Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Counterfait Parts, Where Copyright Means Copy-Is-Right Final Part

Open Mold Frames sells carbon bicycle frames. Amazingly, it also sells the clamshell molds needed to make these frames. Carbon cycle frames are baked in these molds. Despite modern non-tube carbon frames being called “monocoques,” they are not, in fact, made in one piece. They tend to be molded in two pieces, stuck together with glue, and then the joins are concealed with a carbonand- resin mix. Premium cycle brands pay competent factories for the creation of bike- and size-specific molds, and these molds are not used by other companies.

Competent and counterfait factories also produce generic “open-mold” cycle frames using molds that are, in effect, rented out to all and sundry. These Chinese-made open-mold frames are cheaper than proprietary frames from the premium brands. Open mold frames can be remixed by using different rear triangle or bottom bracket configurations leading to unique looking frames at a fraction of a cost of making an entirely new design. 

Chinese open-mold frames don’t have names; they have numbers: three digits after FM (FM stands for frame mould). So, FM099 is an open mold frame baked in “frame mould ninety nine”. FM099 is also a familiar looking shape – it looks an awful lot like the Specialized Venge. In short, it’s a knock-off, and is known online, wink-wink, as the “Fenge.” FM098, on the other hand, doesn’t encroach on any design rights – it’s a popular frame, available from consumer-direct from vendors such as HongFu and Deng Fu.

Chris Mei of VeloBuild, a Chinese trading company that sources and sells open-mold frames told BikeBiz that 30 percent of VeloBuild’s sales are to Europe, 65 percent to North America and five percent to Australia. Open-mold frames sometimes get a bad rap on internet forums – usually for issues with internal cabling and frame misalignments – but it’s important to note most of them are not fakes, they are no-name frames. Some open mold frames may have been built to very high standards with premium carbon. Others not. There’s no way of telling which is which, and generally very little comeback available.

Do They Crumple?

Manufacturers and brand owners like to claim that fake frames and parts are little better than papier-mâché and will, at some point, collapse. The uncomfortable truth for the industry is that despite YouTube videos that appear to show fake handlebars being crushed with biceps many fake frames and parts are actually almost as tough as the genuine articles; some are perhaps even tougher – it’s cheaper to over-engineer a product to make it strong than it is to use all sorts of clever computer programs and complex carbon pre-preg layups.

Even genuine products fail – the difference is that consumers who buy pukka products from bonafide retailers can rely on supplier warranties, and if the worst came to the worst the consumer can sue the locally-accountable supplier for any injuries caused by defective products. It would be far harder for a Western consumer to sue a reputable Chinese manufacturer directly, and next to impossible to sue the here-today-gone-tomorrow merchants buying from counterfait factories.

There are no figures available on how many injuries – or deaths – have been caused by fake products collapsing on riders. Nevertheless, it’s probable that it’s statistically less safe to ride with products made by factories with little interest in the latest ISO standards and even less interest in cycling itself. Genuine products may crumple, but they are usually designed so that in the unlikely event of a high-speed failure they crack or split in a relatively predictable way, with the rider hopefully being able to ride to a stop; fake products don’t benefit from the same sort of failsafe protocols.

According to Raoul Luescher of Carbon Bike Repair of Australia, common problems include:
  • Delamination – “where the plies are separated and can no longer transfer load.”
  • Unbond – “when the plies or other fittings were not bonded properly during manufacture.”
  • Porosity – “dispersed air trapped in the resin during cure causing a reduction in mechanical properties.”
  • Void – “large, trapped air bubble.”
  • Cracks – “broken fibres and/or matrix.”
The aerospace industry relies on composites. Every carbon part is tested for such problems, usually with nondestructive inspection (NDI) technologies such as ultrasound. The cycle industry doesn’t yet test every frame and part with NDI imaging methods. Luescher uses ultrasound equipment to work out where repairs to the matrix are required. “I am not aware of any of cycle factories doing any ultrasound scans of production frames or parts,” Luescher “Other technologies such as CT scans may be more likely to be used. Larger voids could be found like this. However, they would typically not be able to find porosity.”

“I have scanned some of the fakes, mainly Pinarellos,” says Luescher. “The compaction was mainly ok. There was some variability – some were better than others. However, you also can get this in the original brands as well. Overall the laminate was comparable from a porosity and void perspective. “The unknown is the fibre and resin quality, grade and type as well as the ply orientation. I would need to do destructive tests to identify these parameters.

The fakes were similar in weight and wall thickness and there was no sign of low-cost glass fibres in the scans. “I have seen some bars, forks and rims from the fakes all the way up to the very high-end brands that were full of porosity, voids and other flaws such as wrinkles, which could cause a catastrophic failure or at the very least reduce the life span of the part. “One thing that was noticeably different on the fakes was the poor quality of the headset bearing seats and other fittings.”

In the near future there may at least be a baseline for safety which is accessible by all, even the counterfait factories. Improvements are in the pipeline for the current international safety standard for bike frames and structural parts: ISO 4210. This is essentially a set of fatigue tests to tick off. The forthcoming changes aim to bring ISO 4210 up  to speed with composite materials, although whether counterfait factories will apply it any more diligently than they do the current version is open to debate.

One of the weaknesses of the existing standard is that it was developed before carbon became commonplace, and doesn’t take into account carbon’s very different build, use and failure characteristics. Experts from the cycle industry, testing laboratories, and trading standards bodies have been working on the composites-specific CEN Technical Committee 333 Working Group 8, or WG8 for short.

“The current fatigue tests are based on the properties of steel and aluminium,” says Peter Eland, technical service manager for the Bicycle Association of Great Britain. “There are differences in fatigue behaviour between metals, but the differences between metals and composites are very much more significant. The key factor is that impacts have a far more significant effect on composite materials than they do on metals. But low-cycle impact loads were not really considered when the original tests were agreed.” This means that a composite component could very likely pass all of the fatigue testing specified in the current standard, but could still fail in use.

New tests proposed by WG8 – which includes tech experts from Shimano, SRAM, Trek, Accell Group, and Mavic – will include the effect of temperature on composite rims, which have to withstand burst pressure from the tyres when heated through braking (or being left in a car in the sunshine). There will also be composite-specific tests for steerer tubes and composite saddle rails. WG8 will make its recommendations in a Technical Report due out soon, and this will eventually become part of the ISO standard for bicycles.

Bike AU, Autumn 2016
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