Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Brainstorming Bicycle Design Ideas With an Example

Bicycles are a 100+ year old technology. We know that automobile and aviation engineers first tinkered on the bicycle to gain inspiration, or to use it as a stepping stones to a greater technology. Several challenges in bicycle design led to the invention of new technology that were directly transferable to other fields requiring similar solutions. The bicycle has given us the pneumatic tires, roller bearings, crank and linkage mechanisms, chain drives, advancements in metallurgy and construction and much more.

Maybe we shouldn't think that bicycle design has reached a design ceiling. There should still be a good bit of room to explore new solutions to needs and this is where brainstorming comes in. I once wrote a post about "Ideas for New Cycling Products" in 2 parts (see Part 1 and Part 2) and threw out there a dish of new and wild ideas. As long as the ground is fertile for new ideas, there is potential for a market.

One aspect of the psychological inertia to change is perhaps due to the thinking that since the bicycle is an old technology, there is no further need to re-visit old ideas. This is based on the assumption that old ideas never made it because they didn't work out or didn't sell. Take a bet. How wrong could you be?

Looking into the history books and studying the field to understand why some ideas did not work out is a fact driven approach. Just because airplanes are far and wide in today's world doesn't mean the hot air balloon did not evolve. In fact, the oldest human carrying solution, the balloon is still evolving. Hot air balloon engineers continue to develop safer burners with higher thermal capacities, lighter and stronger fabrics, new forms of construction, new deflation schemes and so on. Hey it might be slow, but the hot air balloon field is nothing but dead. 

And ideas are wanting. There are still needs. Let me give you an example. Even today I'm irritated by the fact that a $5000 carbon fiber bicycle sporting the latest in technology does not have as much as a re-tractable stand so it doesn't fall over when you're not riding it. This has led to people leaning their bikes against walls or sitting on their top tubes and what not. What happens then? You get your top tube dirty. You numb your nether regions (!). Or you scrape paint off the frame. Or you may even tear a hole in the handlebar tape.

Courtesy : 

Let's try to brainstorm a solution for a similar idea : A steady-when-stationary bicycle so that when you approach a traffic light during your ride, you don't have to unclip your feet off the pedals. Imagine the small bit of energy saved and the huge convenience you'd generate for a rider especially in heavy traffic situations  I can see a lot of potential for answers to this issue that is unique to specific segments of the market, such as city commuters.

Get together a group of people into a room, close the door and lead a meeting. Don't limit the people to just subject matter experts, because that's where psychological inertia comes from. Get a handful of people from other fields in and some novices too. Deviant ideas are what's in need. 

Provide people the problem statement, 40 minutes to bounce ideas around and encourage anything and everything, as wild as they might be. The prime objective is to control the meeting but let people go on tangents to new directions on the design plane. 

As an example, a brainstorming meeting may generate ideas for a "Steady when stationary" bicycle as follows :

A. A collapsible support is needed.
B. A gyroscope would provide the required steadiness.
A. A collapsible wheel?
C. The gyroscope can be constructed in two planes - horizontal and vertical.
D. A gyroscope driven by a chain and treadle.
C. Then a special coupling will be required.
F. It is possible to locate the gyroscope in a parallel plane, next to the wheel.
G. The gyroscope can be driven by an air turbine. An air compressor will be driven by the cyclist's feet.
E. A small roller can drive the gyroscope by friction from the wheel.
H. Then the system has to be arranged so that before braking the roller is pressed against the wheel, and when the riding speed decreases, it is freed.
B. Such a gyroscope can return its kinetic energy to the bicycle.
F. Such a gyroscope will, in general, smooth the running of the cycle.
H. It will promote steadiness during low-speed riding in traffic jams.
I. Two automatically controlled jets may keep the bicycle steady.
A. Instead of collapsible supports of auxiliary wheels, the whole frame can be lowered to the road.
F. An automatic device can press the roller to the wheel during acceleration and release it during deceleration.
C. I propose an air balloon to suspend the bicycle during its stops.
I. Or a propeller, like a helicopter, for balancing.
G. A horizontal gyroscope seems to be better; it will resist the bicycle turns to a lesser degree.
J. One merely needs a handle to switch the drive from the wheel to the gyro. Turning the pedals on the spot on will keep the balance.
C. A vertical gyroscope will not disturb the rider essentially, just as the wheels do not. It will help to incline the machine.
G. An electrically driven gyroscope. A bicycle provided by accumulators.

