Global Economics

Innovation: Shimano's Bicycle Parts Get Smart


Japanese bike parts giant Shimano makes a bid for pro cyclists and amateurs alike with an electronic derailleur that uses computer chips to shift gears more smoothly

Last April, a team of Japanese engineers from Shimano flew to France to test a prototype derailleur (an electronic gear shifter for a bicycle) on an important focus group: professional cyclists. The venue was the Paris-Roubaix race, among the most bruising in Europe. The 161-mile course includes 28 stretches of jaw-rattling cobblestone roads as it winds through villages in the French countryside. In previous years, Shimano's battery-powered derailleur prototypes hadn't been up to the task. Some had shifted at the wrong time, others simply conked out. But the engineers were hoping that the latest version would be glitch-free. "One of main goals was to make the derailleurs tough enough to be used for the Paris-Roubaix race," says Kazuhiro Fujii, who led the Shimano engineering team.

They got their wish. Shimano now sells the derailleurs in the U.S. as the Dura-Ace 7970 Di2. Released in January, the Di2 looks like a traditional shifter. But instead of using steel cables, its rubber-coated wires send signals to computer chips in the derailleurs that guide the chain from one gear to the next. The Japanese bike parts maker says the system is faster and weighs 67 grams, or about 3%, less than the old Dura-Ace system (the chips, micromotors, and battery make it 68 grams heavier than the latest Dura-Ace mechanical parts). The company also says the shifting is so precise that chain derailments rarely occur, and that the system needs no tuning up.

The Di2 is an attempt by Shimano to maintain buzz around the brand even as the global economy hits the skids. Analysts say the market for road bikes has been resilient in recent years thanks to a boom fueled by American Lance Armstrong's record-breaking seven victories in the Tour de France. In the bike market, the $250 million company is a powerhouse: There are no reliable market statistics, but analysts estimate that Shimano makes the gears, derailleurs, cranks, and other components for 70% of the world's bikes. (Bike parts make up nearly 80% of Shimano's revenues; fishing, golf, and camping gear account for the rest.) Those kinds of numbers made it a favorite with investors: Its share price zoomed to an all-time high of 5,450 yen last July in Osaka trading, but the economic crisis has since erased 44% of the stock's value. (The TOPIX Transportation Equipment stock index has also lost about 44%.)

Pricey

The Di2 is not for everyone: Not many will likely shell out $5,500 for bike parts. Shimano's strategy is to have pros use it in races as a way of building confidence in electronic derailleurs for road bikes. That could eventually pay off when Shimano begins offering a less pricey mass-market version in coming years. The Di2 also sets Shimano apart from rivals Campagnolo of Italy and Chicago-based upstart SRAM, whose top-of-the-line bike components are lighter and have chipped away at Shimano's lead.

The mechanics of gear shifting haven't changed for decades. The front derailleur, which is shaped like the blade of a vegetable peeler, guides the chain between the gears attached to the pedals. A rear derailleur moves the chain along the smaller gears attached to the back wheel. When changing gears on a mechanical system, the rider is doing two things: pushing down on the pedals while twisting the shifting paddles on the handlebars.

Shimano's engineers felt the Di2 should shift automatically to let the rider focus on pedaling. Their solution was to install chips, software, and tiny motors in the front and rear derailleurs, and to design both sections to work together. That wasn't easy because the engineers had to time the more powerful front derailleur to work in sync with the rear. They now move in a tightly orchestrated fashion to prevent the chain from rubbing or falling off the gears.

Mixed Reviews

So far the reviews have been mixed. Some pros and longtime riders back Shimano's claim, but purists have railed against putting a battery-powered device on a bike. Other critics have questioned the merits of replacing cables with electric wiring. "The more complicated we make things, the more apt they are to having problems and the more specialized the service required tends to be," wrote one skeptic in an online review.

