Thursday, May 30, 2013

Specialized Builds a Wind Tunnel

So there’s this news that Specialized has built its own in-house wind tunnel. My professional reaction was nothing short of “Holy cow!” It’s a colossal investment for a facility that will do nothing for a company that produces mountain bikes, city bikes, kids bikes—even an electric bike—and none of the bikes in those categories will be affected by this new facility. For a week or two Specialized’s PR team had been posting little teases on FB and Twitter, photos that were mostly just jokes, along with the phrase “aero is everything.” I was curious, but mostly only because I could tell it would lead to some announcement. But what?
More than four years ago the road product manager at one of Specialized’s competitors told me flat-out that we had essentially reached the end of the line in terms of big gains on weight and that all the real advances in technology that would aid performance would come from aerodynamics. The point being not that bikes wouldn’t continue to get lighter, but that the gains would be so incremental and at such an incredible cost in terms of durability and expense that for most bike companies the diminishing returns wouldn’t justify the investment. Instead, the gains to be made in aerodynamics were (and are) relatively low-hanging fruit.
Computational Fluid Dynamic software has speeded up development time by giving engineers virtual wind tunnels on work stations. But that software has limitations. The work stations are crazy expensive (and thats from a guy who doesn’t find Apple products to be unreasonably priced) and the license for the software costs what an engineer does. And then there’s the fact that you can only learn so much in CFD. At a certain point, you have to go to the wind tunnel. When you consider just how expensive wind tunnel time is (it can run what a good recording studio does) and how much of it you need (eight hours is barely enough to get a fair picture of how a single bike with no rider performs), then you can see how it would be possible to keep one busy for three shifts per day.
Having been on-hand for a company’s rental of time from the San Diego Low-Speed Wind Tunnel, I’m aware that you rack up a host of other costs any time you do testing. There’s the down-time for travel, and while a SoCal-based company like Felt can drive to San Diego before rush hour, Morgan Hill is a full day’s drive; any other location requires a boarding pass. Add meals and hotels to your transportation costs, and suddenly renovating a warehouse starts to sound like a pretty good idea.
I should also add that there are a great many products on the market that bear the signifier of “wind-tunnel tested.” It’s a do-nothing claim. I don’t mean to suggest that companies lie when they report that. No, the point is that plenty of companies visit the wind tunnel after the design work is complete, molds are cut, and production units are about to ship to retailers. “Blowing” a bike or helmet or wheel after the design work is complete means you know how much drag it generates. Wind-tunnel development requires multiple visits and for longer periods of time than are required just to make the claim of tested.
Significant in this that the staff and students of SBCU will gain access to the wind tunnel to aid them un better understanding the aerodynamic implications of a given fit; it’s yet another good reason for a retailer to send staff to Morgan Hill for training.
There is a darker side to this announcement, though. This ratchets up the bike development arms race. If you’d asked me which company would be first to introduce an in-house wind tunnel, I’d have said Zipp. I gotta figure the boys in Indiana have one on the drawing board. Prior to the PON acquisition I’d have guessed that Cervelo was working on one as well. Methinks that the new owners might be a bit more conservative in their spending.
While you might have winced at the industry’s first $10k bikes, news that Specialized had developed a $20k version of their Venge in conjunction with McLaren caused more than a few people to require the Heimlich Maneuver. Marketing costs generally get spread over an entire company’s bike line, which is why it’s so important to have a popular $200 mountain bike if you want to sponsor a big pro team. However, development costs are charged to the category of bike that generated them. You can expect to see all S-Works bikes tick up with this additional expense.
I expect we’re going to see a faster Venge. I expect to see that. What I wonder is if we’re going to see a more aero Roubaix. I don’t really care for how this is going to ratchet up bike development costs. But we’re going to learn a lot because Specialized is going to learn a lot. I love learning. I’m an eternal student. That part excites me. For that, I can’t freaking wait.

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