Of the 16 million bicycles sold in the U.S. last year, 99% were made in China or Taiwan. Schwinn stopped manufacturing in the U.S. in 1991; Cannondale stopped a decade later. Trek makes a fraction of its bikes locally, but most are made in China. Only high-end custom builders have survived, and most people can’t afford their products.
A startup in Portland called Circa Cycles hopes to bring bike manufacturing back to Oregon by rethinking how bicycles are made. Using an ultra-optimized process, the company says it will be able to make affordable custom bikes in 10 days or less (affordable for custom bikes, that is–the first bikes start around $1,800).
“Typically, making a custom bike takes anywhere from three months, up to as much as five years,” says Rich Fox, the startup’s founder, who used to be an innovation director at Nike. “So the idea that you can turn a bike around in less than 10 days–it’s pretty innovative to go from zero to bike that quick.”
The secret to the new process is a design that minimizes labor. American bike manufacturers started moving to Taiwan in the 1980s because they couldn’t afford American wages, and later moved to China when Taiwanese workers became too expensive. By tweaking every part of the process, Circa drastically cut the amount of work required to put a bike together.
“Basically, it works because we’ve done a lot of planning in advance,” Fox says. “It goes together almost like a Lego set. It’s kind of like a combination of Ikea, and Lego, and Swatch, in a way.” An average bike might require 50-100 hours of hand labor, but Circa’s new frames take 10 hours or less.
Instead of welding the frame together–a messy process that takes highly skilled labor–the bike is joined with adhesives that are usually used to build airplanes or racecars. And instead of painting the frame, another expensive and time-consuming process, it’s anodized at a local Portland shop. A custom color can be ready in a few days.
The first bike is only partially custom, with a single frame. But a cyclist can choose to swap out drivetrains, handlebars, and tires to make it into a road bike or a townie, and choose a color and size. The system is designed to eventually make fully custom bikes just as quickly. Instead of tooling each part–another expensive process that only makes sense for large production runs–the designers use CNC machines to quickly program unique designs.
The company hopes to build Tesla-like showrooms in cities across the U.S., where customers can work with a design specialist to create a bike that will be made in Portland. “I think it’s really scalable,” says Fox. “We could have Circa Chicago, Circa San Francisco, Circa New York…some parts of the manufacturing process could move to other communities as well.”
Ultimately, he hopes to bring new jobs to Portland. “I moved to Oregon about 15 years ago and I really love it here, and I really wanted to contribute to the local community by creating something here to boost the economy,” Fox says. “I just wanted to make where I live a better place.”