|We were founded by people who made things. There's something about making something yourself that keeps you honest, that keeps you connected to the product and to the person that is going to use that product.|
Travis Ott: Trek global mountain bike brand manager
may be the last of its kind, at least in the United States. While there are a handful of Cervelos out there that manufacture one or two bikes in their lineups, the last big-name dealer-based bike brands that sprouted from factories which proudly turned raw materials and boxes of parts into beautiful bicycles were Cannondale and Schwinn. While their names are still with us, air-conditioned cubicles have replaced assembly lines. The workers who welded and painted the frames, who laced the wheels, and who assembled the parts into bicycles are long gone - replaced by sharply dressed professionals and the modern bicycle business model. What we now call bicycle makers are actually branded marketing companies that are in the business of conceptualizing and selling bicycles, not actually making them. The people inside do the fun stuff, like industrial design, graphics, marketing, sales and warehousing, and they leave the dirty work to off-shore manufacturers where their products leave distant assembly lines, arrive in sealed boxes and then are shipped, unseen, to bike shops across the globe.
Some may argue that today's Trek is not much different than any other bike brand in the USA. Most products that carry the Trek name are designed here and manufactured elsewhere, just like the best of the rest. But, Trek does manufacture its own bikes – at its headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin, where it also has a complete carbon frame operation, and in nearby Whitewater, where Trek has a bicycle assembly plant that also produces high-end Bontrager wheelsets. If you have made the rounds to visit the various bike brands in North America, you will probably sense that there is a different vibe at Trek the moment you step into the building. Trek makes bikes, they always have.
Trek started as a pair of entrepreneurs who thought they could make a better road bike frame back in the 1970s and it grew into a family business that became the largest brand in North America. Trek won't offer up any hard numbers as to how many bikes and frames it manufactures in Wisconsin, but they did say that they manufacture and paint the carbon Session, Madone 7 Series, and the Speed Concept 9 Series bicycles in its Waterloo Factory. In addition, all of its custom built "Project One" bikes are painted in Waterloo. Completes frames are sent for final assembly to their Whitewater facility. At one time, Trek manufactured all of its bicycles in the USA, and at the peak of its OCLV-branded composite production, it was easily one of the world's largest manufacturer of carbon-framed bicycles.
Trek's made-in-the USA ethos, and its brief domination of high-end carbon manufacturing were cut short, however, as its competitors rushed to get Taiwanese and Chinese bike makers and composite factories up to speed, eventually creating the Asian carbon mafia that presently builds almost all of the world's enthusiast-level bicycles - including Trek's. So, why build here at all? The easy explanation as to why Trek continues to manufacture in the USA would be pride and the desire to continue the family legacy - a story that has been told many times over - but there is a less dramatic and perhaps, a far more compelling reason to manufacture in-house that deserves a listen.
When a company "out-sources" its manufacturing and its technology, it also exports a far more important asset: it exports the opportunity to learn from the manufacturing experience and the creative impulse to improve the product that can only come from being immersed in the building process day in and day out. Improvements that either simplify the process or the ones that lead to a whole new method of construction rarely spring from the minds of the product's primary designers or engineers. The workers who are on the assembly line, and the junior engineers who are tasked with solving the day-to-day production issues are most often the sources of creativity that provide leading manufacturers with their competitive edge. Every new idea or product that is exported to Asian manufacturers becomes a starting point - a golden opportunity to make a better or less expensive version in the future - and represents opportunities lost for those who chose to out-source it. Bike brands, armed with transplant aerospace engineers may have initially powered the rapid improvements gained by Pacific Rim carbon and aluminum frame constructors, but the factories are driving that bus now.
The sharpest minds in a factory are not always squatting on a balance ball or peering at their smart phones in an air conditioned office. Whoever was responsible for the decision to maintain a competitive manufacturing presence in Trek's factory must have understood that its blue collar workers contributed far more than skilled labor - and that immersing its design and engineering teams in the complete manufacturing process could give Trek a competitive advantage at every step of the pathway which is required to to turn a conceptual prototype into a reliable product that a factory can pump out the back door at a fair profit.
Knowledge gained from building bicycles in house can also be leveraged to gain advantages from overseas suppliers as well. Trek's carbon manufacturing facility functions as both a state-of-the-art production factory where they crank out Madone road and Session DH racing frames - and the carbon factory also doubles as a proof of concept laboratory, where the design team can work out layup schedules and new frame configurations in small production runs before Trek launches the new design with one of its overseas manufacturing partners. In-house manufacturing can also be a powerful negotiating tool with foreign suppliers, because Trek has first-hand knowledge of every step of the process and thus understands exactly where their supplier can offer significant savings.
