Bay area engineers look to take their sheet metal bike to market
July 1, 2012
SAN FRANCISCO - When Andy Davies takes his bike out on the streets of San Francisco, there is a good chance someone will stop him to get a better look.
It’s a common occurrence that Davies is just fine with. It’s a chance to show people the product he and his partners have invented and are eager to get on the market.
“People stop me first because of the way it looks,” Davies says about the bike.
The shiny aluminum frame of the bike is hand-folded and held together with glue and rivets, giving it an angled design. The construction of the bike provides an edgy industrial feel, while maintaining a sleek appearance that makes it look like modern art on wheels.
Once Davies has the attention of curious onlookers, he explains that the bike is more than just an unusual ride. The bended sheet metal makes it tougher, lighter to carry, and more sustainable than the average bicycle.
Davies, along with partners Rob Hannum and Mark Walsh, created Ronin Metal Masters based in Mountain View, Calif. And the men are looking to get as much attention as they can for their sheet metal bike, as well as other products the company has created.
If all goes as planned, potential customers will see U.S.-manufactured Ronin sheet metal bikes available at local stores.
A team is formedDavies, Hannum and Walsh didn’t just come together by chance. The three men worked for the same company. However, they found themselves without jobs when the recession deepened.
“With the slowdown, we were all unemployed at the same time about two years ago and kept in touch,” Hannum says.
Instead of going to work for another company, the men decided to work for each other and use their sheet metal and engineering skills for their own designs and ideas. They already had a great working relationship, and they all had the mechanical backgrounds they felt would make the company a success.
They picked the word “ronin” for their new venture, which is a Japanese word meaning warriors without a master.
Hannum, Ronin’s project manager, is originally from Pennsylvania, where he earned degrees in business and mechanical engineering from Penn State. For 20 years, he worked in sheet metal design and was employed by several small companies with specialties in everything from semi-conductor equipment to car chassis.
“I love the small-company environment because you see results quickly and the effect that you have on accomplishing goals as a larger part of the team,” he says.
Walsh is a Bay area native, originally from Santa Cruz, Calif., and sheet metal runs in the family. His grandfather was an inventor, engineer and a machinist. His father was also an engineer and worked on the first Bradley tanks for the U.S. Army, Walsh adds.
“I started working in sheet metal when I was 17, my first job was when I was still in school,” he says. “After I graduated I just stuck with it, working for precision sheet metal shops in the Silicon Valley, learning to operate all the machines and working my way up.”
After working for a company in San Francisco, Walsh learned about folding design, which he used with his sheet metal skills. It was at this time that he met Hannum and Davies.
“After we all went on to better things, we decided to start our own business and pursue our folded metal technology and thus Ronin was born. The rest is our current history, coming up with many different products and finally a bike, a really cool one at that,” says Walsh.
Davies came up with the idea for the bike. Not only does he have a passion for mechanics, but also for bike riding and design.
“My first foray into bike building came from building a two-person amphibious bicycle shaped like a giant hot dog with the University of California at Santa Barbara kinetic racing team,” Davies says. “Despite wining the race, UCSB still awarded me a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering in 2002.”
With the team assembled, Ronin was able to start creating products with a technology all its own.
The breakthrough designThe Ronin design allows for the bending of sheet metal by hand. The company calls it “cross cutting.” Depending on the product, shape needed or type of metal being used, the company can design where the metal should be punched out on a machine. Ronin will do a test analysis using 3-D software and SolidWorks to make sure that the punched design will work without breaking.
Once the cross cutting has been punched into the metal by machine, it can be easily bent by hand into the desired shape. This method has been used successfully for other Ronin products, including one currently on the market called the Bend A Shed.
The Bend A Shed uses the Ronin design for shed brackets. Customers building sheds or gazebos can purchase the product and hand bend the metal to form left or right 90-degree brackets or angled truss brackets that hold the wood beams in place. Do-it-yourself customers no longer need to miter or cut metal for their shed. They just need to purchase the product and bend it into shape.
Now the guys at Ronin are applying the same idea to bicycles. The company has developed a prototype which is made out of aluminum, but the goal is to mass market the bikes in a variety of metals from steel, titanium and even magnesium.
A better bikeAccording to the guys at Ronin, their bike doesn’t just look good. There are several benefits that make a sheet metal bike better than the average bicycle.
First, there are the advantages for the avid rider. More specifically, weight and speed. The frame of the aluminum prototype only weighs 2.5 pounds. In a city like San Francisco where many residents take their bikes everywhere, including on public transportation, the bikes are easy to lift and carry around.
Also, the lighter the metal, the lighter the bike. This will help riders gain speed. For bike racers, the men at Ronin say their goal is to design a bike made of even lighter materials, such as magnesium. With the lightweight frame, riders can expect a faster ride.
And while the metal is lighter, it is also more durable, helping it to withstand a bit of abuse. The design of the bike helps with keeping it sturdy. There are no welds, which Hannum says improves the rigidity and longevity of the frame. The metal is bent and joined with rivets and glue.
The metal bikes are also considered a sustainable product. Hannum says that the majority of bicycles on the market are made from carbon fiber. Once these bikes break down and end up in a landfill, there could be an environmental impact.
“You could say we are a green company,” Hannum says.
Ronin is also a local company, manufacturing products in the United States, another benefit of the bike, according to Hannum and his team.
“Ninety-nine percent of bike frames are made in Taiwan,” he adds.
This can make competition for a U.S. bike company difficult because the frames can be manufactured cheaper offshore. But the owners are confident there is a market for well-made American bicycles.
Making it happenThe Ronin team has the idea, they have the skills and they have the tools. But they still need cash. The three men have spent a great deal of time and money putting together their prototype, and they are currently looking for backers to get the bike on the market. In a bid to increase exposure, they started a pledge drive at www.Kickstarter.com, an online community where people can donate money to new companies and projects they believe in.
The men are seeking $100,000.
After developing their idea over the course of two years, the men at Ronin didn’t want to let their designs just slip away, which they believe would happen if they went to a venture capital firm.
Hannum says he believes many venture capital firms - which specialize in financing high-risk, new companies - are just looking for quick profits.
“They come in, give you money and high goals,” he says. “So high, you would be lucky to reach it. Then, over time you lose your say and your idea.”
While going to a bank isn’t out of the question, in these tough economic times, Ronin is staying away from traditional financing due to the risks involved.
“We might not have the best jobs moving forward, but we are surviving and continuously working to get this to a point that we can survive doing it,” says Hannum. “Once that happens, that will be our ultimate goal. We will be making products that we want to, the way we want to, and will be a beneficiary of it.”
More information on Ronin Metal Masters and their products is available at www.roninmetalmasters.com. For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.