are often left inside the rim. If you ever have the misfortune of breaking your carbon wheels, chances are you’ll see what looks like Saran Wrap on the inside walls. Schiers says those bladders can affect the wheel build if they twist up around the nipples. More importantly, they can also cause variances in wall thickness and wrinkles where the bag bunches.
Many carbon rims need a heavily reinforced nipple bed to counter the drilled holes, which adds weight. By contrast, ENVE’s spoke holes are molded, a process they’ve patented. It’s more time consuming and expensive to do, but it means the wheels are built with continuous fibers all the way around. They’re not drilled through to create spoke holes, so the inherent strength of the carbon fibers remains intact.
Because ENVE’s spoke holes are molded, it means a much larger inventory count. Rather than one blank that’s drilled to whatever spoke count the customer wants, they need separate molds for both 28 and 32 hole count MTB rims and 20, 24 and 28 classic road rims. That explains why they only offer a few spoke counts. It’s also part of the reason why the heavily anticipated deal with Industry Nine for road wheels never came about.
Because the spoke holes are molded, they’re able to give them a ball and socket design. This prevents spoke bending and binding. Combine that with the continuous fibers and you get a wheel that can be built incredibly strong. “WIth other brands, we’ve seen a lot of spoke failure,” said Schiers. “We (ENVE) don’t have any breakage, and we build them with very high tension.”
In these cutaways, you can see the spoke bed is thinner -way thinner- than competitor’s rims. But Schiers says there’s more material there than you’d think because their compaction is so good.
They tested over 50 resins and combinations of resins, and they continue to test new materials. “Our wheels can only be as good as what materials are out there,” said Schiers. “We always stay on top of what’s coming down the pipeline so we can keep making our products better.”
ENVE’s Classic road rims run through their custom built brake track finishing machine that uses a diamond disc grinding wheel to roughen up and shape the brake track. (top rim, above)
The new SES aero wheels had to develop a new method for texturizing the braking surface (bottom rim). Simon Smart didn’t want a raised track because it would mess up the aerodynamics. So, they create a textured section inside the mold that puts the brake track completely flush with the sidewall. Schiers says it actually works better, too. The classic road rims still use the original design because that’s the way their molds are made.
One of the key points that’s helped them grow is that their rims don’t need special care to build into a wheel. They provide their own nipples that fit into the molded conical seat, so any good shop can build them up with any spokes and hubs. That, and they’re about the only game in town if you want a high end carbon rim that’s not prebuilt into a wheel. Given that’s where they started, ENVE sells a lot of individual rims, but they are starting to sell more and more complete wheels now.
While the brand started with rims and wheels, Jason’s love for bikes and knowledge of small parts manufacturing inevitably led to components, too, once Kevin Nelson came on board. Nelson took the opportunity to expand the line and ran with it and now oversees the final design on all new products while Schiers advises. While the wheels were being finalized, Nelson was simultaneously working on the forks, which all launched together at Sea Otter in 2007 with mountain bike riser and flat bars. After that came the 1.0 and cyclocross forks, road bars, stems and more recently a new version of the flat bar and the disc brake ‘cross fork.
So what makes them special?
Nelson: “With our road handlebars, they taper to a domed end rather than an open circle. It’s comfortable even when you’re on the tips of the drops, but it’s also structurally better than the open circles. The bar’s curvature is designed to give a lot of flexibility in lever placement and hand position. With the newer shallow drop bar, there’s not as much room to work with so we had work pretty hard to give it the same flexibility. All of the bars feature dual cable gutters to work with all of the component brands. Road bars slant slightly downward to fit your hands’ natural positions as they go out, and the MTB bars do the opposite to fit your hands in the wider position on those bikes.
Seatposts are a simple one-bolt design that lets you adjust angle and fore-aft with a single allen key, and it’s very easy to assemble. The clamping area is intentionally short. While that seems counter intuitive, it allows a greater range of fore-aft saddle adjustment. Each post comes with two sets of rail clamps, one for standard round rails and one for taller carbon rails. The current design has an alloy sleeve around the entire assembly, but they’ve prototyped some without it and may explore that again in the future. For now, Kevin says the alloy sleeves give it better grip with minimal weight gain.
“Stems are one of the more difficult parts to engineer out of carbon,” said Nelson. “We tried to make something that was simple and efficient, stiff and light. It’s rounded off so there are no sharp edges to hit your knees and there’s a solid four-bolt faceplate.”
Schiers: “When we got into the fork market, everyone was making them the same way. They’d take a preformed steerer tube, bond it to a chunk of carbon for the crown then bond legs to it. When that was done, they’d drill the brake hole through the chunk of carbon, which created a huge seam right in the highest stress area.”
“We put a lot of time and energy into creating the tooling and design to make a one piece fork with continuous fibers from top to dropout. It’s molded as one piece, even the brake mount hole is molded in.”
For the mountain bike handlebars, Nelson spent a lot of time with the layup to tune the ride – the same as someone would when tuning a custom carbon bike frame.
ENVE’s national sales manager Ronnie Points says: “It’s the flex characteristics, the ride feel, that makes them special. You can create a composite structure that flexes in a repeatable manner for an insane amount of lifecycles without failure. The trick is to balance the right amount of flex with the right amount of strength. We do a lot of lab testing and a lot on ride feel. Our bars are designed to flex just a bit that adds a suppleness to the bar, and the flex pattern is from the center out, not just at the ends”
PRODUCTION IN THE U.S.
Part of the reason they’re creating more capacity for U.S. production of the components is that they can react faster to market wants and needs. “It comes down to time,” Schiers says. “We just can’t be efficient if they’re waiting on things from others.”
Along those lines, Schiers opens the door to the machine shop, shown above. They have two lathes (and another on the way), three milling machines and water jet.
