When Schwinn and other American bike manufacturers started to move production to Taiwan and China a few decades ago, the simple motivation was the cost of labor: Bikes take a long time to make by hand.
Now, most bicycles sold in the U.S. are made elsewhere and shipped thousands of miles. A similar shift happened in Europe. But a Dutch designer hopes to bring back local manufacturing—with the help of robots.
The Mokumono bike is made almost entirely automatically, making it cheap enough to build anywhere.
The production process is inspired by the auto industry, which has shifted assembly lines to be more and more automated. Bikes never made that shift. "Tubes have to be cut and placed into a jig, welded together, and for most bikes, the welds or brazing have to be finished," says designer Bob Schiller, who started working on the concept as a student at Design Academy Eindhoven. "It’s a labor-intensive job that’s hard to completely automate. What you see now at some factories, with the use of robots getting cheaper, is that some of the welding is done by a robot. But still the majority of the work is done by hand."
The new bike is different. A robot puts a sheet of aluminum in a press, stamps out the shape of the frame in two halves, and then a laser cutter trims the edges. A laser welder joins the halves together. Right now, some other pieces are welded by hand, but that step will soon be automated as well, and then the finished frame is automatically coated. The whole process takes less than an hour.
The bike is designed for city use. "We tried to build a bike that is almost maintenance free," says Schiller. "I think this aspect makes it ideal for everyday use like commuting to work in a city."
While the startup is focused on the Netherlands at first—a country with nearly as many bikes as people, and which used to have a strong bike manufacturing sector—Schiller says the process could also be used to bring affordable local manufacturing to other places.
"I believe in local production," he says. "I can imagine working together with production facilities in the U.S. and Japan in the future to produce the bikes using our formula."
The Mokumono bike is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter. Now, we just need to do some crowdfunding for the bike makers.