logo has become something of a status symbol in the mountain bike world, a visual indicator that a rider is aboard some of the most expensive carbon components currently on the market. The majority of those components are made in the United States, a practice that has become something of a rarity these days, especially when it comes to carbon fiber. Curious to find out more about what goes on inside ENVE's headquarters and manufacturing facility, I headed to a small industrial park in Ogden, Utah, thirty miles north of Salt Lake City.
In recent years Ogden has begun to attract more and more companies who are deeply involved in the outdoor recreation industry, thanks to a concerted effort by the town's mayor to revitalize the town. Those efforts seem to be paying off, with numerous companies making the move to the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, including SCOTT Sports and Quality Bicycle Parts (QBP), who both have distribution centers in close proximity to ENVE's headquarters. Development Process
Product development at ENVE all follows the same basic path from concept to production, no matter if it's a new rim, handlebar, or a special project like the carbon swingarm they created for the Santa Cruz Syndicate's V-10 back in 2011. Once an idea begins to take shape and the initial design is decided upon, the next step is the prototype stage. This is when the experimentation takes place, and different materials, shapes, and dimensions are used to figure out what what will work best for the final product.
In addition to their manufacturing capabilities, ENVE also have their own R&D lab, which drastically reduces the amount of time it takes to create a prototype – a new mold for a carbon rim can be cut and a prototype built in a matter of days, rather than waiting weeks for samples to arrive from overseas. Testing
Product testing is a key part of ENVE's wheel development program, and they have all of the tools necessary to push a rim to destruction in a matter of minutes. Plastic bins of shattered carbon components are lined up against one wall, awaiting the final analysis to determine exactly why they broke, data that is collected and categorized in highly detailed spreadsheets for future reference. It's not just prototypes that undergo destructing testing either – production models get the same treatment, in order to ensure that they are up to ENVE's quality control standards.
Lab testing is important, but it can only go so far to replicate the abuses a rider puts on equipment, which is why ENVE constructed their own test track along the edge of a subdivision a few miles away from the office. At first glance the track appears fairly innocuous – it's a hundred yards or so long, with a few chunky rock gardens and a couple of jumps, but it didn't look nearly as gnarly as I'd expected.
My opinions changed once I dropped in, and I quickly realized that every jump on the trail led directly into a landing comprised of square edged rocks, the type that are almost guaranteed to cause a pinch flat, or at least a rim strike. There's a guilty sense of satisfaction that comes from hearing a set of expensive carbon rims that aren't yours smacking into a rock, but that's exactly what the track is designed for. Carbon or aluminum, I doubt there's a rim out there that would emerge unscathed from an extended session at the test track.
Along with the testing on their home turf, ENVE also relies heavily on feedback from the Santa Cruz Syndicate's World Cup DH riders. That partnership began in 2010 when company founder Jason Shiers ended up on a plane with Joe Graney, who at the time was Santa Cruz's engineering and quality director (he's now COO). The years since that initial meeting have seen the team rack up multiple podium appearances and World Championship titles aboard ENVE products, an impressive race resume that began when Greg Minnaar became the first downhill rider to take a win aboard a bike with carbon rims at the 2010 Maribor World Cup. That year saw the team go through 40 rims, much less than the number of alloy rims they'd toasted the previous season.
The number of rims that Doug Hatfield, the Syndicate's mechanic, needs to replace during the season has gone down each year, and in 2014 the team went through less than 20 rims aboard the newly launched M Series, which were designed to be more durable and impact resistant. The trend of fewer broken rims looks to be continuing for 2015, with only 5 broken rims after the first four World Cup stops aboard production rims, the same ones any consumer could buy from ENVE.
ENVE doesn't make any claims that their wheels are unbreakable, but they do back them up with a five year, hassle-free warranty. Basically, if any riding inflicted damage occurs during that period, a replacement will be sent out out within 48 hours of receiving the damaged wheel, minimizing the amount of downtime a rider has to deal with. Production
Once the prototypes have been refined, and the ride testing portion of the process has been completed, a pilot production run begins. This smaller run is intended to ensure that any potential issues can be caught and fixed before ramping up for full production. At their maximum output, ENVE can produce 300 rims a day, a number that should increase in the near future when they make the move to an even larger facility.
The first stop on a tour of ENVE's production facility is the cutting room. This is where the pre-preg carbon fiber (pre-preg means expoxy has already been mixed in) is removed from the two large walk-in refrigerators and then trimmed into the correct shapes by an Autometrix cutting machine. It's like watching a jigsaw puzzle being made as the machine makes its way around the table, slicing out the building blocks of what will become a wheel, stem, or bar. The resulting carbon shapes are weighed and then put into a bag with a label that's dated and signed by the workers involved in that part of the build process. Once the pre-preg carbon fiber is cut, it's tagged and bagged before heading to the layup room.
Next comes the layup process, where the puzzle pieces are put together around a mold and then subjected to heat and pressure to form the final product. ENVE use a number of proprietary methods to make their rims, which is why I wasn't able to take even a brief look inside the layup room. The basics of what occurs inside that room aren't a secret though, especially since their rim construction methods are patented, but the ENVE does want to keep the specifics under wraps.
ENVE often tout the fact that their rims use molded spoke holes, as opposed to drilling holes in after the rim has been cured. According to the wording in the patent
ENVE was granted for their rim construction methods, “drilled spoke holes accentuate one of the primary weaknesses of advanced composite materials: their inability to withstand concentrated and localized loading.”
So what's going on behind those closed doors? The extra-short version is that the uncured carbon fiber is placed into a clamshell type mold, and the desired number of spoke holes are punched into the laminate by hand using an awl-like device. A bladder is then inserted and inflated, and then the entire assembly is heated to 250 degrees Fahrenheit for up to two hours – it's like making a very, very, expensive cake. After everything has cooled, the bladder is removed, and a carbon patch is applied to cover the portion of the rim bed where the bladder was pulled from.
Once the rim has been inspected, the next step is turning it into a wheel. ENVE uses a robotic lacing and truing machines, but the final check up is done by hand. What's Next?
Over the course of their eight year history, ENVE has made an indelible mark on the industry, illustrating the viability of USA-made carbon products with their no compromise approach, and they're not showing signs of slowing down any time soon. Their latest project is new HV rim
, which has a wider internal width than anything ENVE has produced in the past. After that it's anyone's guess as to what the future holds, but as more and more carbon rim options hit the market it will certainly be interesting to see how ENVE responds.
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