Every composites manufacturer conducts product development if it wants to avoid stagnation, but the process differs depending on the size and type of company.
Mike Lopez, director of composite development & manufacturing for Serrotta, a high-end bicycle-parts manufacturer, says his company’s process is evolving. The company recently introduced a new composite fork.
“It starts with defining the product. What’s it going to be? Is it going to be an aero fork? Is it going to be a cross fork,” says Lopez. “Then we do a little research and we talk to people. Then we define what I would call all the hard points—the axel has to go here and the brake has to go here etc.”
Alongside performance, the nature of the sporting goods industry demands particular attention to aesthetics. “It’s incredibly important. You have to marry the best of both worlds and that’s tough. You can spend a lot of time sitting around a table and say, so what do you think?” says Lopez. “You’re likely to get a lot of conflicting opinions. Somebody has to guide that effort and say, okay, I want it to look traditional, or I want it to look hi-tech. And we just went through that exercise.”
The outcome was a traditional-looking product that left some sales reps curious. “Ben [Serotta] and I, who are elder statesmen of our design effort, led our industrial designer down a certain path with the shape of some certain products trying to keep the same theme of some existing products,” says Lopez. “And the sales guys are 15 or 20 years’ younger, and maybe in their mind targeting different customers. They’re looking for something a little edgier, a little sharper.”
Feedback from the sales reps has made its way to the product development process. “I talked to Ben and said, ‘They’re the front line. They’re the troops so can they have a vote at the table?” says Lopez. “Let them make some tweaks. Let them have some pride of authorship because they know who they’re trying to sell it to. That’s what it’s evolving into.”
When it comes to product development, there are some advantages that larger companies don’t enjoy: “We have a lot of freedom as a small company. We can do what we want when we want it,” says Lopez. “On the flip side, when people ask me why it takes so long during the product development cycle to do what I consider my due diligence on the mechanical testing on a fork…it can take me months to test all those samples. Why? The quantity of forks you have to test and the time it takes to do it when you have one machine versus 10 machines in the lab.”