Headsets are assembled by hand before packaging.
By Josh Patterson, Photos by Adam Newman
Located on a rural roadside outside the small town of Fletcher, NC—and about twenty minutes due south of the hipster haven of Asheville—is the headquarters of component manufacturer Cane Creek. A passing cyclist could easily overlook the long, non-descript cement building, if not for the plethora of bikes sitting atop roof racks in the parking lot, loaded in anticipation of an after-work ride.
Inventory and distribution is handled from the Fletcher, N.C., location.
In a roundabout way Cane Creek was the product of the “bike boom” of the 1970s, when everyone and their uncle was rushing out to by a 10-Speed. Japanese cycling component manufacturer Dia-Compe constructed the current Cane Creek headquarters to supply brakes and brake levers to companies in the United States like Murray, Columbia, Huffy, Roadmaster and Schwinn that were struggling to meet the demand for affordable bikes.
In 1990 Dia-Compe purchased the Aheadset patent—which recently expired—and became the sole licensee and sub-licensee for this extensively- used headset technology. Shortly thereafter, Dia-Comp USA became a stand-alone company and created Cane Creek to be their high-end component line. Today Cane Creek may be best known for their headsets, but over the years Cane Creek dabbled in many other components including wheels, an early hydraulic disc brake system, and even produced suspension forks for RockShox in the early days, when the Mag 20 and Mag 30 were state-of-the-art suspension forks. Currently, the company focuses their efforts on producing a comprehensive line of headsets, the Thudbuster suspension seatpost, rim brakes, brake levers, the Double Barrel coil shock and the just-released air version of the Double Barrel.
All CNC parts begin as aluminum bar stock.
Going Against the Grain
Cane Creek’s headset design engineer Jim Morison recently gave us a tour and discussed why the company chose to move much of their manufacturing from Taiwan back to the United States. The facility is divided between office, warehousing and industrial space. Voices echo over the whine of machinery, as office dogs run between shelves lined with finished products awaiting shipment. Until three years ago, most manufacturing was done overseas. Final assembly of Thudbusters and Double Barrel shocks was done in-house but the company’s bread and butter, headsets, were made in Asia.
“There’s this notion that if you want it cheap, you have to send it overseas, but when you get to a certain level of quality you really need to have control,” says Morrison. Concerns over quality control and the creation of a new flagship headset, the 110 series, led Cane Creek to purchase two state-of-the-art CNC machines and hire the machinists to run them in 2008—a risky proposition during the height of a recession.
The gamble paid off. “It allowed us to prototype faster, and make changes faster,” says Morison. To be competitive, the company had to figure out how to work smarter. “The key is efficiency, our headsets were made in two steps—we just figured out how to do it in one,” Morison proudly states. Under the watchful eye of a skilled machinist, a single push of a button sets the process in motion. In goes a four-foot length of aluminum bar stock and out comes shiny bicycle parts ready for anodizing and final assembly.
Cane Creek’s Director of R&D Josh Coaplen demonstrates one of the CNC machines that turn aluminum bar stock into shiny new 110-series headsets.
A Game-Changing Innovation
Rapid in-house prototyping played a significant role in the development of Cane Creek’s Angleset—an elegantly simple innovation that gives riders an unprecedented level of adjustment. For those not familiar with the Angleset, it is a headset that uses gimbles and an offset top cup to allow for changes to a bicycle’s head tube angle. An adjustment of up to plus or minus 1.5 degrees is available. This gives riders one more way to fine-tune their bike’s handling characteristics to suit local terrain and personal preferences. While it is a cool idea on paper, Cane Creek grossly underestimated how popular their adjustable angle headset would be. “We estimated we would sell 1,000 the first year. We were off by a factor of 20,” says Cane Creek’s director of R&D Josh Coaplen.
At Interbike 2010 we saw just how much of a game-changer the Angleset was—several bicycle manufacturers went so far as to halt production of new frames in order to redesign them around the Angleset. It has also proven to be a boon for smaller bike companies. Mike Reimer of Salsa Cycles noted how they were able to cut down on the number of prototype frames they produced thanks to the Angleset’s ability to fine-tune preferred ride characteristics.
Remember those bikes loaded on roof racks out front? Cane Creek is located in an ideal location for real-world product testing, with Pisgah and Dupont State Forests a short drive away. We took full advantage of the opportunity and would like to thank Holly, Chris, Jim and Josh for guiding us on the Pisgah trails and giving us a sneak peak into Cane Creek’s day-to-day operations.