Factory Tour: Race Face – Carbon Crank Manufacturing & More!

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On the way up to Crankworx this summer, we stopped in to see Race Face’s new digs in Burnaby, BC, where their focus is intensely set on carbon fiber product development. That effort has already paid off with the amazingly lightweight new NEXT SL cranksets and OS 35mm SIX C handlebars.

The new facility comes happened in large part thanks to national grants as tax credits for developing labor and technology. Carbon senior design engineer Jonathan Staples says it allows them to experiment with new production techniques, technical innovations and product development, and Canada is keen on keeping that sort of intellectual effort alive and well within their borders.

They moved here in May from the original building, at which point all of their machining went overseas. Well, almost all of it. They kept a couple machines to make prototypes, build fixtures and test equipment. Bummer, sure, but the upside is that now they have more room and time to grow the carbon side of things…

2014 Race Face Next SL lightweight carbon fiber mountain bike cranksets

All carbon cranksets are made here. Like every modern company, the pieces start out as cutting diagrams on a monitor, which are then sent to the cutting machines.

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It’s all UD carbon, nothing woven, and each part is laid up with the appropriate orientation to give it the strength and stiffness they want.

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The Gerber Cutter is a recent addition. Before that, they used to cut around steel dies. All parts are weighed at multiple points in the process to ensure they’re using the right amount of material and maintain weight tolerances.

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Joe Prevost is the carbon team leader and can layup a crankarm in under five minutes. Between stacking and cutting the sheets, laying it up and compression molding, they can manufacture on two lines up to three shifts per day depending on demand.

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There’s a lot about the process they won’t let us show you because it’s not patented (yet?), but there are parts of it that are pretty unique. Unfortunately, those blue gloves are hiding it from view, as are these big swaths of carbon:

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What you can see and know is that the alloy inserts are wrapped into place, shown above loose (before) and bonded (or is it molded? Hmmmm….they just won’t say) on the finished arms in the foreground (lower left). This is as much as they’d let us photograph. And they weren’t about to show the molds…

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…or anything else about this machine, which is what heats and compresses the sheets into a crankarm, like this one:

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Once they’re finished, some of them go into the back room where monkeys pound on them with hammers:

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The monkey on the left is Chris Heynen, He’s the other senior designer and in charge of testing. And a fun job it is – most of their testing is standard EN fatigue testing that progresses to complete destruction.*

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The handlebars, stems and seatposts are all mounted such that pneumatic shocks can apply simultaneous pressure (downward only force) or alternating pressure (stem twisting force).

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A similar machine is used for the crank arms’ pedal test. It pushes down at 1200 Newtons, and it’ll pass 150,000 cycles. With their carbon cranks, they’ll do all of the required testing and their own internal testing on the same part. Heynen says the fatigue life of carbon parts far exceeds that of alloy ones. Why? He says because alloy parts have finite fatigue limits, and then they crack. Whether that’s low stress and lots of repetition or a couple massive hits, eventually it’ll fail. So the goal is to build it to last through a reasonable lifetime while still keeping it at a respectable (i.e. sellable) size and weight.

Carbon, however, has an exceptional fatigue limit when properly designed. Heynen says cracks and chips won’t propagate and cause failure. Even poorly designed ones will likely just start delaminating then eventually break apart, but catastrophic failure is still less likely.

Not shown is the slow stress test for cranksets that essentially fixes the pedal spindles and pulls the BB upward until something breaks. They design theirs to fail at the spindle, particularly the carbon ones. This makes for safer crashes in the event they do break because if the spindle breaks inside the BB, it’ll bend and get stuck rather than have the arms snap and send your feet flying off the pedals.

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What the fatigue tests won’t divulge are wiggles, creaks and squeaks. To test for those, there’s the Pedal Machine. It’s a hydraulically spun gear that sends heavily weighted (they won’t say how much because the machine’s been modified to handle a heavier load) crankset around for one million cycles.

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Leave the testing room and you’ll walk right by their remaining two metal working machines. They’re only used to make early stage prototypes and fiddle with existing parts.

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Finished parts, whether they’re made in house or arriving by container, get sorted and shelved until called into action. Race Face maintains a seemingly (as in, by appearances) decent inventory level, and like Burger King, they’ll make things your way:

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Pick the color, chainring sizes and length and they’ll put it together and box it up. Gary is their assembly guy and puts together all the custom orders for North America.

Everything you’ve seen so far makes up the left and rear of the building. Up front and off to the right are the sales, support, administrative, management and engineering desks, and they look about like you’d expect. But, as usual, wandering around a bit is always rewarded with at least one good find:

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Anodized fades, anyone? These were just a test, not something they plan on putting into production anytime soon, but dang were they hot!

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Big thanks to Wendy, Rob and the rest of the crew for showing me around!

RaceFace.com

*No, they don’t really use hammers.

Comments

2Wheels2Fast - 12/19/13 - 4:50pm

Nice write up. Someone at Race Face likes Courage Wolf, I see.

dusty_stanchions - 12/19/13 - 5:27pm

it’s so musical!

MissedThePoint - 12/19/13 - 5:27pm

Some notable figures were looking to buy their carbon mfg equipment when they declared bankruptcy. Supposedly super high tech stuff that allowed them to make better carbon than Taiwanese mass producers.

mike - 12/19/13 - 5:42pm

Race face makes some great carbon product’s at very reasonable prices. Always loved their products and their Real Commitment to mountain biking.

