Back in the Saddle: Industrial Design for Cyclists
Michael Alba posted on June 27, 2018 |
Fabric’s innovative cageless water bottle. (Image courtesy of Fabric.)
Fabric’s innovative cageless water bottle. (Image courtesy of Fabric.)

Bicycling, as with most activities, has both hardcore enthusiasts and casual participants alike. But both of these groups of cyclists can agree on one thing: the comfort of Fabric saddles.

Fabric is a bicycle accessory company created by Nick Larsen, a 22-year veteran of the bike industry. Larsen is the creative director for Fabric and Cannondale (a respected bicycle manufacturer), both subsidiaries of Cycling Sports Group (CSG), which is owned by Canadian conglomerate Dorel Industries.

Larsen, who studied industrial design at Brunel University in London, founded Charge Bikes in 2004. His aim was to cater not to the enthusiasts in the sport—whom he found to be parochial—but to the more casual bicycle consumers. The result was the Charge Plug, an urban bike that proved highly successful.

The Charge Plug 5. (image courtesy of Charge.)
The Charge Plug 5. (image courtesy of Charge.)

“Charge is all about trying to make products that are much more accessible, much more consumer driven. It’s very hard to get into store, because the whole of the bike industry is [run by] enthusiasts. They like to buy things that they like themselves. They’re not commercial people,” explained Larsen in a 2016 interview from Rouleur.

Charge was acquired by CSG in 2009, and under that umbrella, Larsen launched a new brand: Fabric. With Fabric, Larsen could apply his industrial design experience to cycling accessories like saddles, lights, water bottles, pumps, tools, tape and grips.

Fabric is notable for its innovative approach to common, overly static products. For example, take the ubiquitous water bottle cage mounted to most bicycle frames. Bicyclists need to stay hydrated, and unless they strap a water pouch to their back to emulate a camel, they need an old fashioned, tried-and-true bottle to slake their thirst.

Example of a water bottle cage mounted on a bicycle. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Aezram.)
Example of a water bottle cage mounted on a bicycle. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Aezram.)

With his industrial designer eye, Larsen found the typical water bottle cage mounted on most bicycle frames to be not just unsightly, but an unnecessary weight. Thus, Fabric developed the cageless bottle, a system that replaces the standard cage with two mounting pegs. These pegs slot directly into the bottle to hold it in place, resulting in stability, minimalism and light weight (the mounting hardware weighs only 3g).

How the cageless bottle system works. (Image courtesy of Fabric.)
How the cageless bottle system works. (Image courtesy of Fabric.)

Fabric has also taken an innovative approach to designing bicycle saddles—seats, in common parlance. Typically, saddles consist of the rails (their connection points to the bicycle frame), a hard shell made of molded plastic, some gel or foam padding on top of the shell, and an outer cover that’s stretched around the shell and stapled to the base. (Some saddles are made of molded leather and thus eschew the hard shell).

In contrast, Fabric’s saddles use a three-part construction method that bonds a single piece of foam directly to a base. The lack of a cover means that a softer foam can be used, as the saddle is not under tension from the cover. According to Fabric, this method results in both a lighter and more comfortable saddle. But you needn’t take their word for it—Fabric saddles have received numerous awards and unanimous praise from consumers.(Oh, and if you want another indication of how serious Fabric’s saddles are, they had an impressive design collaborator: aerospace giant Airbus).

Fabric’s ALM Ultimate Shallow saddle, which was codesigned by Airbus. (Image courtesy of Fabric.)
Fabric’s ALM Ultimate Shallow saddle, which was codesigned by Airbus. (Image courtesy of Fabric.)

Fabric has also developed a type of saddle it calls the Cell saddle. Inspired by the technology of running shoes, the Cell is an air-sprung saddle that uses collapsible pyramid cells and air pockets to keep it from compressing completely. According to Fabric, this design provides the most support of any saddle on the market.

Makeup of the Cell saddle, which was inspired by high-performance running shoes. (Image courtesy of Fabric.)
Makeup of the Cell saddle, which was inspired by high-performance running shoes. (Image courtesy of Fabric.)

To help develop its innovative products, Fabric began using Autodesk Fusion 360 in 2017. At first, the company took on Fusion 360 as a tool to complement its existing design software. It didn’t take long for Fusion 360 to exceed Fabric’s expectations.

“We started using Fusion 360 in June 2017. We didn’t switch from our existing package; we saw it as an additional tool. As it happens, it has now become our go-to software,” said Fabric Industrial Designer Rebecca Crowder.

You don’t have to be a cycling enthusiast to appreciate the flowing, aerodynamic look of Fabric’s saddles. In fact, a key aspect of industrial design is smooth curves and pleasing aesthetics that can complement the functionality of a given product. To achieve these seamless designs, direct modeling tools are essential, and Larsen praises Fusion 360’s in particular.

“The free-form modeling is amazing,” Crowder said. “It has greatly improved productivity and concept generation/development.”

Example of free-form modeling in Fusion 360. (image courtesy of Autodesk.)
Example of free-form modeling in Fusion 360. (image courtesy of Autodesk.)

Crowder considers Fusion 360’s free-form tools to be her favorite aspect of what is now her go-to program. We asked her what her least favorite aspect of Fusion 360 is, and the answer probably won’t come as a surprise to Fusion 360 users.“My least favorite [part of the software] is the 3D sketches capabilities, as it is quite [an involved process] to achieve what would be really quick in SOLIDWORKS,” Crowder said.

While Crowder continues work as an industrial designer for the company, Larsen was promoted to his current role of creative director of Fabric and Cannondale earlier this year, and his industrial design experience has made its way into Larsen’s branding expertise. Now, Larsen is charged with integrating CSG’s marketing with colors and graphics, while creating flexible and exciting marketing campaigns that work across the multiple geographies in which Cycling Sports Group operates.

To learn about a variety of software tools, including Fusion 360,read our recent report, “The Best CAD Software for the Modern Engineer”.

Autodesk has sponsored this post. They have had no editorial input to this post. All opinions are mine. —Michael Alba


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