Shimano's Fujii and his colleagues knew their task wasn't easy. The company's two earlier attempts at offering electronic gear shifts and suspensions on bikes for casual riders, beginning in 2001, had confused retailers and consumers. Inside Shimano, many executives disappointed by the early attempts thought the company shouldn't gamble its future on electronics. But a small group, led by bike components marketing director Masahiko Jimbo, pushed hard to convince higher-ups that it was worth the effort. Unlike past attempts, they would try to sway the public on a product's virtues by getting the pros to use it first. "At first there was lots of resistance internally," says Fujii.

Technology has transformed the bike industry in recent years. Manufacturers now design frames with 3D computer software, make parts from ultralight carbon fiber and aluminum, and use wind tunnels to test a bike's aerodynamics. Shimano had focused on making lighter parts. But by the late '90s, progress had slowed. "We realized that it would be very hard to surpass the innovation of the past if we kept doing what we had done before," says Jimbo. Around 2003, Shimano's top brass gave the go-ahead for the Di2 project.

Deep Pockets for R&D

Shimano won't say what the Di2 cost to develop, but the development team involved more than twice as many members as other projects. The company's deep pockets helped: Its $90 million annual research budget is larger than the spending of all of the rest of the bike parts makers combined, says CLSA analyst Morten Paulsen. "They need to be ahead and they can afford to gamble a bit with something that's new," adds Paulsen.

The Di2 is in a category all by itself, but it's not the first of its kind. Mavic of France made two electronic derailleurs in the '90s that failed in bad weather and were discontinued. Shimano was determined to avoid the same mistakes.

In March 2004, Shimano's engineers took the first working prototype to Belgium, where they had a few young riders test it. The derailleur was fashioned from steel. A plastic bag in the middle of the bike frame prevented the circuit board and battery from getting wet. "Some riders saw it and said, 'This toy?'" says Fujii. "The veteran mechanics thought it was outrageous."

One of the testers that day was Dutch rider Tom Stamsnijder. He remembers being surprised by the shifter's responsiveness—except when it failed as he pedaled hard uphill. Another rider, Joost Posthuma, thought the device had too many buttons. It broke down when Posthuma hit cobblestones. "Naturally, the shifting wasn't what it should be," Stamsnijder wrote in an e-mail.

Speed Is Key

The lesson Fujii's team took away: "We realized early on that speed was key," he says. They made that a top priority, tinkering with the tiny motors whose job it was to make the split-second gear changes. Even after Fujii's crew timed the prototypes and found them to be faster than manual shifters, some riders didn't believe it. The reason: When a rider flipped the switch there was a delay before the electronic derailleurs responded with a high-pitched whine. "Even when we told them the electronic shifter was faster, some riders weren't convinced," says Fujii.

Over the next two years Fujii's crew used carbon fiber to shave a few grams off the weight. They also made the system revert to a "sleep" mode so a small battery sent power to the derailleurs only when they were moving.

Improving the durability and water resistance was more challenging. Early on, vibrations caused the derailleur motors to misfire and shift inadvertently, and moisture triggered a short circuit. After some tweaking, Shimano again asked riders to use the prototypes in races on pavement, grass, wooded trails, and cobblestones. Whenever a cable came loose or a short circuit occurred, the prototypes were shipped back for X-ray analysis at Shimano headquarters in the western city of Sakai. At one point the team studied using wireless technology and a wheel hub that used friction instead of a battery to generate power but later tossed out those ideas.

The Di2's biggest test was the 2008 Paris-Roubaix race. Passing that would help Shimano persuade other riders to use the derailleurs at the Beijing Olympics and other major races. Weeks before the Paris-Roubaix, Fujii's team had received complaints that the toggle switch was too hard to operate during bumpy rides. So they reverted to a paddle-shaped switch that operated just like previous Dura-Ace systems. "You have to design it so it's familiar enough for riders to use right away, or they will reject it," says Jimbo, Shimano's marketing director.

That was one of the last things to be changed. "I think it shifts much faster and much easier than the mechanic one," says Posthuma, who rides on the Rabobank team and used the Di2 at last year's Tour de France. Manufacturers agree. The Di2 is a "big step forward and it would be a mistake for other component manufacturers to not follow," says Specialized Bicycle Components' Chris D'Alusio, who heads advanced research and development.


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