As part of Clerkenwell Design Week, Clerkenwell Workshops are hosting ‘Business by Design’, a Workspace Business Insight event on the evening of May 25th.
A panel of designer and design entrepreneurs will be looking at the key challenges they have faced while growing their businesses and explaining how they made a business out of their passion for design.
Will Carleysmith, Chief Design and Engineering Officer at Brompton Bikes, will be a member of the panel. Brompton Bikes is a fascinating British company which has experienced huge growth in the last few years. It made £3.4m profit on a turnover of £28m in 2014 and has doubled the size of its factory floor space. He talks about the design process and what is in the pipeline for Brompton Bikes.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I am the Chief Design and Engineering Officer at Brompton. I'm a long-served engineer and designer at a slightly unusual business. I have a passion for bikes, other sports involving kit and the good food, art and design that can be found in London. I'm a new-ish father and very much looking forward to a hopefully imminent future that includes uninterrupted sleep!
Give us a potted history of Brompton Bicycles. How did you get involved in the company?
The Brompton was designed in 1975 by Andrew Ritchie in his flat in South Kensington, opposite the Brompton Oratory (hence the name!). The journey to full production was long and tough but accomplished thanks to Andrew’s grit and mastery of detail, kicking off in 1988 in the railway arches of Brentford.
Sales have grown continuously since then and we now find ourselves the biggest bike manufacturer in the UK, sitting in a sparkling new 84,000 square foot factory, still in West London.
I joined a company of about 40 people (we now total about 250 employees) straight from a degree in Product Design Engineering in 2004 and progressed over the years from graduate engineer to a company director who is lucky enough to be responsible for some great people and some extremely exciting projects.
Can you tell us about the design process at Brompton?
Staff at Brompton are generally responsible for the whole process from research and concept all the way through to final delivery, signing-off tooling etc. It is unusual for us to pass off responsibility to external companies.
We are of course working at a time when digital tools are becoming far more accessible and we take advantage of that. We utilise 3D CAD obviously, but also simulation tools, and our own in-house 3D printing has been something we’ve used heavily for the last three years.
We are increasingly looking to user-centred design techniques to provide insight.
As we grow we are formalising how we work and how the different departments interrelate; as a small company that was less necessary. Finally, we are increasingly looking to user-centred design techniques to provide insight. We are a business built on making a product that meets a specific urban need better than anything else out there and that has to continue.
You conduct R&D in-house. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Most bikes are a collection of off-the-shelf OEM parts and that is an appropriate way to make a full-size bike but for Brompton to fold as small and neatly as it does we are required to design the bike pretty much nose-to-tail. So custom brakes, gearing, wheels, tyres, the lot. Having deep product knowledge is a huge advantage in doing this and this comes with in-house R&D.
How does this fit in with manufacturing process? You've said you were inspired by Triumph and Toyota.
One of the nice things about making a product that is unusual for the UK is that we are not competing with the world-class manufacturers we have here and we have had some fantastic access to their operations.
This lets us cherry-pick the best processes we can find and apply them to our own manufacturing. Over the last years we have completely changed the approach we take to making our bikes and this investment and reinvention has allowed us to meet a market demand that some years ago was threatening to get away from us.
As well as product development, we have our own production engineers and equipment designers and their ‘hidden’ achievements in modernising Brompton have been considerable.
Have you had any design breakthroughs recently? Can you tell us about how they came about?
Our biggest breakthrough has been in the development of a kit of components (motor, battery, sensors, computer control) that makes electric assistance on a Brompton possible. In Northern Europe, electric assisted bikes are already a huge and growing potential market and we believe this technology will be a significant feature of how people move around in cities around the world in the future.
Great full-size (but heavy and unwieldy) electric bikes are easy to find but as yet no-one has cracked getting the technology small enough and light enough to make a bike that works well in a city where bikes are combined with mass transit, carried up flights of stairs, and stored in flats or offices due to lack of access to secure storage.
Electric of course, in utility cycling it is radically changing the market.
To get the technology we needed I started a project with Williams Advanced Engineering, the consultancy arm of Williams F1. As people that engineer some pretty advanced vehicles “nose to tail” they were quite uniquely able to help with our challenge!
Following two years of pretty intensive joint R&D with them we have some hardware we’re pretty excited about and are working hard to get it ready for mass production.
Where do you see the business in a year's time? In three years’ time?
In a year; working like crazy to get the Brompton Electric successfully launched and available to people in cities around Europe. In three years’ time; getting Brompton Electrics out worldwide, making superlight Bromptons you can lift with your fingertips, making cooler, more useful, more intuitive, more fun bikes and changing how people live in cities!
What trends are you seeing in your industry?
Electric of course, in utility cycling it is radically changing the market. Slick design, really impressive ID, ergonomics and application of new technology (e.g. wireless gear shifting) by the big component OEMs. Endless segmentation in the sport market.
Most importantly for us, an increasing awareness in the markets that maybe forgot about cycling for transport - like the US and the UK - that a bike is really the most civilised way to get around a city.
How is your office adapted to your needs as head of design?
We’ve been lucky with our recent factory that we were able to plan our workspace around our needs and we now have a big open plan open office for the different design and development teams; a studio space for collaborative work; workshops for different prototyping activities and a big test cell where we make and run machines to torture and destroy parts!
A tight budget was a spur to creativity and a DIY approach to furniture. It turns out glass-walled corner offices are great for growing tomatoes.
Who (dead or alive) would be a dream member of your design team?
Brunel would be an obvious one. The team that built the Colossus computer. Some of the Lockheed-Martin skunkworks team to push the envelope. Dieter Rams to keep things elegant.
Join the discussion around business and design with Will and other experts on Twitter using the hashtag #CDWBusinessbyDesign. To find out more about the Workspace Business Insight event held during Clerkenwell Design Week on May 25th and to reserve a place, click here.