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What a ride! After spending much of the past few months in Taiwan, we’re really happy to say that we now have a manufacturer-built prototype in the UK. It’s been a crazy journey to get this far. Let us tell you a little bit more.

Since our last post, Dave has been working closely with the manufacturer on our ebike design. When in the UK, this typically involves a 7am start so that Dave can beat the time difference and talk to the factory and suppliers before they end their work day in Taiwan. This call sets the work for the day, ranging from redesigning parts of the bike so that they better fit manufacturing processes, to coordinating with the battery supplier to ensure that our battery and ebike frame fit seamlessly together. Our team then works through these problems in the UK before sending the results to Taiwan in the evening, ready for when the manufacturer starts work a few hours later. They then repeat the process on the other side of the world.
 
However, for much of the time, Dave hasn’t been in the UK. He has been in Taiwan working with the manufacturer in their own offices. Although this helps with the early mornings, it doesn’t mean that the work is any less intense. Days can involve anything from doing quality control on machined parts, to meeting with suppliers to test component weight, look, and feel, to troubleshooting unexpected assembly hiccups at the factory. During all of this, Dave has gotten to know our manufacturer well, all the time learning more about everything from the intricacies of the East Asian bicycle supply chain, to details about the pantheon of Chinese gods (our manufacturer has a small temple at his warehouse – although many gods are represented, the company boss is a particular devotee of Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King).

The warehouse temple

Dave and Alex have spent a number of years each living and working in mainland China. Dave in particular has spent over four years in Beijing and has managed to achieve a sufficient fluency in Mandarin to study for a master’s degree in automotive engineering in that language. However, although both Dave and Alex have visited Taiwan and love the country’s rich and distinctive culture, neither of them has worked on the island before. So we are particularly thankful to be working with Jasper, the boss at our manufacturer partner, who has welcomed us to Taiwan with open arms by introducing us to suppliers, showing us around, and even inviting us to a mid-autumn festival BBQ at his family home. 

Dave, Alex and Joe taking a break at the mid-autumn BBQ with Jasper

As the months passed, we could see that we were getting closer and closer to being ready to build the next prototype. This one would allow us to make the jump from testing the key ideas behind the design in isolation to building them all into the same bike frame, and therefore being able to finally experience what our design would be like to use in person. Working with the manufacturer, we had also solved a lot of the problems that had made our previous prototype difficult to make in the workshop.
 
As we approached the final weeks of work on this prototype, with all frame parts booked in with the tubing factory and CNC machinist, all jigs prepared, and all of the necessary components ordered from suppliers, we booked Dave on a flight out to Taiwan. With final assembly fast approaching, we wanted him to be in the factory so that he could troubleshoot problems as they arose and learn as much as possible from the process, bringing that knowledge back to the UK so that we could improve the next version of the design.
 
Once Dave arrived in Taiwan the final assembly began. First, to arrive were the CNC parts. These are metal parts that have been made by taking a block of metal and then using a CNC mill to remove material until you are left with the shape and size that you need. It is a very useful process for making complicated parts, such as hinges, particularly if you are only making a few of them.
 
Once the CNC parts were checked and tested, we received the tubing, cut to size and sometimes bent into particular shapes. Next came the jigs, these are tools to hold parts of the ebike frame in place, ready for the next step in the manufacturing process. With the jigs ready, we could move on to welding all of the tubing and CNC parts together into an ebike frame. All throughout this process, the frame was constantly being tested for alignment using an alignment table and scale drawings of the completed ebike.

With the frame welded, we could move on to the next step: heat treatment. This is a series of processes whereby a welded aluminium bike frame is strengthened by alternatively heating and cooling it to remove weaknesses introduced during welding. With the frame heat treated, alignement was checked again before moving on to final assembly of more recognizable components like pedals, brakes and wheels.
 
After four action packed days, Dave was ready to bring the prototype back to the UK. The final steps were to check the weight and box it up. Happily, the weight clocked in at 12kg – right at what we had estimated from our design models. Allowing for the estimated 2kg for the battery and associated electronics, which we would assemble and install in the UK, this should see us hit our weight target of 14kg based on the current design. Exhausted but elated, Dave jumped in a taxi for the airport. He had cut it fine; the prototype had been finished 8 hours before his flight was due to leave. 

Boxing up the prototype

Dave arrived back in Cambridge this afternoon. Alex and Joe picked him up at the station, took him home for some well-earned rest, and are now back in the office playing with the prototype. There is a lot to test and a lot to learn, but we are already impressed with the quality of the workmanship. The next step now is to understand how we can improve the design as we work towards the next version. This will involve a lot of discussions, demonstrations, and observations with everyone from potential riders to shop owners and bike mechanics. We look forward to getting stuck in.
 
In the meantime, we’re going to have to keep the prototype under wraps as we cannot reveal the design without prejudicing our ability to register intellectual property rights. We find this frustrating as we would like to share our ebike as widely as possible, but we have come to understand the importance of patience.
 
What we can promise is that as soon as we are able to share more we will do, both here on the blog and on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter channels.
 
We look forward to telling you more soon!
 
 
[Edit: Hinton Bikes was renamed Flit in October 2018 – links have been redirected to the new website:www.flit.bike]