China and Taiwan don’t always see eye to eye. Both countries have missiles trained on each other. Chinese politicians recently voted to attack should Taiwan ever declare its independence from the mainland.
Dr. Kuan Chun Weng used to work at the pointy end of this potential flashpoint. Armed with a PhD in composites technology he was part of Taiwan’s missile making programme.
"Missiles are easy to make from composites. They’re long, straight tubes," said Dr. Weng.
They’re also built to self-destruct and have not been designed to ascend and descend Alpine cols piloted by pro bike riders.
Moving from missiles to bicycles was therefore quite a career change for Dr. Weng, and a more taxing one. The stresses and strains a pro rider puts into a road frame means the job the carbon fibre is given to do is a multi-tasking one. Sprinters want lateral stiffness, col climbers torsional stiffness.
It’s this difficult balancing act that keeps Weng on his toes. He’s a composites guru: he even makes his own resins.
He owns 15 percent of the Composite Technology Corporation of Taichung, Taiwan. Giant owns 78 percent, guaranteeing its supply of carbon fibre road and MTB frames. C-Tech was created in 2000. It was formerly part of Giant but split from the parent company when Dr. Weng came on board.
Giant has been making ‘Giant Composite Technology’ frames (CGT) since 1985.
C-Tech employs 200 workers, 22 of them in the R&D department in Taipei.
Ninety percent of C-Tech’s production is bagged by Giant. Colnago’s non-Italian mid-range carbon frames will be made by C-Tech, with the first production run planned for late July, early August.
However, there’s a global shortage of carbon fibre, with composites factories all over the world having to cope with rationing of the fibres that go into making carbon fibre. This is due to the expansion of the Chinese economy, the building of the Airbus A380 and Boeing’s 7E7 Dreamliner, top-secret US air force projects, and the proliferation of windfarms across Europe. Every windfarm blade of 50m or more is made of carbon fibre. Shorter blades can make do with cheaper, heavier glass fibre.
Instead of some pauper industries – such as the bike industry – being denied access to the raw materials, the main Japanese suppliers of the specialist Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fibres have restricted supply across the board.
According to Toray Industries of Japan, the demand for PAN-based carbon fibre for 2004 was estimated to be about 22,000 tons and the demand is forecast to grow at an annual rate of more than 10 percent in the future and is expected to exceed 30 000 tons in 2007.
In a statement issued in January, Mitsubishi Rayon of Tokyo, another of the world’s leading suppliers of carbon fibres, said:
"The carbon fiber market has been growing in the sports/recreational applications and space and aviation applications as well as in a range of other industrial sectors. This growth has resulted in a steady increase in demand. Now there is concern about imbalance between demand and supply. On the verge of expanded applications for pressure vessels and wind power generation, with the emergence of a new automobile-related market, carbon fiber manufacturers are urged to establish their production systems to ensure future stable supply."
Dr Weng told BikeBiz.com that this ‘future stable supply’ did not materialise and that from April this year, shortages started to bite. He believes the rationing will last through to June and perhaps beyond.
Price rises inevitably follow any materials shortages and Dr Weng believes carbon fibre bicycle frames (and tennis rackets, golf shafts, fishing rods and other carbon fibre products) will start to cost more later this year as suppliers pass on some of the extra costs to consumers.
Dr Weng said the price hike will last for up to two years, limiting the mass market potential for carbon fibre products in the bicycle industry.
The first consequences of the forthcoming price hike can already be seen, claimed Dr Weng. He said his R&D team have come across Asian bicycle components made from cheaper glass fibre, ‘wrapped’ in carbon fibre. Last year’s trend was for carbon fibre sheathing over aluminium cores, a shady practice but one that’s easily proved to be taking place (so long as you can bear cutting into your ‘carbon’ handlebars, that is). However, glass fibre cores can be dyed to look indistinguishable from the carbon fibre outers and it needs specialist testing to spot the duds.
Dr Weng said consumers should be made aware that carbon fibre bikes will not be coming down in price any time soon and that cheap-as-chips carbon parts and frames may not be all they seem.
And genuine carbon parts may soon be in short supply. One UK distributor of high-end kit told BikeBiz.com:
"Weve had a number of delays from Far East vendors."