Custom bearings improve reliability of mountain bikes

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By upgrading to custom-designed sealed bearings from Schaeffler, Hope Technology has eliminated bearing failures on the mountain bike accessories that it manufactures.

Custom bearings improve reliability of mountain bikesIan Weatherill, co-founder of Hope Technology, a UK company that is said to dominate the European market for the supply of high-performance mountain bike components and sub-assemblies, states: "After switching to custom-made, deep groove bearings from Schaeffler for all our hubs and headset assemblies, we have not had a single bearing failure.

"We started using INA [Schaeffler] bearings around three years ago because we were having quality problems with our supplier from the Far East. We even began to manufacture our own bearings for a short period to try to overcome the problem. But, after switching to INA bearings, our quality, reliability and availability of bearings has improved dramatically."

Established 18 years ago, Hope Technology is not a typical mountain bike manufacturer. Based in Barnoldswick in Lancashire, the company is world-renowned for supplying high-end mountain bike components, designed to enhance performance and reliability.

In-house manufacturing

Furthermore, the company actually manufactures more than 90 per cent of the bike components itself, which is quite unusual for a UK manufacturing firm these days. Hope Technology employs around 60 staff, most of them engineers and skilled machinists who are also mountain bike enthusiasts themselves. The staff – and the directors – are also fiercely proud of their heritage and the fact that they manufacture most of the components themselves in the UK. As Weatherill points out: "Like so many other British manufacturers over the past decade, we could have bowed down to overseas competition and started purchasing parts from China, India and Eastern Europe, but instead we have invested huge amounts of money in new machine tools and our people. We buy in raw materials, mainly aluminium, but manufacture most of the components ourselves here at Barnoldswick."

Hope Technology does not manufacture complete bikes, but makes thousands of different variations of bike component, including wheel hubs, disc brakes, brake calipers, hand-finished wheel sets, lighting, stems, seat pins and clamps – even its own screws, nuts and spacers.

The idea is that bike enthusiasts purchase a complete bike from another supplier, then look to upgrade and enhance their experience by spending some money with a high-end supplier such as Hope. Weatherill explains: "It means buyers of mountain bikes can customise their bike to suit they way they ride it."

Major market

Hope Technology deals direct with more than 1000 mountain bike dealers across the UK, France and Germany. Weatherill adds: "By volume [rather than value], cycling is now the largest market in the world, even larger than automotive." Indeed, Hope's turnover last year was around £6million, with 50 per cent of sales in the UK and 50 per cent exported to the rest of Europe and the US.

Hope Technology boasts a shop floor with more than 35 CNC machines, its own anodising plant, a heat treatment line for hardening brake discs and an automated polishing plant. The company uses 3D solid modelling and FEA software to analyse and optimise the design of bike components, in order to prevent any mechanical weakness while also reducing mass safely, where material is not needed.

Full-scale rapid prototyped parts are then produced using a Dimension 3D printer, which enables the design team to perform final visual and fitting checks before the component enters production.

The company now holds a consignment stock of custom-made, deep groove steel and stainless steel cartridge bearings from Schaeffler, for all of its hubs and head sets. Schaeffler will also lend its technical bearings design expertise to Hope's next project – a new, integrated headset bearing and a new stainless steel hub assembly, due to be launched in May 2007.

Weatherill states: "What I really liked about dealing with Schaeffler, is that they respected us as a company, even though we are quite a small manufacturer. Schaeffler's sales engineer, Paul Healey, is always extremely helpful with new designs we are working on and even does all the consignment stock taking himself."

Home-grown ideas

When it comes to design innovation, Hope Technology and Schaeffler also share a very similar vision. As Paul Healey says: "Design innovation is very much part of both companies' vision. Most of Hope Technology's staff are bike enthusiasts themselves and so they are actively encouraged to bring new design ideas to the table and discuss them with the management team. Getting input from people who ride the bikes is critical for future success. Similarly, at Schaeffler, we encourage innovation and try to work as closely with the end customer as possible, preferably early in the design process, to help improve the overall design arrangement, which might include bearings, shafts, couplings and gearboxes."

Since Schaeffler was established in 1950, the company has filed around 3500 patents in Germany and approximately 7700 worldwide. Of these applications and patents, 1380 are still in force in Germany and 3000 worldwide.

In recent years, Schaeffler has added around 200 German patent applications each year. This trend is increasing and there will be 250 to 300 German applications this year at Schaeffler, the majority of which will also be submitted at an international level.

Based on statistics from 2000, the patent application areas are divided up as follows: 20 per cent gearboxes/synchronisation; 15 per cent valve trains; 15 per cent belt tensioners; 14 per cent linear technology; 10 per cent rotary rolling bearings; 8 per cent camshaft phasing units; 5 per cent clutches; and 13 per cent in other areas.

Schaeffler's range of bearings, linear motion and automotive engine components comprises more than 40,000 different INA, FAG and LuK-branded products. Bearing products include: deep groove ball bearings; angular contact ball bearings; cylindrical roller bearings; spindle bearings; bearings for screw drives; track rollers; housed bearing units; tapered roller bearings; needle roller and cage assemblies; spherical roller bearings; drawn cup needle roller bearings; bearing housings; and accessories.

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