|Working with carbon fiber composites is different from most other materials. You have to have intimate knowledge of every aspect, from design and analysis, to manufacturing and process capabilities. By manufacturing in the USA, we maintain this critical connectivity. We each have a passion for our particular specialty within this chain and we challenge each other to push the limits in every facet - every day - it is truly concurrent design, engineering, and manufacturing. This is just not possible if you are not the manufacturer.|
Jim Colegrove: Trek carbon manufacturing engineer
Composite manufacturing engineer Jim Colegrove says that Trek employs its own carbon construction method - one that is a hyper-modernized version of their original OCLV process. The frame is divided into sections which are laid up, molded and then cured separately. The "lugs," for lack of a better word, are bonded together in a carbon fiber fixture, which assures perfect alignment while the parts are being heat-cured into the final shape of the frame or swingarm. Colegrove says that this method allows Trek to maximize the fiber compaction in technically challenging areas, like the bottom bracket and head tube junctions of a frame, or the dropout and pivot junctions of a swingarm - and that the process also allows the main tubes to be made significantly thinner and lighter, because simpler parts can be further optimized for compaction and curing. When asked if Trek uses the same process for building frames off shore, the answer was no. While some of Trek's construction techniques are used where applicable, Trek's design team would rather work alongside the engineers at their host factory to optimize their frames using their existing manufacturing process. "The time required to introduce an entirely new manufacturing process could take a year or more," said Colegrove. "We insist on some things, but we choose suppliers who are good at what they do and have perfected their own methods."
Many rear suspension designs require dedicated shock tunes, or unique configurations to optimize their performance and Trek falls into that category. Trek has its own suspension design and testing facility across the country in Valencia, California, where Jose Gonzalez and two other full-time employees evaluate new products and work with fork and shock suppliers, like RockShox and Fox Factory, to arrive at custom tunes for Trek's fleet. Gonzalez's team also prototypes suspension components that are unique to Trek - most of which are co-developed and manufactured by Trek's partner suppliers. The Trek Suspension Lab's location allows the team there to test products twelve months out of the year in real mountains - an advantage, perhaps a necessity, for a flatland bike company that is frozen solid for three months each Winter.
|The ability to independently investigate and develop suspension technologies and exclusive tuning is a huge competitive advantage, as we are not solely dependent on what the primary suspension companies are doing. We have options if those aren't the best direction for Trek mountain bikes and that approach has led to Hybrid Air, DRCV shocks and now, Re:Aktiv damping.|
Jose Gonzalez: founder, Trek Suspension Lab
The most prolific suspension product to emerge from the Trek Suspension Lab is the Fox-made "Dual-Rate Control Valve" DRCV shock, seen on its mid-travel trailbikes. Trek's Hybrid Coil-Air version of the Fox 40 DH fork is another example, and more recently, Trek fired up a three-way partnership with Penske Racing and Fox Factory to develop their new Reaktiv shock
that blends Penske's regressive damping valve with its existing DRCV shock. The Trek Suspension Lab is clouded with secrecy, but observant Southern California riders often catch glimpses of the team test riding new bicycle and suspension designs on nearby trail networks.
Racing is a staple that all top brands leverage as both a sales tool as well as a means to develop and test new product. No surprise there. Trek customers, however, reap a secondary benefit from its racing development group. Scott Daubert is in charge of building and supporting the large number of individuals and teams who race on Trek bikes. Daubert says that a single ProTour road team can require over 50 bicycles - an average of five for each rider, painted in the team's graphics and with individual treatments for every member - and Trek sponsors multiple teams. Mountain bike teams, says Daubert, are less demanding, but even DH riders often get custom road and trailbikes for training, in addition to their Sessions.
During a busy year, the race shop cranks out up to a thousand custom race bikes on a tight schedule, which led Trek to consider making that service available to its customers. "Project One"
is just that. Trek customers can choose from a selection of Trek's top-range mountain or road bikes and then add a custom paint scheme and component selection. Project One is another example of how mastering a process in small, controlled batches can make its way into production. For the people who work at Trek's in-house paint and graphics facility, Project One is a welcome creative challenge, and for Trek's marketing staff, Project One expands their opportunities to experiment with color schemes for future model years
|There's so much that you learn when you actually make something. Our engineers are able to walk directly onto the manufacturing floor and understand the whole process, and work out any potential issues with the people who will be executing the decisions they make. It makes all of our bikes better, because we're not removed from the process.|
Travis Ott: Trek global mountain bike brand manager
Trek's decision to continue to manufacture in house is as much of a potential risk as it is a benefit. Bike brands that outsource all of their products are comfortably insulated from many of the pitfalls of manufacturing. Their cost per unit is negotiated up front, so they don't have to pay for mistakes or unforeseen cost overruns. Nor does the out-sourcing brand need to worry about what to do when hundreds of factory employees are standing around without work during the off season. Add a multitude of environmental and workplace laws to comply with, to the taxes, insurance and benefit burdens that a manufacturer must shoulder to do business in the USA, and an outsider may begin to understand that Trek's commitment to "made in the USA" is a sizeable and risky investment that is not shared by its competition.
Those in the know will flatly state that manufacturing always comes with substantial risk, and yet Trek - one of the most conservatively run business in the bicycle industry - embraces it. Trek is a privately held corporation, so precious few have access to their record books, but we'd bet a carbon Session that they don't always turn a profit on their made-in-USA production. It's also a sure bet that Trek wouldn't home-brew bicycles unless it contributed substantially to its bottom line in other ways. Trek's batting average is at the very top of the major leagues. Its products are consistently among the most reliable made, and they are competitive at the highest levels in every important cycling discipline. It is obvious that Trek is doing something very right and, if one makes side-by-side comparisons, the solitary difference between the bike brand from Waterloo and its competitors is that Trek walks the walk. While the other brands are blabbing up the press with the how’s and why's of their bike's construction, Trek is on the ground in the factory - actually constructing them. "Knowledge is power," they say, and it seems that the people at Trek know exactly what they are doing - doing it their way.