Factory Tour: Race Face – Carbon Crank Manufacturing & More!
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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…
…or anything else about this machine, which is what heats and compresses the sheets into a crankarm, like this one:
Once they’re finished, some of them go into the back room where monkeys pound on them with hammers:
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.*
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
Anodized fades, anyone? These were just a test, not something they plan on putting into production anytime soon, but dang were they hot!
Big thanks to Wendy, Rob and the rest of the crew for showing me around!
*No, they don’t really use hammers.