DP Brakes: The Great British Brake Off

BikeBiz tours the factory of the UK manufacturer of sintered brake pads
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The Great British Brake Off? DP Brakes is said to be the only manufacturer on these shores producing sintered brake pads for the cycle and motorbike markets.

Over at its Nuneaton base, technical director Frank Edwards tells BikeBiz that the manufacturing process has some similarities to baking: You mix the material, including a few secret ingredients, blend them, then compact them into a ‘biscuit’. Once they are placed onto a back plate it’s into the furnace and voila – one sintered brake pad ready for packaging, which is also handled in-house.

DP Brakes’ background is in motorbikes and going further back still, in aircraft. Ironically, it was due to poorly performing motorbike brakes that the firm got its start. Back in the late ‘70s, disc brakes had come to the motorbike market in a big way, with imports streaming into the UK. The trouble was, they were no good in the wet – some brands even had the nerve to put a warning label on its bikes saying so. Eventually the government got involved and the search was on for motorbike disc brakes that could handle the wet.

Enter Dunlop Aviation, which had produced disc brake pads for aeroplanes since the 1940s. Sintered pads turned out to work just as well for motorbikes as for aeroplanes and after some tinkering Dunlop turned out its first sintered brake pads for motorbikes in the early ‘80s – the Dunlopad – through a new arm of the business called DP Brakes. After Dunlop restructured, DP Brakes broke away from its former parent and a few years further on took production in-house in Nuneaton away from Dunlop, so it now was in control of its own destiny, with manufacturing and distribution in-house.

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“So we’ve been making sintered brake pads for a long time,” says tech director Edwards. “85 to 90 per cent is exported to around 25 countries, the United States being our main market.”

DP Brakes began to look for new markets to move into and develop product for, including the snowmobile and cycling sectors.

“We’d been developing the bicycle brakes for some time, trying to offer a simple range.”

Brakes aren’t just about developing material, Edwards explains: “We have high bond strength – that is the most important thing in braking, but not a lot of people understand that.” DP Brakes now has around 15 employees and has been based in the same trading estate since June 1983, though the technology has moved on vastly since then.

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PIC: The 250 tonne press creates the 'biscuit' ready for the furnace

“Initially we mimicked what Dunlop did, but we went on to improve it so we’re more efficient. We more than halved manufacturing time to between three and a half to four hours by developing fast heating and cool down methods. And we’re looking to reduce that again.”

DP Brakes started working with Claud Butler last year, offering the distributor a full brake range for the first time, not to mention based in the UK with all the lead-time advantages that implies. DP Brakes is mindful of its position as a UK manufacturer, says Edwards.

“We always try to support local firms. The copper plating is done in the UK over in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter.

“For the powders we use UK distributors wherever we can. We have 13 different powders bought in and there’s a maximum of eight per product.”

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PIC: Pads are carefully placed in the stack ready for the 800C temperatures of the furnace

The technical director goes on to reveal overseas companies have offered to make product and put the DP Brakes label on. “That has been pretty tempting, but in the long term it’s not attractive. You can’t control the quality. We’re well established and have a high level of skill. We have in-house training and specialised kit that people won’t have worked on before.”

The DP Brakes team appreciate that brands don’t necessarily sell brakes. “People just want pads to work well, so it’s often down to the person in the shop. If they know it and you’ve got the product in their hands then they’ll recommend it.”

Recipe for braking
“We could have produced the brakes on a conveyor belt system, where you can churn out a higher volume of product, but we are looking for high quality product. That’s the principle we built the company on.”

Production begins with the back plate. Mostly made in nearby Leicester then sent to Birmingham for copper plating, plates are tested for thickness and integrity to make sure they won’t blister.

Next it’s time to mix those powders, mostly copper, graphite, iron, aluminium and some secret additions. They’re individually weighed, checked, then it’s into the blender for half an hour (“you don’t want to over blend them”). Next a (250 tonne) hydraulic press creates the ‘biscuit’ where getting it super flat and density is key – with no glue to keep them together, remember. The pads are built up in a stack ready for the furnace in a special sequence. For motorbike pads they are stacked in 700s, but cycle brakes are much smaller – and fiddly.

The firm is looking into bring a robot in to handle cycle product. Once inside the vacuum furnace, current is sent into graphite rods which then radiate heat – a whopping 800C – for three hours. Rapid cooling via circulation of liquid nitrogen brings the temperature down quickly (just how long would it take for a 800C brake pad take to cool at room temperature?). Temperature probes in the stack will help cut the time down further. Once they’ve cooled, everything is batched for traceability and checked again.

In-house packaging means the sintered brake pads leave the premises all ready for the shop.

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PIC: DP's cycle pad packaging is co-branded with Claud Butler

The DP Brakes team reckon they make around 200,000 motorbike and cycle products a year. That’s a lot of product to fit into DP Brakes’ modestly sized unit, but thanks to the canny team, space is not a problem. A sizeable investment was made into an automated storage box (or vertical warehouse) that handles 32 tonnes of stock. It took a week to set up, but it has opened the factory out with fewer racks and a reduced mezzanine level. Edwards is keen to impress that the privately owned firm is happy to plough investment into innovations like that to keep DP at the fore.

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Despite all the advancements, DP isn’t short on continuity, with plenty of staffers having worked there for over a decade, and all based in the same trading estate it was set up over 30 years ago.

Back then the brake manufacturer’s catalogue was a simple seven-paged laminated leaflet. Now they’re at 268 pages in the motorbike catalogue alone.

So, is DP simply looking to the cycle market while the motorbike market is reportedly having a tougher time of late?

Not so, Edwards says: “The motorbike market is always changing and while some parts have dipped, others have grown in their place. In the US, seven years ago our lead product was for a quad bike and now our bigges seller is a Harley Davidson replacement.

“To a point you are distributor dependent too – a good one can make all the difference.”

That longevity and experience is something DP Brakes is hoping to bring to the cycle market, taking learnings from the motorbike world to the cycle sector – not unlike how it all began for the firm, bringing aeroplane technology to the motorbike world.

www.dp-brakes.com
claudbutler.co.uk

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