By Eric Peterson | May 15, 2023
Composite bicycle wheels
Stanish worked at several composites manufacturers before starting CSS Composites with fellow industry veterans Jason Christensen, Roland Christensen, and other co-founders in 2018.
The founders started with the concept "a filament-wound traditional thermoset rim," says Stanish. "Once we started going down that path, it seemed more feasible to make the entire structure out of a polymer versus a thermoset rim bed."
Instead of a composite of carbon fiber and epoxy resin, CSS uses carbon fiber blended with long-chain polymers, a.k.a. nylons. The company's patent-pending FusionFiber technology is the result.
"My patent around radiant cross-ply minimized the amount of material to make a bicycle rim, and that was really foundational," says Stanish. "Without that, we wouldn't be here today making what we feel is an incredible advancement in composite bicycle wheels."
Those wheels are lighter, more durable, and have better performance than other composite products. "If you take a thermoset material that's very brittle and hard, it's not a comfortable ride," says Stanish.
Unlike traditional epoxy-based composites, CSS wheels are recyclable. "I was struggling with that conundrum for seven years at ENVE, and for years prior to that at other composite companies," says Stanish. "It's a thing that keeps me up at night. I'm a classic overthinker."
Explains Joe Wheadon, the company's VP of sales and marketing: "With epoxy resin, once the epoxy sets, there's no going back. No matter what you do to it, it's in that form forever. With the nylon material blended with carbon fiber, you can actually chop it up, reheat it to a melting point for the polymer, and recast it into something new. The recycled material is a fantastic, engineering-grade material that can be made into other structurally strong parts."
It follows that FusionFiber is a zero-waste manufacturing process, adds Wheadon. "All of our trim waste is just like the finished product itself. It can be ground up and recycled."
OEM customers of CSS's wheels include Revel Bikes of Carbondale, Colorado; Chris King Precision Components of Portland, Oregon; and Evil Bikes of Bellingham, Washington.
In April 2023, CSS launched its own FORGE+BOND brand of bicycle wheels. "We needed our own innovation engine," says Wheadon. "As a direct-to-consumer brand, we needed that revenue and more focus to fund development of both FusionFiber and technology within the bicycle space with FORGE+BOND."
CSS manufactures at a 100,000-square-foot facility in Gunnison, Utah. Wheadon likens the process to Coca-Cola's, noting that it's more than just knowing the recipe. "You can go by the thermoplastic tape, the carbon impregnated with nylon -- anybody can," he explains. "The magic of what our engineers and scientists have done, they have really figured out how we take that material and make it structurally correct through layup."
The material goes through multiple thermal cycles, with a big assist from robotic automation, he adds. "There's very, very little trim waste, because we have software doing this, and the software is optimizing what is getting trimmed off."
Another thermal cycle bonds the layers together, then the material is forged and molded into a wheel shape during the final cycle. "Then we have a drilling process to drill the holes for the spokes and the valve, and then we have a full wheel-building facility with a certain amount of wheel-building robots combined with hand-finishing by wheel-trimming experts," says Wheadon.
Growth has exceeded expectations, with an asterisk. "When you're a startup, every year is 100 percent or another multiple of 100," says Wheadon, adding, "We have grown exponentially every single year."
The company's success might be better measured by the perfection of the FusionFiber process. "This was my dream long ago: to minimize waste and take control of that, then take that waste and really turn it into revenue and products that we make every day at Future Comp [CSS's industrial-oriented parent company], says Stanish. "I'm very proud of what we've done. We're one of the few companies in all of the composites industry that isn't just talking about recycling and circular waste and minimized waste. We've actually created a business around it."
Challenges: "Price pressures from Asia," says Stanish. "The reality is a lot of these companies want to have a local source in North America. COVID really highlighted that, but I think we're coming out of that COVID challenge with supply chain, so it really goes back to like, 'I don't care where my parts come from, it needs to be a certain cost. . . . With scale, over time, will come a reduction on a cost basis, but we're going to have to reach a threshold where we're bigger in volume than where we're at today."
Opportunities: Stanish highlights FORGE+BOND: "Specifically, it allows us to test new manufacturing methods and materials that we wouldn't want to test on an OEM customer. Really, it's an R&D platform."
He adds, "The benefit to anyone who buys FORGE+BOND is they're getting our most advanced technology. It comes with a bit of experimentation, but we're really diligent in our process of development. The goal is for that to go down to our OEM partners."
Wheadon points to a driver for Future Comp: "The other opportunity is how we use the recycled material to make more products. We've got a list as long as your arm of the things we want to make, it's a matter of time and resources, but we'll get there. We have many, many ideas of what we're going to make out of this material."
Needs: Employees. "Skilled labor is something that we're constantly in search of," says Wheadon. "We need more people in Utah and particularly in Gunnison."