Unveiling the Argonaut Cycles Process Part 01

When Ben Farver from Argonaut Cycles decided he was going to make the switch from building custom steel bikes to custom, made in the USA carbon fiber frames, he needed to find some local experts. The team at Innovative Composite Engineering, or ICE, were located just over the river in White Salmon, Washington state. Their expertise lies in everything from SUP poles to products for the aerospace industry. A few phone calls later and they began to meet to discuss a new, proprietary system for manufacturing custom carbon fiber bicycle frames.

ICE and Ben began to collaborate. They both were motivated to develop the frame using the best and most advanced molding technology, and to bring something new to the industry. They both pushed each other to do this without compromise or cutting corners, deciding on a few key points: There would be no vacuum forming, no tube to tube carbon lug bonding and no real hand finishing needed. The process would be streamlined, efficient and most importantly, customizable. While I can’t show you the juicy details, which I can assure you are juicy, I can show you snippets of the Argonaut Cycles process.

It begins with a roll of carbon, which is then cut out based on digital CAD templates on a large cutting bed. Each piece is based on the individual parts’ dimensions. From there, the carbon is inserted into aluminum molds, around a bladder where the resin layup occurs. Then, these aluminum molds are heated, allowing the resin to cure. This is repeated until all the parts are finished. When it’s all said and done, the frame is ready for assemblage.

Shot at ICE, these photos lay out the process used in manufacturing a 100% made in the USA carbon bicycle frame, like my Argonaut Cycles road.

EDIT: see a reply from Argonaut below that answers many questions everyone seems to have…

“This is Ben from Argonaut. I’m happy to jump in and answer some of these questions as I’ve put John in a little bit of a difficult position by tying his hands in terms of how much and exactly what parts of our process he can talk about. Much of our process is proprietary, which is why the pictures above are a bit vague.

A lot of questions here, so I’ll do my best to address each one.

First, my primary goal in all of this is to build the best carbon bicycle frame on the market, and it is this goal that brought me to partner with ICE and develop our process in the manner we did. With steel, it was easy for me to point to large manufacturers and claim I built a better bike because I was using better material. Its nearly impossible to find a frame made with True Temper S3  steel made by anyone but a small custom builder.

With carbon, though, it’s very different. Small custom builders can’t compete with the R&D powerhouses of Trek and Specialized, and they’ve been refining their carbon for years. ICE actually helped Trek with their OCLV carbon up until they started making the Madone. I don’t think a tube-to-tube custom carbon builder can say his frame is as technologically advanced as a Specialized Venge. So, going into this, it was very important for me to be able to make that argument; to say that the Argonaut frame uses the most advanced manufacturing techniques available, which as you can see from the video posted by Shep looks very similar to the Argonaut process detailed in John’s photos.

The individual frame parts are made using aluminum clamshell molds and latex bladders, similar to Trek, Specialized, Cervelo, Time, etc. HOWEVER, a very important distinction is that we actually lay up the material ON the bladder as apposed to in the aluminum tool as seen at about the 9:00 mark in the Trek video. This gives us a much cleaner part with much more consistent flex characteristics. This might seem like a minor distinction, but in reality it’s an engineering feat to figure out how to do this.

Carbon frames made with bladder molded frame parts are superior to tube-to-tube frames because they have more consistent wall thickness throughout the frame and have more continuous strands of carbon, which is a more efficient use of the material. Argonaut bladder molded frame parts are superior to other other manufacturers frame parts because we lay the pre-impregnated carbon fiber on the bladder as apposed to the in the tool, giving us parts who’s inside looks like this: what counts is on the inside!

So that’s actual part construction. More importantly is that we apply all this technology to the customer on an individual basis. That layup pattern in the first picture of John’s post? That actually has a customer’s name on it. That’s not just Argonaut’s BB layup pattern, that’s YOUR layup pattern designed to give ride and handling characteristics specific to YOUR needs and riding style.

Sorry, now I’m grandstanding… this is the real value of the Argonaut custom carbon frame. The customer gets access to all the same technology used by the big three, but with the ability to make it handle exactly how they need.

Oh yeah, and we can make custom geometries…..”

