June 24th, 2011
By Emiliano Jordan
On the eve of the release of ENVE’s groundbreaking 6.7 Smart System rims, I was allowed the privilege to tour ENVE’s main office and the attached production facility. Jake Pantone, ENVE’s Marketing Director, was kind enough to spend almost two hours guiding me through the development and production processes behind some of the most cutting edge (no pun intended) carbon components within the cycling industry.
Along with their recent name change from EDGE to ENVE, this Ogden, Utah based composites manufacturer has also relocated to a facility nearly twice the size of their previous location. This move has allowed ENVE to house their machine shop in house while allowing ample room for increased office space and production floor. The move into the new space occurred in January, and the slight disarray of the office spaces suggests that everyone at ENVE has been hard at work, probably having some difficulty in finding the time to really get settled in (We can sure relate to that).
Attached to their main office area is the product design engineers’ office. This is where things started to get interesting; dozens of rims, complete wheels, and various tested and damaged prototypes littered this area, organized in a frantic yet ordered manner that again hinted at high level of activity in the new office. Looking closely at some of the tested prototype rims, there were clear markings denoting failure points, loads, spoke hole notations, etc. Obviously, once Enve dialed in their aerodynamic rim shapes, there was a good deal of development in testing the new product to ensure industry-leading strength and durability.
At this point, Jake handed the tour guide reigns over to Kevin Nelson, ENVE’s chief design engineer. Kevin led us into the product testing room, where ENVE’s rims, handlebars, stems, seatposts, and all the newest prototypes are smashed, heated, exploded and otherwise abused in order to expose failure types and fashions under the most extreme conditions. While I didn’t get the opportunity to witness any of this destruction first hand, I was shown a few examples of the horrors exacted on expensive carbon components. Perhaps the most surprising of these was an ENVE All Mountain rim that had received half a dozen direct impacts from a dropped weight. Where one would normally expect carbon fiber to shatter and splinter, this rim was severely dented, and resembled what an aluminum rim would look like under the same impacts. The engineers have been hard at work, it seems. Along with a weight-dropping machine built for this purpose, three other devices filled the testing room: a custom-built jig for measuring lateral and radial deflection under load, a rear wheel driving device for testing braking response and heat deflection, and a lexan-walled box for the purpose of over inflating tires to the point of failure. I’m told that when this box is in use, it can send shock waves through the whole building! Another point of interest in this room: along one wall, dozens and dozens of rims were carefully hung, some already destroyed and others awaiting their fates. I’m not sure if even half of these were ENVE rims. The commitment here is apparently not to merely manufacture quality components, but to benchmark the best in the industry, then design something altogether superior. Jake confirmed this, and added that while ENVE relies heavily on their in-house testing, they take the extra step of having their results verified in outsourced testing.
From here, we took a short walk through ENVE’s machine shop. This impressive facility, formerly housed off site, is essentially a crowd of very large machines that allow Enve to create the tooling and molds necessary for the creation of their prototypes and finished products.
And onward to the production floor…
Every US-manufactured Enve component begins life as a collection of flat sheets of resin-impregnated carbon fiber (or prepreg for short). These carbon sheets are precisely machine cut, then very specifically assembled by hand within a mold according to a carefully engineered layup schedule. Large sheets are rolled into tubes for frame manufacturers such as Parlee, Crumpton, and Calfee. I was allowed to watch the process of a rim being laid up by hand, which will take even the most skilled laborer twenty minutes to complete. Here I saw the bladder that is used to apply pressure on the interior of the rim. Enve uses an expensive, high quality bladder that can be removed once the molding is complete to reduce the amount of material left within the rim. As a wheel builder, I can appreciate this small production detail; some manufacturers leave so much bladder material in the rim that it can be difficult to fit nipples to spokes when lacing a wheel.
Once an ENVE component completes the high pressure / high heat molding process, the forms and bladders are removed and the component is sent to the finishing room where the rims are cleaned and seams and imperfections are sanded down smooth. The rims’ sidewalls are given special attention with a machine that precisely sands the braking surfaces to be smooth, flat, and parallel. Upon completion of this finishing, rims undergo a thorough quality control check where individual rim data is saved for future reference. When a customer experiences a potential warranty issue, this data can be helpful in determining whether or not the production or materials are at fault.
While specialty retailers such as Fair Wheel Bikes prefer to assemble and tension wheels themselves, Enve does offer complete wheelsets equipped with either DT Swiss or Chris King hubs. This in-house wheel building is handled by the capable hands of just two hard- working full time employees, who carefully lace, true, and tension balance each Enve wheel to stringent standards.