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COE Profs Help Keep Trek Bicycle Competitive

Professors Frank J. Worzala and Terry G. Richard have been regular visitors to the Trek Bicycle plant in Waterloo, Wisconsin.

Not because the College of Engineering faculty members were looking for new bikes to add to their collections (although that may seem a likely reason since both men do considerable recreational pedaling), but rather because they have been involved in a series of research projects with the nearby manufacturer.

The relationship began about 12 years ago when Trek wanted help automating its production line for brazed bikes. The company contacted Materials Science and Engineering Professor Worzala, who in turn called on Richard of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Specifically, the UW-Madison engineers addressed ways Trek could speed up production and reduce costs by automating the induction heating process (increasing the temperature of a material with induced electric current).

Professors studying bike

Professors Terry G. Richard (front) and Frank J. Worzala collect data on a Trek bicycle rim. In the past 12 years, the researchers have collaborated on several projects for the Waterloo, Wisconsin company. (large image)

Later, when aluminum frames became the trend, Trek called on the UW-Madison engineers again. This time they wanted to find alternatives to welding, which causes aluminum to lose its strength. Working with Trek's engineers, Worzala and Richard helped evaluate the epoxy bonding process that is still in use today.

Another project began about four years ago when the UW-Madison "bike researchers" began to develop computer models to analyze the "road loads" bikes are subjected to when ridden. Data obtained from this project has helped determine materials and joining techniques for better frame construction.

Most recently, with the help of several undergraduate students, Worzala and Richard have worked on yet another Trek research endeavor, this one focusing on ways to improve the strength and performance of mountain bike rims while maintaining their lightweight properties. Funding came from Wisconsin's Applied Research Grant Program.

In the mountain bike rim project, Worzala experimented with materials outside the industry-standard aluminum, finding success with two configurations: a roll-form stainless steel rim and an aluminum-boron-carbide extrusion. Richard focused his efforts on structural analysis and geometric optimization. For example, he investigated using a continuous, thin-walled cross-section rather than the standard "hollow-box" design. This may lead to more precise rim alignment and automated production processes, and modify the need to connect spokes to ferrules.

"There were a few roadblocks along the way," said Worzala of the research, but as the June deadline for spending the grant money approached he believed they had found a prototype that will indeed improve rim strength and braking ability. However, it may be some time before this new technology is put to use. "We're looking at really long-term endeavors," he said.

While it may take industry a while to apply this research, College of Engineering students have already put it to use. "Much of what we do as research ends up in the classroom rather quickly," explained Richard. "A lot of this stuff has an immediate teaching value at both the undergraduate and graduate levels." Describing the wheel rim as "a study in complex, pre-stressed structures," Richard said he has often applied research findings from the lab to his students' homework assignments in ME 340, "Introduction to Dynamic Systems Analysis."

And because most students have ridden a bike, he added, "it's easy for them to relate to the subject matter."