Canadian bike maker leverages rapidly machined titanium to create innovative folding bike model.
Urban dwellers passionate about biking use their two-wheel mounts frequently – commuting to work, running errands and traversing city trails and paths on the weekends. Most saddle up every day, weather permitting – sometimes even when weather is not permitting.
Faced with the logistical and space challenges that come with crowded city environs, some cyclists have turned to using folding bikes. Yet, folding-bike models haven’t really changed much over the years. Most have small wheels, tiny hinged frames and less than ideal geometry. They also ride poorly, are heavy and awkward to use and, maybe worst of all, they don’t actually fold up that small, which defeats the whole purpose.
Enter Helix Bikes, a Toronto-based startup bike maker. Nearly four years ago, Helix set out to create a folding bike that is lightweight, durable, rides and feels like a full-size bike, has larger wheels and folds into a truly small, portable size. The company’s vision was a bike that can be stored under a desk, taken on the subway, stowed in the trunk of a car or packed in a suitcase.
After broad product testing, a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015 and extensive prototyping help in 2016 from Proto Labs, Helix is on the brink of shipping its first bikes to a worldwide market later this year.
“We’re very excited about our product and the impact it will have on the bicycle industry, and also for bicycle manufacturing in North America,” says Helix Bikes’ founder, Peter Boutakis.
An inventor, software developer, machinist and avid cyclist, Boutakis created various folding bike designs over the past decade and has worked with manufacturers in Asia to develop these designs. Helix was an outgrowth of this work, plus Boutakis’ knowledge and passion for cycling.
After forming Helix, Boutakis and his crew wrestled through early design challenges, as they attempted to transform the fold-up bike concept. But, like many startups, the company eventually ran up against financial challenges and, in 2015, it turned to Kickstarter to finance development.
“We never could have anticipated the incredible support we received through Kickstarter, which helped make our dream of a better folding bike a reality,” Boutakis says.
Just how successful was the Kickstarter campaign? Helix reached its funding goal of $120,000 in less than an hour. The campaign would eventually attract 1,069 backers who pledged more than $2.2 million, garnering an astounding 1,885 percent of the original funding goal. Helix became the No. 1 funded bicycle product in Kickstarter history, and the second most funded Canadian project in Kickstarter history.
“After being funded on Kickstarter, we had a great opportunity to refine our design even further,” Boutakis recalls. “The unprecedented Kickstarter funding gave us the ability to take the design to the next level – we really pulled out all of the stops.”
Lightweighting with Titanium
As a part of this move to the “next level,” Helix explored a number of different manufacturing processes such as cast titanium and bonding, machining, super-plastic forming and 3D printing. Ultimately, Boutakis said, Helix settled on CNC machining for the process and titanium for the material.
“We chose titanium because of its light weight, and so, because of the constraints of bicycle design, which requires light weight and strength, machining made the best choice by far,” Boutakis explains. “It also happened to be the lowest cost option for titanium.”
Next, Helix was ready for prototyping. The company turned to Proto Labs, Boutakis says, after he had received a recommendation about the company from a friend in the automotive industry.
“At this mid-stage of the project, we hadn’t acquired any manufacturing equipment yet, so our manufacturing process had not yet been validated,” Boutakis says. “We needed to outsource the entire build but local shops either wouldn’t touch titanium or came back with very high quotes. Proto Labs made it easy and also cost effective to get our parts.”
From CAD to Prototype
The design process “benefited greatly from having a resource like Proto Labs,” Boutakis says. “It removed all of the friction from validating a concept, as we could go from CAD to a part we can test very quickly.”
The process, Boutakis says, “allowed us to validate our designs for manufacturability – a reality check was only a quote away. In one specific case, it allowed us to verify a part shape that most of our team thought was not possible to machine. Also, in some cases, it helped with costing estimates.”
Proto Labs machined a number of titanium parts for Boutakis, all of which, for now, were used for Helix’s prototyping phase. Those parts included rear dropouts, fork components such as the fork crown, a reducer, axle, parts for the bike’s locking mechanism, a seat post binder, stem hinge and more. Proto Labs also machined some aluminum and plastic parts, too, such as a seat tube liner.
“Knowing that we can validate a design so quickly allowed us to complete our design process and leave no stone unturned,” Boutakis says. “Also, the choice of materials available allowed us to fine-tune our design even further by giving us every option and taking out the guesswork of choosing the right plastic, for example. Without a resource like Proto Labs, we would be months behind with fewer iterations and the result would have been a less polished product.”
According to Boutakis, the product so far has received “an unprecedented response from the bicycle community,” he says. He credits the huge success of the Kickstarter campaign and the glowing reports from the bike’s testers.
“People love that [the bike] is all titanium, which means it rides like a dream, is lightweight, durable, extremely corrosion resistant and it will last forever,” he says. “Because it is unpainted, it has a simple and pure look. In a day of stamped, cast, molded and otherwise mass-produced parts, a bike like ours stands out, not only for its design, but also for the way it is manufactured.”
“Our bikes are manufactured and assembled in Toronto,” Boutakis added. “They will be robotically welded in an inert chamber – we’re the first company in the world to use this process for bicycles. The weld quality is unparalleled in the bike industry and is at aerospace level.”
Boutakis says three Helix bike models (a single speed, a 10-speed derailleur and an 11-speed internal gear hub Alfine) will debut for sale later in 2017.
This story was contributed by Proto Labs.