24 May, 2013

The Process is the Design

A guest post by Casey:

Some of you may be familiar with Marshall McLuhan. He was a philosopher of media in the late 1960s and on into the 70s. He is probably best know for the expression, "The medium is the message." What this means, at its most basic, is that the medium (i.e., radio, television news, youtube) intrinsically affects the message it carries. Paraphrasing this to the realm of design, it can also be said that the manufacturing process (i.e., cnc milling, forging, welding) is the design. The design of the new Grand Cru pedals that we announced last week provide the perfect platform for me to explain what I mean by this.

First, some basic background on what the new grand cru pedals are designed for: They are designed to be used with toe clips and straps. For this reason we chose to make them one sided. One of the perks of a one sided pedal is that you can use much larger bearings and still have a relatively thin pedal. Larger bearings are primarily useful for their increased longevity. These pedals were also designed around a similar premise to that of the Grand Cru Sabot pedals: we wanted a wider and more comfortable platform for people with thin-soled shoes and/or big feet.

The design for the new Grand Cru pedal was initially inspired by Barelli pedals. I've thought for some time that Barelli pedals are very good looking single-sided pedals. The design of the Barelli pedals also accommodates larger bearing sizes. My initial hope was to create the sides of the pedal with CNC milling, and then use stamping and bending to fabricate the top plate of the pedal. This would have remained in the spirit of the original Barelli pedals. Unfortunately, we had a very hard time finding a manufacturer who would do the bending and stamping that we wanted. In every design there are sacrifices that must be made to maintain the initial design goals (cost, aesthetic, functionality). To accommodate all of these design goals we eventually decided to fabricate the sides and top plate of the pedal by extrusion and CNC milling. For those who don't know, CNC machining refers computer controlled machining (in this case milling).

CNC milling is currently one of the more popular manufacturing methods for bike components. It's easy, low initial cost, and allows for small runs. There are some problems with CNC milling, though. From an aesthetic perspective, CNC milled components generally have a very distinctive look to them. Getting back to my original point, the manufacturing process is the design. Very intricate and beautiful parts can be created using only CNC milling, but this is generally at a very high cost and with a lot of waste.

I know that there has been a lot of hype over CNC milled components and their precision for a while now (particularly from American component manufacturers). I can understand that there is something impressive about creating a component out of a solid square of aluminum. However, I think that with the influx of CNC mills into the cycling market that novelty will start to fade away and people will begin to realize that this is just an over-glorification of functionality. It often times leaves you with square and industrial looking components. Again, the medium is the message: these square and bulky looking parts generate associations of manufacturing 'precision'. Nowadays a more than adequate level of precision is very attainable through most component manufacturing processes. These associations, more than anything, are just residuals from a time past. There are also other problems with exclusively using CNC milling to create a part. Creating a component out of a solid block of aluminum generally creates a lot of waste, and to create an intricate part takes a lot of time (running costs). This can substantially increase the overall cost of the product. 

All of this is not to say that CNC machining should not be used to create bicycle components. CNC milling can be exceptional useful in fabrication and it does have many advantages for certain designs. Sheldon Brown's comparison between forging, casting, and CNC machining is worth a read if you want a deeper look into this. To echo similar curmudgeonly sentiments from my Steel is Steel blog post; don't believe the hype. Exclusively CNC milled components are often times not better than forged for being more precise; they are also not stronger. There are certain components where exclusive CNC machining is apt, but it doesn't need to be used for all components. Instead of being enamored by the process (medium), look at the the more general aesthetic and functional value of the component. Doing this can often leave you with better looking and more affordable components.

For all of these reasons we decided to make the larger initial investment to create our own aluminum extrusions. This allowed us to fabricate a part with clean visual lines and curves and to keep cost low by minimizing waste and milling time. We are very excited about this new pedal. So far I've loved riding around with the prototypes. I think that an affordable, attractive, and high quality single sided platform pedal is something that the market has been missing for a while now. 


Anonymous said...

Great post Casey. Regarding advert money, word of mouth and products like this will ensure a healthy future for VO. If only more bike shops knew about VO products.


Unknown said...

Your comments were perhaps pertinent 20 years ago, but they're just not relevant in the current market. If you look at the MTB boom of the early 90's, there was a heap of companies formed based around CNC manufacturing. Few of these still remain because either the economies of scale didn't work out, or they were too heavily invested in tooling and not design, or they created inappropriate products such as cranks which weren't strong enough.
Using extrusion to make a pedal is just simply using the appropriate technology for the product - it makes a whole heap of sense for a product whose major loading is in bending. Many, many BMX platform pedals are extruded and then finish CNC'd.
Also, the CNC 'aesthetic' is really just a finish. You could easily make it look as though another process was used by etching, media blasting, tumble deburring, polishing, etch.
In actual fact, you've made these pedals NOT look as though they're CNC'd, because you're emulating an inherently 'retrogressive' design and product using modern manufacturing techniques, so the 'medium is not the message' at all.

Anonymous said...

Great post! People often forget that the "design" or look of something is not arbitrary, and is influenced by the entire chain of its lifecycle.

Terry said...

As a machinist of over 30 years, I can only say that there is really nothing magical about CNC machined parts. It is kinda of like people throwing around the term "billet aluminum" in the hot rod car world. Big deal, billet just means you start with a big hunk of aluminum. CNCed parts are still dependent upon the programer and operator for accuracy. They can be just as "off" as a component made any other way. Sometimes advertisers like to throw around words hoping to impress when there really isn't anything impressive there. The finished product is what matters. How it was made--not as much. You can have junk no matter how a part is made or you can have a great part.

Anonymous said...

Today on a ride I was just thinking about my Nuovo Record pedals I bought in 79. It looks like your pedals don't have a similar cage style for a cleated shoe.

Anonymous said...

cool that the bottom one looks like a smiley face.

Unknown said...

Chris, both my TA touring and older Campagnolo pedals have a small tab on the inboard side of the platform that bends the toe strap up. I have found this little feature quite important as it prevents the toe strap from rubbing on the crank.
Just my $0.02.

Sherry Schmidt said...

In the first photo with the toe strap and pedal, the toe strap has been mounted up-side-down...

-Chuck at velo-retro.com

Boutique said...

to be used with toe clips and straps. For this reason we chose to make them one sided. One of the perks of a one sided pedal is that cnc machining you can use much larger bearings and still have a relatively thin pedal.