Where killer products come from

Written by Jim McElgunn

Some things are just too good to be true. Case in point: the Soloist Carbon bicycle, produced by Toronto-based Cervélo Cycles Inc. “There is such a stark difference in ride quality between this and anything I’ve previously ridden,” writes Dave Langley of Cyclingnews.com, the industry bible, in his review of its 2005 New Product of the Year. Unfortunately, Langley adds, “everyone will want one.”

What does it take to build a product that earns rave reviews and generates big buzz at industry spectacles like the Tour de France? First, figure out what it must deliver above all else. For the Soloist Carbon, it was leading-edge aerodynamics that mean the few seconds’ difference between first place and forgotten — but without sacrificing strength and lightness.

Cervélo didn’t achieve this through a “eureka!” moment. Instead, its designers beavered away to fine-tune each of the bike’s components. They questioned industry assumptions, reducing drag without giving up stiffness by narrowing the headtube much further than anyone else had attempted. They hid the brake and gear-shift cables in the frame to cut drag even more. And they whittled down the width of every part, stunning cyclists with a model that Cervélo co-CEO Phil White says is just half the width of many aluminum bikes.

Such results were possible only due to Cervélo’s willingness to push the limits of engineering design, especially in the use of carbon fibre, the expensive wonder material used in the Soloist Carbon’s frame. White says that it’s easy to make carbon five times the strength and stiffness of steel pound for pound, allowing performance light years beyond that of the lower-end steel or aluminum used in mass-market bikes. But the real payoff comes if you can crank it up to 30 times. That feat requires superb engineering, because carbon fibres are hard to manipulate; while they’re incredibly strong in the direction of the string-like fibres, they can be disastrously weak in the other direction unless you take careful account of the load and forces they’ll be subject to — and test your designs again and again.

Every 12 to 18 months, says White, Cervélo spends up to five days and evenings testing its prototypes in a $1,000-per-hour wind tunnel at the National Research Council in Ottawa. To ensure that the Soloist Carbon’s unique bottom bracket wouldn’t fail mid-race, Cervélo used a machine to turn the bike’s pedals around the clock, for 400,000 rotations in all. (Success was declared after just 100,000 turns.)

With this exhaustive design work completed, the company turned to manufacturers with the skills needed to produce precision components. Most of them were from Italy, Japan and Taiwan-and, like Cervélo, they understood that you’ll only survive if your high-wage workforce delivers high value to match.

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com