So, I see these Chineese made carbon CX frames on Ebay for reasonable $$. They claim most major manufacturers frames are made by the same facilities in China. Has anyone any experience with these no-name carbon frames?
Um, Dude. You ever thought about where these "reasonable $$$" frames come from? I know, "the same factories that make..." But here's the real deal, which involves the unique economic drivers of the composite (and not just ‘cross) frame biz.
1.0 The First Tier: (the actual names are Martec, Topkey, Giant, and a very few others). These companies make a healthy profit building many of the best frames on the planet under a variety of different brands. You think they're going to put tens of millions of dollars in business from their main clients at risk to sell a couple frames on eBay? Me neither. If one of their products is for sale, it's because someone smuggled it out of the factory, which means either it's stolen or it’s defective and they can't sell to their primary customer.
1.1 If stolen (which is not very likely), you should be aware that
1.1.1: Trek, Specialized, Giant, Scott et al actively police the eBay lists and that
1.1.1: receiving stolen good in that price class is a felony. However, it's far more probable that the frame is
1.1.2 A defective product. And by defective, it's almost certainly not a "blem" (paint blems are taken down with belt sanders (or files) and re-finished). Blems from shipping are received by the distributor, marked down, and sold through normal channels.
1.2 If defective, almost certainly it's a frame that has a fault in either
1.2.1 The molding process. In this case, either
188.8.131.52 the frame members were not properly laid up or pressurized/compacted, or
184.108.40.206 the joining process between frame members was not done properly (contamination, heat/cure failure). And/or the frame may be
220.127.116.11 improperly wetted-out (there's a couple ways this can happen; if you want to know more about wet-out issues, I can tell you, but it's too involved for this post )
In these cases, the frame will almost certainly fail or fail catastrophically (= sudden /complete failure), or else has serious issues with
1.2.2 Machining. This can be any number of "unfixable" problems involving
18.104.22.168 dropout/forkend alignment,
22.214.171.124 BB or headset alignment/machining/placement
126.96.36.199 Minor fitment/alignment issues like cable guides and bosses can be re-worked, so it's almost certainly not anything as benign as that.
In these cases (1.2.2x) the frame is likely unrideable, either short- or long-term.
Conclusion: You really, really don’t want one of these frames.
2.0: The Second Tier. These are factories that may have competent production/engineering capabilities (for technical reasons, good carbon frames are about a million times harder to make than good metal frames. Unlike metal, it's virtually impossible to use off-the-shelf materials and produce a good product "on the cheap"), but they
2.1 Supply smaller-run companies (any brand you’ve ever heard of not in the in the 1.0 list, including many reputable smaller brands). We should note at this point that:
2.1.1 Any company that does its own design/engineering spends literally hundreds of thousands of dollars [$20-30K per model/size] in tooling [molds]. 3 models in 5 sizes each therefore = $20-30K x 3 x 5 = $300- 450K in tooling alone. If you’re a small (<$20MM) company that’s one-freaking-fifth of your total gross sales, just for tooling.
2.1.2 therefore, any brand that owns its own tooling will put identifying marks in it, and ruthlessly defend their tooling investment.Which means that,
2.1.3 Every one of the concerns from Tier 1 and all its sub-points apply to Tier 2.
2.2 These companies may also fill in holes in their production schedules by creating house or generic (no-name) brands.
2.2.1 These “fill-in” frames are, as stated before, often competently engineered and produced using very good materials and technologies However,
2.2.2 They will never have the degree of engineering, materials or production expertise of the Tier One frames (simply because they can’t invest the resources in them as the name brands do) and
2.2.3 You, the consumer, will pay for the lower price in any number of ways, including weight/strength/stiffness/compliance/longevity issues, not to mention overall design and QC competence.
2..3 Having said this, there are some darned good Tier Two frames available. There are also some pretty crappy ones. To tell the difference you’d need a lot of experience, a good eye, and a well-equipped test lab with ultrasound/X-ray and full mechanical testing equipment, staffed by a competent engineer, preferably a blood relative.
Conclusion: You’re better off playing Russian Roullette. With a full-autoload of hollow-points.
Finally, there is
3. Tier Three,, which is to say, manufacturers who don’t fit into Tiers One or Two. At this point, you’re dealing with factories who may or may not know what they’re doing, creating frames that may or may not be competently designed/engineered/produced from materials which may or may not consist of premium high-modulus carbon, Saran®-warp and old magazines, used Q-Tips® and condoms, or spit and belly-button lint.
Conclusion: Knock yourself out.
4. The Bottom Line. Good carbon frames are expensive to design, engineer, produce and finish. Really. If it were my dollars and my ass straddling the bike-- and I’ve been involved in the composite frames sausage factory since 1986-- I’d buy a competently made aluminum or steel frame over an unknown carbon frame ten times out of ten.
Thank you, excellent response. As an engineer in a field (pumps) where competitors routinely copy each other, I understand where these frames may fall in the mix. At this point I would only buy one of these if I can have it fully inspected, or be insured that there is a history of satisfaction already out there with this particular supplier.
Does anyone have any experience with these frames? Could it be that Stevens, or Ridley is asking for us to pay $1000 to have their name and paint put on an Asian made frame? Could it be that good carbon frames have moved into commodity status?
See item 2.2.3 (should actually be 2.2.4). You can visually inspect all you want but even as an engineer, it's pretty much impossible to spot potential delam issues (from improper compaction or wet-out) without some serious equipment. None of the composites specialists I know would attempt it.
With respect to Asian-made: First-Tier companies are the state of the art right now, and the majority of these (with some notable exceptions) are Asian. Check the difference between the Euro-built Colnagos (built, they claim, in Ferarri's factory) against their own Asian models. Not only are the Asian bikes (built by Giant) less expensive, they're lighter and consistently superior in virtually every respect, and I've personally inspected dozens.
Since no reputable brand that I'm aware of is using off-the-shelf materials or tubing, I don't think it's fair to call any of the Tier One products "commodities". Regardless of who molds and finishes the frame, what sets it apart is the design and material specs (and some proprietary fabrication technologies).
That was part of the larger point I was trying to make: advanced composites fabrication is sufficiently different from metal-tubing fabrication that the traditional ways of thinking about frames don't apply very well. Quality of product is no longer a function of whose hand held the torch or what nationality that hand is.