  • JacobH

    its like that parlee project you did but better

  • M5m008

    Carbon is a completely different game. There’s no reason to believe an individual frame builder will be able to make a better carbon bike than Specialized, Cannondale, Cervelo, et al., let alone Parlee.

    Why would someone want to go from building the *best* steel to mediocre carbon?

    • http://theradavist.com John Watson

      What’s so mediocre about this? I’m curious… And having ridden all the above you listed, I am in complete disagreeance with you. Bottom line, in 3 years, those big 3 companies will be making their bikes in a very similar process. Ben’s ahead of the curve.

      Just ask anyone who’s ridden an Argonaut.

      Tube to tube lugging is an old technology, as is vacuum forming. This is more aligned with how the rest of the world uses carbon for high-tech treatments. As someone who has seen many carbon manufacturers at work, I can say that this process is the most technologically advanced. There’s no mess on the inside of the tubes, no painting on resin post-bonding procedure, no sanding excess material. It’s very straight forward.

      It’s easy to hate when you’re ignorant to the experience.

    • Guest

      If Bicycling or some other media outlet posted this up, you’d be all over it. Being so knowledgeable surely you’d know that innovation rarely comes from big companies. Its always up to the individuals to innovate and teaming with ICE was a smart move on Ben’s part. 

      I owned a Parlee, a Cervelo and have ridden an Argonaut, which is far superior. Put me in line.

      • Comm34

        I also have a Parlee and can’t wait to get an Argonaut.  I have seen one as well, and they are astonishing performers, and the ability to tune the ride and the geometry is revolutionary.

    • ICEMAN

      this is ICE and Argonaut. Can you not read? ICE is a large company.

      • http://theradavist.com John Watson

        People have little or no interest in reading.

        • Guest

          I don’t know why you’re jumping all over this commenter and getting personal. I had the same reaction when I read the post. There’s nothing described that is even remotely unique. And before you start telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m a mech eng with experience in materials engineering and a Cat 2 on the road.This blog is one of my go-to places to look at beautiful bikes. But it sounds to me like you’re just shilling for your latest custom freebie.

          Like
          Reply

          • http://theradavist.com John Watson

            Name one other company building frames like this.

          • shep

            Trek?  Looks like how the Madone is built.

          • http://theradavist.com John Watson

            It’s not, whatsoever.

          • Shep

            Could you explain that?  What you’re describing is either resin transfer or press molding, which is the same process Trek (and Time, and others) use — it’s not monocoque or tube-to-tube.  There’s not thing wrong with that, at all, but why say it’s something it’s not.  The process as described, the hard mold forms, the resin impregnation and heat curing… they’re all normal things.  

          • Ben Farver

            This is Ben from Argonaut. I’m happy to jump in and answer some of these questions as I’ve put John in a little bit of a difficult position by tying his hands in terms of how much and exactly what parts of our process he can talk about. Much of our process is proprietary, which is why the pictures above are a bit vague. 

            A lot of questions here, so I’ll do my best to address each one. 

            First, my primary goal in all of this is to build the best carbon bicycle frame on the market, and it is this goal that brought me to partner with ICE and develop our process in the manner we did. With steel, it was easy for me to point to large manufacturers and claim I built a better bike because I was using better material. Its nearly impossible to find a frame made with True Temper S3  steel made by anyone but a small custom builder. 

            With carbon, though, it’s very different. Small custom builders can’t compete with the R&D powerhouses of Trek and Specialized, and they’ve been refining their carbon for years. ICE actually helped Trek with their OCLV carbon up until they started making the Madone. I don’t think a tube-to-tube custom carbon builder can say his frame is as technologically advanced as a Specialized Venge. So, going into this, it was very important for me to be able to make that argument; to say that the Argonaut frame uses the most advanced manufacturing techniques available, which as you can see from the video posted by Shep looks very similar to the Argonaut process detailed in John’s photos. 

            The individual frame parts are made using aluminum clamshell molds and latex bladders, similar to Trek, Specialized, Cervelo, Time, etc. HOWEVER, a very important distinction is that we actually lay up the material ON the bladder as apposed to in the aluminum tool as seen at about the 9:00 mark in the Trek video. This gives us a much cleaner part with much more consistent flex characteristics. This might seem like a minor distinction, but in reality it’s an engineering feat to figure out how to do this. 

