Van Buren, Maine – Tucked away in extreme northern Maine, just a stone's throw from the Canadian border, is a quiet and assuming town named after Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States. But there's nothing unassuming about what's going on here. For the past six years, a small privately-owned company called Aegis Bicycles has been developing some of the most technologically advanced bicycles on the planet. In so doing, it has bypassed much larger competitors and attracted some 12,500 people around the world as devoted customers - and that number is growing by 5% every year.
"One of the industry's best kept secrets"
John Desjardins, production manager, says that Aegis Bicycles is "one of the industry's best-kept secrets." He explains, "We sell to a very sophisticated clientele, people who are either into bicycle racing or who take their riding very seriously." The secret may be getting out of the bag. Aegis bicycle frames are now sold as far west as Hawaii, as far north as Canada, and as far east as Japan. "We're just now breaking into the European market," he adds.
There are no Aegis Bicycle stores where one can walk in and buy a ready-to-ride bicycle. Aegis makes the frame, seat post, head tubes, frame-ins, and drop-outs, but not the myriad of other components that make up a finished bicycle such as gears, shifters, handlebars, the seat, tires, brakes, and rims. Rather, a person walks into a bicycle dealer and custom designs his or her bicycle from the ground up, drawing on Aegis and other top-of-the-line makers. It's certainly not for the faint of heart or pocketbook, as it's likely that a person will have invested $4000 to $5000 by the time that they're done. But they'll also have one of the lightest, fastest, and most durable bicycles that the world has to offer.
David versus Goliath
So how does a nine-person company go up against much larger and marketing savvy competitors like Trek and Cannondale? The key to Aegis' success is its imagination…its mastery of advanced materials such as carbon fiber…its ability to not only design cutting-edge bicycles, but also develop innovative ways to manufacture them…and its use of the most advanced tools, such as SURFCAM CAD/CAM software from Surfware, Inc.
"As you can imagine," says Desjardins, "we need to be extraordinarily self sufficient since we're a very small company, and we're based in a very rural area. On the plus side, we get to wear a lot of different hats and no two days are alike. But on the flip side, we need everything to work perfectly day in and day out. We get that kind of reliability and dependability with SURFCAM."
Designing bicycle geometry, aluminum molds, and NC tool paths using SURFCAM
Aegis would have to be considered a "power user" of SURFCAM, as it has been using the software for more than a decade. The company's product development process goes like this: engineers sketch out the geometry for a new bicycle frame using SURFCAM's 2D design capability.
"Bicycle geometry is essentially two triangles put together," explains Desjardins. "One triangle represents the bicycle main body, while the other represents the seat stay and chain stay." Once the basic bicycle geometry is set, Desjardins explains, "we insert library figures representing the front and rear wheels as well as other critical components, so that we can check for potential interferences. We're looking for everything to be a good clean fit."
Once satisfied with the design, Aegis engineers continue using SURFCAM to design the molds for the bicycle frame, and to generate the NC tool paths to cut the molds out of aluminum. It is inside the molds where things get tricky. In fact, it's here that Aegis literally wrote the book on how to mold parts using carbon fiber.
Why does Aegis insist on using carbon fiber, given how difficult a material it is to work with? The answer is that carbon fiber has two of the most sought-after characteristics in bicycle design: it's extraordinarily lightweight – finished Aegis bicycle frames tip the scales at just three to three and a half pounds – and it's very strong.
Desjardins explains that carbon fiber comes on large rolls already impregnated with resin. It's a very fibrous material, which he likens to strands of human hair. "Let's say that we want to end up with a 2-inch diameter bicycle frame. We hand-wrap the carbon fiber around a series of three 2-inch mandrels [one for each of the bicycle frame's three main tubes], determining just how much ply we want to use for stiffness. We place everything inside the mold cavity, remove the mandrels, and insert inflatable nylon bladders in their place. We close the mold, inflate the bladders – it's almost like an airbag going off—and heat the mold to 250 degrees to cure the resin. Once the air is injected inside, the carbon fiber actually takes on the exact shape of the mold, if everything is done right. Fifty minutes later, we deflate the bladders, open the two halves of the mold, and take the part out. We use essentially the same process for the other major components – the seat stay and chain stay."
Finishing work done by hand
A considerable amount of hand finishing takes place following the molding process. The main body, seat stay, and chain stay are glued together using an alignment jig (also designed and machined using SURFCAM) so that Aegis ends up with a single-piece frame. "Once it's taken out of the jig, we reinforce the joint areas by brushing them with what we call a wet lay-up, which is a mixture of dry carbon, fiberglass, and epoxy. The lay-up mixture cures at room temperature."
"Carbon fiber is a coarse material," continues Desjardins, "so you get a lot of pits, creases, and other imperfections in the frame when it comes out of the mold." To deal with them, Aegis workers apply body filler –again by hand -- and go through repeated applications of filler, primer, and paint until the finish on the bicycle frame is perfect.
SURFCAM enables Aegis to keep everything in house
One of the things that Desjardins likes most about SURFCAM is that it allows Aegis Bicycles to keep everything in house. "We make our own jigs, fixtures, connectors, pins – a variety of milled aluminum parts that we need during our manufacturing process. If we didn't have SURFCAM and had to go outside and buy these parts, it would add $200 or $300 to the cost of our bicycle frames. So we'd be less price competitive, and it would take us longer to get each bicycle frame out the door. This is just another one of the ways that SURFCAM enables Aegis Bicycles to be self sufficient."
Looking back, looking ahead
"Eight years ago, we produced the world's first carbon-fiber bicycle frame right here in Van Buren, Maine and we've never looked back," reports Desjardins. "We were using SURFCAM then, and we're still using it today because it never lets us down, it's always there when we need it."
In these trying economic times, it's refreshing to run into a company like Aegis Bicycles, a company that has found the right niche, the right people, and the right technology to make it all happen. "We make 500 to 600 bicycle frames a year right now," concludes Desjardins. "We've developed a nice little business, and we want to keep it that way."
Source: SURFCAM CAD/CAM Systems by Surfware