And so on ....

You can see how chaotic but interesting the idea generation session has been. The multiplicity of people and their brains have been employed, usually better than a lone inventor doing the same in a corner of a room, as he is characterized by his own experiences and neural limitations. 

After this session is concluded, the next plane in the design exercise can be initiated, that of exploring the rough feasibility of the suggestions. The way you go about that depends on your approach. Don't fail to look into Six Sigma, which has a bunch of neat tools that can be used in a team setting. They might be more time consuming to apply but a rational, systematic approach is required whatever you do. Good luck!

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  1. Thanks Ron. Nice to read your articles once again.

  2. I would say the bike is at a kind of local design plateau. It will continue to refine but major breakthroughs are, for the moment, unlikely. Bicycle infrastructure on the other hand is a field that is practically virgin and huge gains are possible there.

    For instance in the example you give you look for very complex additions to the bike, however this issue could probably be better addressed through infrastructure. For instance, bike timed lights elevated distance bikeways or even something simpler like the bike rests at intersections in CPN

    The increased efficiency for the city in terms of traffic, public transport, pollution, health and safety would quickly make the small initial investment worthwhile.

    Of course we're still struggling to get American cities to set up decent bike lanes...

  3. Anonymous7:48 PM

    I fully agree with Adam. I'm not sure if the bicycle itself has any more avenues for real improvements but the infrastructure is severely lacking. I bought a really nice commuter bike last year as a replacement for my older Schwinn but I have to think twice about riding it in the D.C metro area. What good are bicycle improvements when you don't have a proper environment to pedal in?

  4. Anonymous12:09 AM

    We shouldn't think that bicycle design has reached a design ceiling. I just went through the types of bicycles in the Wikipedia website and looked at bicycles by design and materials and it showed me that there are plenty of creative bicycle designers.

    What are you really looking for in a design. Is it internal drive system? Two wheel drive bicycle? Upright Front wheel drive with all internal drive system?

    What do you really think would have a significant change in the bicycle world today? If it had what?

    I believe that anything that we can think of and put it into action is possible as long as we remember to Keep it Simple Stupid...(kiss)

  5. I enthusiastically enjoy the notion that bicycle design has plenty of virgin territory left to explore. Myself is thinking about a jet of cloud (something along the lines of a released color stream I've seen used by stunt pilots/gliders) that would be released while road riding. Starting from the need to create a shield for the cyclist to wake-up any dumb a@@ driver, I concluded that a controlled contrail should do the trick. On the other hand, everyone writing about infrastructure is on the mark. And the shot above of the 'green' zone is highly relevant. Years back I tried to stimulate the Florida DOT to think of bicycle lanes/signposts as being color co-ordinated so that the entire population will understand the zone is occupied by a flesh-and-bones critter, extremely susceptible to trauma, dismemberment and finality. However until we can get masses onto bicycles, the better social minds will continue to ignore cycling's evident solution to personal movement. It seems to me.

  6. Thanks for sharing the ideas you generated from your bicycle brainstorming session. Hopefully, there would be more bicycle designs that would be invented soon.

  7. Anonymous8:21 PM

    How about going backward 100 years and use a fixie, a bike without gear and freewheel? I can trackstand while I wait for red light, and glide away when the lights turns green. I want to learn to trackstand no-hands to be cooler.

    Sheldon Brown wrote about a cool dismount technique , but I haven't tried yet.

    I like the K.I.S.S. philosopy; Keep It Simple, Stupid.
    I feel that humans have forgotten the Bicycle Way: the
    bicycle should be as simple as possible, either with or without gears. Somebody invented a motor-cycle, and why aren't we all using it instead of these boring bicycles? ;)

    Adding more and more things, new materials and/or hightech technology is usually a markeddrived feature from companies to make money.

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