            Carbon frames made with bladder molded frame parts are superior to tube-to-tube frames because they have more consistent wall thickness throughout the frame and have more continuous strands of carbon, which is a more efficient use of the material. Argonaut bladder molded frame parts are superior to other other manufacturers frame parts because we lay the pre-impregnated carbon fiber on the bladder as apposed to the in the tool, giving us parts who’s inside looks like this: what counts is on the inside!

            So that’s actual part construction. More importantly is that we apply all this technology to the customer on an individual basis. That layup pattern in the first picture of John’s post? That actually has a customer’s name on it. That’s not just Argonaut’s BB layup pattern, that’s YOUR layup pattern designed to give ride and handling characteristics specific to YOUR needs and riding style. 

            Sorry, now I’m grandstanding… this is the real value of the Argonaut custom carbon frame. The customer gets access to all the same technology used by the big three, but with the ability to make it handle exactly how they need. 

            Oh yeah, and we can make custom geometries…..

          • BenFarver

            Sorry, here’s a picture of the inside of one of our parts.

          • http://theradavist.com John Watson

            Here ya go

          • Adam Lock

            That is amazingly clean. I sell Trek, Felt, and Raleigh, and know that what has beed said by argonaut is true. What you get when you get one of these custom carbon bikes is a layup for your weight, size, and intended use. While companies like Trek may have the most refined off the shelf frame and process they cannot offer each individual rider the same level of customization. Even companies like Parlee build bikes that will kick the shit out of a Trek when it is custom made for you, and they are using antiquated techniques (prefab tubes and lugging). For example my Master Mechanic who does nothing but wrench and ride and wrench, says that the best bike he has ever ridden is a Parlee owned by one of our customers who is nearly identical in weight and height. Here the custom aspect gives him the best ride possible. But Argonaut is doing the same thing with a much better process. 

            Lets be honest. If your here bashing these one off hand built machines than you are the guy who would have never bought a Argonaut steel bike, and you are probably better off dropping 15K on a venge that will ride like a dream if you are 140 and 5’10″ and a crit racer. 

            Keep on keepin on Argonaut. You have a world class process and a world class commitment to your art. I mean hey that is what these bikes are – Art that is fun as hell to use. 

            Oh and you have my dream job. If you ever need an apprentice Ill send you a copy of my resume in a heart beat. Hey I am good with a broom and directions.

          • Guest

            (empty)

          • Mythbuster57

            …let’s try this again…

            Well… “the big three” do not have the technology, except Giant that has a lot of it, and along with 3 other major factories in China they make about 80% of all the carbon frames in the market, for all brands, including Trek. Other brand owners have precious little to do with the technology they lay claim to.

            Just about all currently used carbon fiber manufacturing technology in the sporting goods industry comes out of Taiwan and China.

            A lot of it does not involve bladders, but solid cores, sacrificial cores, silicon mandrels, etc. The more you pay the better it gets. Lastly, custom layup is not a good idea from the point of product liability and failure risks. It is impossible to test the safety of custom geometry and in particular custom laid up parts, unless you always make one for sale and at least another 2 identical frames – one for destructive testing, one for fatigue testing.

            EDIT: one more edit, hopefully the last one. Just about all carbon monocoque frames are made by laying up the carbon fiber strips directly onto the deflated bladder, but yes laying up cloth for RTM onto a bladder is a little different as solid mandrels are more common.

          • Brad DeBoer

            Actually, custom layups in the context of bicycle frames are fine, as in order to be stiff enough to ride acceptably, you’ve already far exceeded the strength required to maintain structural integrity. In other words, the lightest-weight layup you would do for a small rider would be strong-enough to support a large rider, it would just be unacceptably flexible.

          • http://theradavist.com John Watson

            I’m not getting personal, I’m replying to a snarky comment with a snarky comment. 

            ” There’s no reason to believe an individual frame builder will be able to make a better carbon bike than Specialized, Cannondale, Cervelo, et al., let alone Parlee.
            Why would someone want to go from building the *best* steel to mediocre carbon?”

            see?