Devin - 12/19/13 - 9:22pm

Totally awesome. I love that Race Face didn’t get gobbled up by Divine or some other pump-n-dump investment group and turn into the next Schwinn.

Race Face were the first products I can remember lusting after- specifically their chainrings. It’s an odd epiphany for a high-school boy to realize there’s something in life beyond girls to have really strong feelings about. Happiness beyond my wildest dreams would have been a DeKerf Team Softtail, Race Face Turbine cranks, Crossmax wheelset and a Chris King headset.

My next full-suspension will be decked out with as much RF as I can get my hands on. Keep it up Canada!

greg - 12/19/13 - 11:51pm

good for them for keeping manufacturing in-house. it would be so “easy” for them to farm it out and end up with a bunch of me-too garbage. here’s hoping these new cranks hold up better than their first gen ones.

Phil M. - 12/20/13 - 2:11am

I have had the Next SL cranks, with the BSA bottom bracket, running the 30t direct mount NW chainring on my bike since early September, and its absolutely incredible. Running 1×10 with it has been great, the set up is on my hardtail and I’ve never dropped a chain. Also, prior to running the Next SL crankset, I was running the SRAM XX1 GXP set up, the Raceface set up is 143g lighter. That’s crank, chairing, and BB weighed all together. Great job Raceface, I highly recommend it!

Rohan - 12/20/13 - 3:19am

Greg – Race Face don’t do anything in-house anymore. You want something made in Canada look elsewhere. They do some prototyping in house but that’s not manufacturing in my mind. You want carbon stuff made in the North America wait for Thompson.

MsC - 12/20/13 - 3:53am

Great article, thanks !

Parkcyc - 12/20/13 - 6:50am

Love those anode cranks! Need more of the crazy back in mountain biking. Miss it.

Eddie - 12/20/13 - 7:50am

Wait, they got a grant to help keep manufacturing in Canada and they immediately sent the rest of their production equipment overseas? That’s messed up and I won’t be buying any more products from such a company.

Freddie - 12/20/13 - 10:20am

@Rohan- all carbon cranks are 100% designed, prototyped, and MADE in Canada…and, if you check out the Thomson website they build all of their carbon in Taiwan
@Eddie- just wondering who makes a Canadian or US made Aluminum handlebar?…also, what US/ Canadian made drive train are you running? You seem so wholesome.

Steve - 12/20/13 - 11:24am

@Rohan, did you even read the article or were you distracted by all the pictures? The article clearly says Race Face still manufactures all Carbon cranks in house. Name another company that’s still making cranks in North America and utilizing materials almost 100% sourced in North America.

Race Face - 12/20/13 - 1:08pm

Thanks to Bike Rumor for coming through our new facility. We are proud to be making our industry leading carbon cranks in-house in that new space in Burnaby, BC. Thanks for all the nice comments. We appreciate every rider that uses a RF product – its our goal to make awesome gear that we want to ride and then share it with all of you!

Rohan – we dare you to go back and try to read the article again….its pretty clear that we are making the cranks in Canada….

Eddie…it was becoming more and more difficult to maintain our aluminum machine shop…the machines were getting old and the material and production costs were constantly rising – making it very hard to stay competitive in the marketplace. We did move that side of our production overseas….but this was not a decision taken lightly. This was not a downsizing of our work force – we moved almost all our machine shop employees into other positions within Race Face including our carbon manufacturing. We are proud of our domestic manufacturing history and we continue that legacy with our state of the art carbon crank production line.

ah - 12/20/13 - 3:46pm

Where those aluminium inserts straight into the carbon with no electrical insulation?

alvin - 12/20/13 - 4:52pm

i was writing my school paper on a commodity and i asked RaceFace to be the focus company of my research and they helped me a lot.

Thanks to Wendy and the company for letting me interview and visit the factory.

aaron - 12/20/13 - 5:36pm

See, carbon production CAN be done in north america. Good for Race Face. In the united states in most cases the aluminum production stays and the carbon goes overseas. C’mon US government, get behind high tech material production in the states.

yes there are carbon bicycle frames and parts made in north america, i am aware of who makes what where, so please don’t list them for me in a return comment.

anon - 12/24/13 - 12:20am

rohan- you’ve seen the other comments about their manufacturing, but i’ll just point out that it is Thomson that you are referring to, not “Thompson”

Rohan - 12/24/13 - 7:42am

Hi Guys, Thanks for setting me straight. My next crank will be a carbon Race Face crank just to make up for this snafu. As for Thomson (not Thompson;) they are looking, if not already working on building their carbon stuff in house.

Rohan - 12/24/13 - 7:52am

Ok now that I have corrected my mistake, may I ask a question? Is this part of a bigger plan to move all carbon production in-house? I would love to buy a Carbon Handle bar that is not made in Taiwan. They make great stuff over there, don’t get me wrong, but wouldn’t mind a Made in Canada one.

Willy - 12/25/13 - 3:42am

Hi Guys, great article, fantastic brand…..I love Canada!

Charlie Best - 01/06/14 - 3:43pm

Great article and great to see RF producing cool, functional, Canadian product again.

Anyone wants a ano-fade Turbine, I’ve got a can of Easy-Off under the kitchen sink.

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