At first glance, a bicycle might not look like the most challenging of design feats. But to hear Chris Yu talk about it, even the most basic road bikes are modern marvels. 

"Bicycles are some of the most complex, if not the most complex, carbon fiber composite structures in the world," says Yu, the director of integrated technologies for bike maker Specialized. "They require an incredible balance between weight and performance, and in really complicated shapes."

Specialized, based in Morgan Hill, California, has been manufacturing bikes since 1976. In March 2018, the company opened its innovation lab, where it now designs and tests new models. 

Before opening the lab, the company would have to design a component, send it to one of its manufacturing facilities overseas, and wait to receive the new version. Now designers can use the lab's 3-D printers to quickly create everything from small parts to full-scale models. A process that used to require three months takes just one week.

"Now we can take risks," Yu says, "and try crazy, crazy geometries because we have the time to be able to go backwards if necessary." Those design changes might not look all that radical to the untrained eye--maybe increasing the angle of the head tube by a half-degree, or shortening the chainstay by fractions of an inch--but they can have a big impact on the bike's performance. 

Once a prototype is ready, the fun part happens: testing it. To simulate high-stress conditions, Specialized previously had to choose from only three adequately equipped wind tunnel facilities in the U.S. The company's preferred one was in North Carolina, which required reserving blocks of time months in advance and then flying a team of engineers cross country. Sometimes, Yu says, Specialized would travel back and forth two or three times to test a single model. Now, in the wind tunnel in Specialized's lab, air blasts the bike and its rider at up to 70 miles per hour while engineers collect performance data. 

The lab also is equipped with machines that simulate riding conditions for each individual component. For example, a newly designed fork--the front part of the frame that extends over the front tire--will be bounced up and down for hundreds of hours to ensure that it holds up. 

Yu says the new system has given Specialized the ability to create bikes it never could have before. One of the company's newest models, the Roubaix, combines an ultra-compliant suspension system, innovative materials engineering, and an aerodynamic frame design in such a way that would have been too complex several years ago. "We might have been able to make a bike that's as compliant or as light or as fast," Yu says. "But without this facility, I just don't think the combination would have been possible with any amount of time."

Inc. recently got to check out Specialized's lab--including its wind tunnel. Check it out in the 360-degree video above. 

Published on: May 17, 2019