    • Guest

      I think there is good reason to believe that its possible to built a better carbon frame than Specialized, Cannondale, and Cervelo. I did not like the ride on any of these. I love the old (2008 model) Orbea Orca I own, I like the ride on a Trek Madonne (sorry unbiased European posting here). I am sure that the key to an inspiring race bicycle is in the geometry of the bike. So, the attempt to translate the experience from building the best steel bike into building a top carbon bike is worth all the effort.

  • http://twitter.com/aarn_ aarn

    this is amazing. want to know more!

  • Patrick

    if it is such a streamlined lean manufacturing process – why is the bike so expensive?

    • http://theradavist.com John Watson

      Material cost + labor cost. When you pay your employees real wages, things cost more. Also, this is top of the line carbon weave, and it’s not cheap. There’s a reason you can buy $700 Chinese carbon frames on eBay.

      • Patrick

        understood. don’t get me wrong – it’s a very nice bike. but i thought the big “progress” was, that ice and argonaut try to eliminate a lot of “hand-work”. so that should make the frame cheaper !?

        • Guest

          The progress is in the ability to add customization, not to efficiently reproduce features that exist in other bikes at this price level.  The price is very comparable to other custom frames, and indeed, a surprising number of production frames, yet they don’t allow for this kind of customization.  The value-add is in the additioanl feature of customization, not in some kind of productivity improvement that yields the same thing as a Parlee at a lower cost.

          • http://www.digicycle.net/ Tucker

            TL;DR: Great ideas require good financing  (does anybody read anymore?)

        • http://www.digicycle.net/ Tucker
          • Patrick

            question is rather how big is the part of labour costs to the total cost of a product. would think that it should be rather low for automated bicycle frame production. but i see argonaut is doing lot of custom designing …

  • http://www.digicycle.net/ Tucker

    Robots, computers and bicycles!  Best post of all time.  Seriously nerding out to the max

  • JOSHBUTHBY

    Carbon is fred

  • Guest

    I don’t know why you’re jumping all over this commenter and getting personal. I had the same reaction when I read the post. There’s nothing described that is even remotely unique. And before you start telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m a mech eng with experience in materials engineering and a Cat 2 on the road.

    This blog is one of my go-to places to look at beautiful bikes. But it sounds to me like you’re just shilling for your latest custom freebie.

    • http://theradavist.com John Watson

      Hardly…

    • http://www.facebook.com/jamesmckeon Jamie McKeon

      The bikes he has actually aren’t freebies, people always choose to forget this.

      • http://theradavist.com John Watson

        Yeah and people wonder why I “stonewall” remarks like that…

  • shep

    Cool process, but it looks basically identical to the process that Time uses, Resin Transfer Moulding.  Neat that it’s done in the US, but not exactly groundbreaking.

    • Guest

      Time makes great frames, and it’s fair to compare Argonaut to Time.  What’s groundbreaking is the apparent ability of Argonaut to build frames that have custom layups and custom geometry.  I know a little bit about carbon maunfacturing, and can’t begin to fathom how they are doing the layups on each bike and how they are doing custom geometry without incurring tooling cost on each frame.  It is groundbreaking, and very sophisticated.

      • http://theradavist.com John Watson

        Thanks! Beat me to it. ;-)

    • Peter

      actually RTM is very different from pre-preg. It’s right in the name. In Resin TRANSFER Molding, the resin is pumped/sucked into the laminate after the fibers are laid. With PRE-impregnated composites the resin is already in the fiber when it’s laid. Pre-preg is vastly superior because it ensures an absolutely equal resin distrinbution, no dry spots, and uses a lot less resin for less weight. Pre-preg however is more expensive and expires, making it more financially risky to use.

  • michael

    Is there a reason they don’t make the frame as one piece? Would that be possible? Is there some structural/flex issue if the whole frame is a single piece, or would it just be difficult without much reward?

    • http://theradavist.com John Watson

      That would require a custom mold for every single frame.

      • michael

        Ah yes, that does make sense. Totally forgot about that factor.

        • http://theradavist.com John Watson

          Yeah, basically, ICE and Argonaut will have a library of toolings for various frame sizes. But initially, they’ll be making them all per-order.

  • Has

    I’ve been reading this blog for a while, and most posts have few if any comments. Then someone makes a reasonable comment you don’t like, there are like 30 comments and you become a nasty bully and pretty much stone wall on every question:  “hardly” “because” “not it’s not” “can’t say more” etc. Great that you like your new bike, but it’s pretty clear you’re not an expert on designing carbon bikes, so why pretend to be? Turn off the comments if you don’t like different points of view.