“This is one of the things that I’m most proud of,” Schiers says. “It gives us the ability to go from concept to a testable part in a week if necessary. It’s awesome. It saves us from having to put a bid out, wait a couple weeks, wait more for the part, then tweak and start all over again. It also lets us make more parts for small frame builders.”
Between several new machines, and punches and all manner of other equipment they inherited from Dune’s Edge, they are now able produce every component they offer in house. Schiers says they can also use better grades of material here that aren’t allowed to be exported. This might or might not be a hint that a premium line of US-made components may come in the future, but for now all activity seems to be on meeting current demand.
In addition to the components, ENVE makes all of their tooling, tables, work benches, and machines in house. Pretty much the only things they don’t do in house are paint, decals and anodization.
While the rims are all made in UT, their components are mostly made overseas for now. Some are made domestically, and Schiers says they’re working to do more here.
“First and foremost, we’re designing the laminates here, prototyping here and completely designing everything here, including the tooling,” Schiers says. “Then we take it over there, and we’re in frequent (weekly) communication with them to maintain a consistency in the product. Then we do the final testing here, too.”
They’re also contemplating a full time position at the foreign factories to oversee their production. Schiers said even if they could ramp up production here in the US to help speed aftermarket order fulfillment, there would always be an Asian component to their manufacturing. Why? Because OEM customers need the product quickly and it makes more sense to have it made in and delivered to the same area when their products are being spec’d on production bikes.
ENVE’s wheel testing room is like a medieval torture chamber. Abused wheels lie around with markings and fresh goods awaiting punishment hang on the wall. Testing is done on final products, not during the manufacturing process. Checks are made during the manufacturing.
Their wheels are engineered for mis-use. Rims are checked for lateral stiffness on the machine above and directly below. The wheels are built with spoke tension at 180kg (almost 400lbs). Recommended is 120kg to 130kg, then set to roll on these uneven wheels.
They also test for max inflation on MTB wheels to make sure the rim won’t blow apart if you unwittingly way over inflate the tire (or pump the heck out of it to seat a tubeless tire’s bead, for example).
Brake track test – Nelson says they have a zero return rate for brake track failure since implementing their new test 15 months ago. Riders, myself included, question the safety and effectiveness of braking on carbon rims, clinchers in particular, and those concerns aren’t going unheard in the industry. ENVE is addressing it with this brake track test.
During the test, they measure brake track width to keep it within a very tight tolerance threshold. It’s based on both what people will perceive when braking and what’s not likely to propagate with continued use. They run it with brakes on for a preset time period and speed/power, during which the outside of the brake track reaches about 350°F. The wheels are then allowed to cool to room temp, then subjected to the test three more times using the same pads. Keeping the same pads allows them to glaze over, mimicking real world conditions, and glazing can cause them to heat up more and faster. They use the same ENVE pads that are included with the road rims and wheels, and braking pressure is about medium force. That would translate to dragging the brakes more than lightly but far less than it would take to lock them up. Each successive run gets longer, but watching the numbers on screen, the temperatures drop really quickly – as in about 100° in about five seconds…and that’s without the airflow over the wheel that it would get on a real ride. (I wasn’t allowed to photograph the test screen)
Tire pressure is set at 110psi, and it climbed to about 116psi during the first run. Test engineer Brent Pontius says it’ll get to a max of about 120psi during the final run, but it’s never enough to deform the rim wall.
Once it’s gone through four cycles, the rim width and fluctuations are measured again to ensure they remain within tolerances.
“Getting this test right is what can make or break us as a company,” Pontius said. “These new Smart ENVE System wheels are going to be a high volume piece, and if we had returns on it it could really hurt the company.”
Impact Test – Lifts a 50lb weight and drops it from 2″ increments until it breaks. The criteria is that it passes a 8″ drop and is still rideable to a complete stop.
Why? Suppose you hit a sharp edge (curb, pot hole, brick), you’d want the wheel to maintain its integrity and allow you to safely stop. Realistically, you’re quite unlikely to ever hit anything this hard. This one made it to 16″ before breaking, and it was still holding air in the tire. Here’s video:
Spoke Pull Test – After all the other tests, the same rim is then subjected to the spoke breakage test. The rim is sectioned and 10 spoke holes are tested. Basically, they tension the wheel until a DT Competition spoke will break before the spoke pulls through the rim. They’ve gotten up to 800lbs of force with a straight gauge, straight pull spoke without it pulling through their DH or 8.9 SES rims. The shallower rims usually make it to about 700lbs of force. For comparison, a normal wheel build is around 250lbs of static load.
This is the 85mm SES rim; it broke at 710lbs of force. The machine maxes out at 800lbs, and a spoke only lasts about 10 pulls at that pressure before breaking. Each rim has to pass a minimum of 600lbs, which could suspend a small car with just four spokes.
When I visit cycling companies, I almost always get the sense that the people behind them are some of the most passionate people in the business. This tour was no different. Each person I spoke with was genuinely excited about what they were doing, and it shows through the components they’re making. Near the end of the day, I asked Jason what, in his words, makes ENVE special. His reply:
“We want to create only the best. ENVE is a zero compromise company.”
And no factory tour would be complete without weighing a few things…
ENVE’s stems and seatposts are for road or mountain bikes, there are no different models, just different sizes. This is a 120mm stem at 124g.
The 27.2 seatpost came in at 193g and the 31.6 at 202g.
Their original curved handlebar is 208g and the compact is 223g. Both are 44mm wide.
Mountain bike handlebars are: XC flat bar (176g), XC riser (211g) and DH riser (233g). The first two are 700mm wide, the DH bar is 800mm wide.
Their straight steerer road bike forks are 306g for the 1.0 and 373g for the 2.0.