Zipp, one of the first names in carbon wheels, is located in Indianapolis, Indiana - "the Crossroads of America." This is about as far as you can get from any mountain bike destination in the US, but if you're into making things from carbon that go fast, you'll be in good company here. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the center of the nation's auto racing cult and the Indy 500 is the largest single-day sporting event in the world.
Zipp was founded in 1988 by a motorsports engineer named Leigh Sargent in Speedway, Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis. The first product? A carbon fiber disc wheel that began racking up victories from day one. Zipp expanded its wheel ranges to include innovative racing components and in 2007, the brand was acquired by SRAM, who relocated the factory just down the road to a new, larger facility.
The Zipp name carries some serious weight in road cycling, especially among elite racers. Now, Zipp has jumped into the mountain bike scene, with their 3Zero Moto wheels
, released in April this year. That's big news, so we booked a trip to Indiana to see what's going on there.
Zipp manufactures its wheels at home, in the United States. When it comes to carbon wheels (or carbon anything), most brands head for Asia, where specialized factories can lay up and mold literally anything one could need to build a bicycle. So, why build wheels in America? Zipp says they want to maintain complete control of the entire process. Most of carbon composite manufacturing is hands-on, so quality control is paramount to ensure that every step of the process is executed correctly and consistently. Also, being able to design, prototype, test, refine, and finally produce a product all in one place limits the margin for error and significantly speeds up the process as well.
That advantage is evident in their new 3Zero Moto wheels, which feature innovative profiles and construction methods that would probably create a retraining and restructuring nightmare with Asian suppliers. Everything about the 3Zero Moto wheels was and still is done, start to finish, in Indianapolis. It all starts with rolls of carbon, and then the cutting, molding, curing, lacing, and truing take place. After that the finished products are boxed and shipped to the consumer, and all that happens in one factory. As interesting as the wheels are themselves, the process may be even more fascinating. There's no doubt that the 3Zero Moto wheel wheels are quite a bit different than anything out there. If you're not familiar with them, check out Mike Kazimer's first look
and watch for a full review coming up soon.
What's interesting about the 3Zero Moto wheel rim is it's a single-wall construction, which took a lot of work to get it to where it is today. It began with tons of prototyping, hundreds of rims tested back to back, and thousands of hours of riding all over the globe. Reportedly, there were times when the team would set up at Windrock in Tennessee with a stock of wheels and the team would spend days doing back-to-back runs.
The Zipp Nest. This is the top-secret lab few have access to where ideas first come to life.
Zipp's master wheel builder, Nic James works alongside the team during those tests and has been continuously involved in the development process from start to finish. Not only does he work with designing and testing new wheels, but he also does all of the builds for Zipp's ambassadors and professional teams on the road. He keeps meticulous logs of everything imaginable with each set of wheels he has built, so he knows what does and doesn't work. Having key players like Nik directly accessible at the factory is yet another advantage of manufacturing at home.
Modern retro: Zipp's first foray into mountain bike wheels. Their single-wall Zero Moto rims have almost nothing in common, other than the fact that they're round.
Test riders would take back to back laps on a number of different wheels, picking one over the other. The gradual selection process weeded out the range of options until the team landed on a balance of stiffness and compliance that was most ideal.
Ruan Trouw, Zipp's advanced development engineer explains how testing goes down at Zipp. Ruan comes to Zipp and mountain bikes from the aerospace industry and his depth of knowledge about carbon and how to apply it to cycling is mind boggling.
Radial fatigue testing ensures that the system stays strong, which is especially important with a compliant rim.
This machine tests impacts to a wheel. It can be set up to hit at a variety of angles. Sensors measure a multitude of parameters, while an ultra-high-speed camera records everything in real time.
Everything in the Zipp facility is run in a "supermarket" style. What this means is resources are cycled through production in a first in, first out manner. Everything is also made in very small batches on an "as needed" basis, which keeps their carbon materials fresh as possible, and waste to a minimum. This is where the big part of the build starts, on the carbon cutting table. Sheets of carbon are brought out of refrigeration, laid out, and cut according to which type of wheels are being produced.
These strips of carbon will eventually make up one wheel.
3Zero Moto rims use both uni-directional and woven carbon material. This strip of carbon, pulled from an uncured rim was woven in a pattern similar to a Chinese finger trap.
Viewing the actual machine currently in use for curing the 3Zero rims was strictly off limits, this mold is pretty close to what it looks like.
After coming out of the mold, the rims have some excess resin that must be removed and smoothed by hand.
This scale is so accurate, it can measure the slightest discrepancies in resin content and make it instantly clear if anything isn't exactly as it should be given a set parameter of tight tolerances. Weights that do not fall within a very narrow range are caught. Every production rim's weight is calculated and logged.
Truing wheels isn't just eyeballing here. Every single adjustment is recorded by tools that are checked for calibration multiple times a day. If anything is the slightest bit off, it's caught before it leaves the building.
After truing, the spokes are stressed and the rim is deflected to ensure that everything has set up and there's no spoke wind-up. The wheel will be as perfect as it could be when it gets to the rider.
Wheels are packaged and shipped directly from the facility.
How thorough and complete is the process at Zipp? Throughout the entire process, at each station and with each step, from unrolling the carbon to boxing the wheels, every tension and parameter is documented and recorded and scanned into a database. Therefore, if there's ever any issue with a wheel whether it's on the production floor or a return several years later, the barcode can be scanned and the wheel can be analyzed, down to the individual strips of carbon.
This allows the team at Zipp to pinpoint, with complete accuracy, any change or issue that may have impacted that wheel, a certain time period of production, or certain material used in production.
Well, there you have it. That's as close of a look at the inside of the Zipp facility as you can get without possessing credentials that only select employees have.