    I could live with the fact that you’re obviously shilling most of the stuff that’s on this site. Hey, it’s a great way to make a living and I think I’m speaking for most of your readers when I say I’m jealous. But you can at least be a little nicer when you do it. There are plenty of other places to look at pictures of bikes.

    • http://theradavist.com John Watson

      Apologies if you take my replies like that but many of the comments contain back-handed remarks. If they were open to discourse, I’d gladly engage with them.
      I try to not let the negative comments get to me but I’m only human. For every engaging comment, there are 6 snotty ones. How do you open a discussion with that?

    • http://theradavist.com John Watson

      And come on, did you read all the nonsense commentary on my bike’s entry? I’m a pretty positive and reasonable guy but I can tell a troll from a query.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erik.martinetti Erik Martinetti

    I work at a shop that sells Felt bikes. The tech guys came by and showed us their carbon process and a few frames that were in various stages. It sounded, and looked, a lot like what you are doing. They are laying the carbon onto the bladder, and ending up with seamless junctions (Seeing the blown apart tubes I was very much impressed–no extraneous fibers or resin or anything). I think your process sounds great for the custom geometry alone, but I am curious–what would distinguish it from Felt’s process otherwise? Thanks, and keep making awesome bikes!

    http://www.feltbicycles.com/assest_img/technology_docs/Carbon.pdf

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sarah-Vaillancourt-Caron/100002589242067 Sarah Vaillancourt-Caron

    Wow! Lot of shitty comments from people who think they know so much….

    Great post John! I was waiting for the photographic coverage of the birth of your new bike!!!

  • http://twitter.com/SpencerOlinek Spencer Olinek

    Can’t wait for Part 02! And non-anonymous comments!!

  • Michael Simpson

    Ive always been a proponent of small outfits…especially those creating truely innovative products here in the USA.  A lot of divide here if the posted manufacturing techniques truely yields a superior or better product.  Does it ??  I dont know…Im not an enginner.  The biggest missing element here ….. in all the rambling discussions is – objectiveness.  If a company wishes to lable their product as  superior or more advanced -please present objectively.  There is no substance or objectiveness here regarding the final product- which is THE RIDE (and in most forums or reviews of bicycle/frames) the converstation is diluted with opinion, personal perspectives and “the informed” who regurgitate bits of information from the internets.

    What is needed is a standard test protocol.  Velo News is the only party I am aware of who has attempted to shed light and weed through the marketing and varied perspectives of the consumer through in-house testing on 3 of the 4 items below:

    Test and convey data for 4 things:

    1.  Weight 
    2.  Stiffness
    3.  Aerodynamic efficiency
    4.  Compliance / Vertical compliance

    The above would be good performance attributes for a race-type road frame.  Compliance / Vertical compliance (which is another word thrown around a lot – but never measured)  may or not be a point of concern for a full-blow race rig.

    The above is specific to a race type frame where the performance = speed.  Performance for bicycles with other intended uses or type of riding would warrant a differnt type of test to determine their worthiness.

    So we can all argue about nano tubes, NASA resin, special water and whatever else you want.  After the thread goes cold none of it is a true objective measure on how capable the bike is for use in its inteneded environemnt.  

    For the record I ride a 10 year DEAN ti frame and have stuffed the down tube with fiber glass….its has the organic feel of a Ti ride with the responsiveness of a fiber frame… the glass fibers ad 10mm of vertical compliance and also helps the BB from seizing up in cold weather.  I call it a Ti Fiber frame – its all the rage come 2015.

  • Peter

    Just found this because of your new post on Argonaut. These photos are rad. Back when I was in the carbon business I had all of these tools available to me, and thought about building bikes in just this way, but never had the guts to risk my own time and money to make it a reality. It’s a huge leap to make this kind of investment in equipment and tooling, definitely the way it should be done.

    • http://theradavist.com/ John Watson

      Yeah, this facility has been making carbon for NASA, Boeing, etc for a long, long time. They make all the frame parts for ben, then he assembles them. Pretty expensive process, but no one else is making bikes this way.