Words by: Joe Graney, SCB Engineering
At Santa Cruz Bicycles we're known for our bikes, which we take a lot of pride in, but I wanted to touch on another area that is a fairly recent addition to our operations that you might find interesting here at the old cannery building.
In the summer of 2007, we started thinking it would be pretty cool to build our own wheels. There were some logistical reasons involved; we offer so many different wheel types that all ship from our Santa Cruz factory that it had become difficult to make sure we always had what we needed in stock to ensure everyone's order had wheels to go with it. But what really what got us excited was the possibility to learn about building good, reliable wheels for everyone.
Ever had a new bike that you hop on and hear the "ping-ping-ping" of the spokes settling in the first time your weight is on them? And then a couple rides later the spokes are de-tensioned, and it's hard to ever get the wheel back to feeling right after that happens? Yeah, so have most of us here. So we wanted to see if we could do a better than average job of building wheels. After researching how we were going to go about it, we decided to purchase two machines from a company called BMD. They make their machines in the Czech Republic, and came highly recommended.
No-one at Santa Cruz had any prior experience in "production" wheel-building, and even though I've built wheels for twelve years or so, I don't do it often enough to feel like an expert. Josh Kissner, our lead tech in engineering, is a meticulous mechanic and excellent wheel-builder (as well as one of the best riders here), and after the machines arrived, he and I went about trying to figure out how to use our new six-figure toys to produce wheels that we thought were pretty good. It was fairly comedic at the beginning, if you take out the intense frustration and sense of urgency to get things up and running. In other words, we can now look back and laugh about those long weeks and late nights that we spent learning the machines, and how to get them to build wheels that are just as good as Josh would build by hand - except faster. SCB Wheel Building.
The BMD engineer that stayed with us for a week isn't really a wheel-builder, but he knows all about how his machine works. He's used to working with factories that pump through steel rims and cheapo wheels, and our level of pickiness wasn't something he was accustomed to. We got used to hearing about other companies who use the machines, but didn't have the same demands we had about inconsistent tension, and why we wanted the machine to stress-relieve the spokes five times during the truing process. So we did experiment after experiment. To be honest, I was even surprised at the level of quality that we were trying to hit. After the truing machine would kick out the wheel as "good", we would check for true, hop, dish as well as the tension of every spoke. If that was OK, Josh would throw the wheels against the ground on a rubber mat to stress-relieve again - the most violent, and effective method I've ever seen employed (and no it doesn't damage the rim). Then we'd check the wheel again, and want it to stay within our tolerances. We aimed for less than 10% variation in tension on the spokes. Trust me on this one, it's a tall order for a machine.
Our goal was to make the wheels pop out of the truing machine just as good as we could build them by hand. As good as the machines are, however, we were never able to get there, and so now we still spend five to ten minutes on each wheel by hand, and still stress-relieve them all 5 times on the machine, then as many times as it takes by hand. In fact, these two guys
Alex and Mark, do this to every single wheel that we make here. I hear a lot about "hand-built wheels", as if somehow that is good all on its own. Recently I visited some Taiwan factories that only "hand-built" even though they owned the machines that could speed up the process. Call me crazy, but I consider results the goal, not the processes used to achieve them. Somewhere along the line, "hand-built" became a synonym for "good", because most machine-built wheels are not good. That's a result of people either not caring enough or people pushing up production speeds, but it's not the fault of the machines. Besides, humans can build crappy wheels too, as I can attest after a few pints... If we were able to figure out a way to get our machines to build the wheels we wanted without the hand-work, I'd be proud to say they weren't touched by humans at all. I am not afraid of robots taking over the world.
Regular old spoked wheels might not be that exciting to people these days with all the aluminum and carbon spokes and proprietary things that wheel companies push as the latest and greatest. But you can feel good about hopping on your new Santa Cruz, knowing somebody still cares about the mundane things that let you ride your bike without worrying about it. Have at it!