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The spokesmen: Inside DT Swiss

Sam Challis
9 Nov 2017

DT Swiss is best known for its hubs and is gaining a reputation for its wheelsets, but spokes were where it all started for the Swiss brand

Surrounding me are spools upon spools of steel wire. We’re not talking fishing reel-size spools, or ones like the little coils of solder you used to get in your design & technology class at school.

These spools are half the size of a man and look about as heavy too, and they are everywhere.

‘We get through about 140 tonnes of steel wire every year,’ says Alex Schmitt, DT Swiss’s PR manager.

He can’t put an exact figure on how many spokes that equates to – it varies from year to year depending on orders and production decisions – but based on the 6g weight of one of the company’s most popular designs, the Competition, it’s somewhere in the region of 20 million spokes.

‘Rims, hubs and nipples are a huge presence for us,’ says Schmitt. ‘But spokes are in our DNA.’

We arrive at the mammoth spools of wire having been swiftly chaperoned through the stylishly utilitarian hallways of DT Swiss’s headquarters in Biel, Switzerland.

It’s a hasty start to our visit considering the company’s origins date back to 1634 and there is a fair bit of history to talk about, but Schmitt says he would prefer to keep such discussions for later.

‘It only seems proper to start where the company as everyone knows it today started,’ he says as we emerge onto a vast factory floor.

There’s an acrid tang of metal in the air and it’s head-spinningly noisy as myriad machines chatter, click and bang in a cacophony that’s like an industrialised rendition of rainforest wildlife at night.

A day in the life

‘That is how our spokes start their life,’ says Schmitt, refocusing my attention on the spools.

It’s funny to think that a component whose sole purpose relies on being even and straight enters the production line tightly coiled. ‘So obviously the first job is to straighten the wire.’

The spools are placed on pedestals and the wire is fed into the first of the heavy machines in a convoluted fashion, not unlike thread into a sewing machine.

‘This has the effect of straightening the wire, which allows it to undergo its first of four processes,’ says Schmitt.

‘For our entry-level spokes, this is enough to create the finished product, but our more advanced designs must undergo up to another three additional processes.’

First the wire is sheared to length (140mm to 315mm, depending on spoke type), then the sections roll onto parallel metal bars that look like huge drill bits.

Each spoke sits in the groove of a thread on the bars, so when the bar rotates the spoke moves smoothly down the line, allowing auxiliary machines to stamp the head, add in a J-bend and then mill the spoke thread in succession.

‘This is the process behind creating the DT Champion spoke, our simplest and most enduring spoke design.

‘We can produce one of these every second,’ says Schmitt, as the spokes rhythmically rattle down a chute out of the machine and into boxes.

‘Let me show you where things start to get a bit more interesting,’ he says, and we follow a pallet of these basic spokes being transported to another area of the facility.

‘Our next tier of spokes are butted – the diameters of their middle portions are reduced, improving their integrity, among other things.

‘That’s not too remarkable in itself, but the way we do it is unique. Our competitors simply stretch the spoke to butt it, which is not only less precise but also weakens the structure.

‘We use tiny oscillating hammers that compact the body of the spoke. Squashing the metal strengthens its structure, plus we can determine exactly how the spoke is butted.’

A separate room houses 36 of the machines required to complete this process, and they run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Spokes are fixed at each end, then a chunky ring of complicated machinery glides up their length, all to reduce the diameter of these spokes by around 0.3mm.

‘The final cost of these spokes is a lot higher than our more basic spoke because they take a lot longer to produce – we only get one of these every seven seconds,’ says Schmitt with a wry grin.

Only the top tier of DT’s range – bladed spokes such as the Aerolite and Aero Comp – continue on to a third stage of machining, and again the company’s methods differ from the norm.

Along one wall back in the main production hall sit several veritable monoliths of metal.

The regular boom emanating from each of them is the bassline on which the rest of the mechanical chorus of the production line is driven – it’s powerful and distinctive, much like the effect it has on spokes.

‘These machines punch each spoke with 250 tonnes of pressure,’ Schmitt informs me.

‘Within 10 minutes of first firing them up they started digging themselves into the concrete floor so we had employ a hydraulic suspension system for them to sit on.’

The blading process compresses the steel once more, further increasing its integrity and making it fit to grace the most advanced wheelsets on the market.

But because the sheen of stainless steel is at odds with the stealth of carbon rims, most of these spokes then undergo a final process: anodising.

Bundles of spokes are repeatedly dipped into electromagnetic baths, which coat them in a smoky-black residue. ‘This bathing apparatus was a recent investment for us and cost almost €1 million, but the outlay was recouped in two years thanks to better efficiency of production,’ says Schmitt.

From tiny wires, giant companies grow

We walk the hallways once again – DT Swiss’s HQ is a warren – and move from the industrial area to the rooms where the managerial decisions are made.

Throughout, the environment is sleek and clean, very much in keeping with a brand that has ambitious objectives. So why start with the humble spoke?

‘The company was founded here in Biel in 1634,’ vice-president Matthias Meier tells me.

‘A physicist named Scharandi started to industrialise the process of making small wire parts to supply a number of the area’s watchmakers – Rolex, Omega and Swatch, to name but a few.

Back then the company went by the name of United Wireworks, or to give it its German and French names, Vereinigte Drahtwerke or Tréfileries Réunie, since Biel is on the boundary between the French and German-speaking areas of Switzerland.’

For 300 years, United Wireworks made intricate components to the stereotypical Swiss standard of precision and detail.

‘In 1934 the company decided to branch into bicycle components, building up 60 years of experience before the company was bought in 1994 by Frank Böckmann, Maurizio D’Alberto and Marco Zingg [who has since left],’ says Meier.

‘They wanted to redefine the company. They abbreviated its German and French names to “DT” in honour of the company’s heritage, and scrapped every product except for spokes.

‘Considering our background, the production methods were understandably advanced.’

The following decade saw DT Swiss steadily expanding its product range. Hubs came first in 1995, nipples followed in 1999 and rims in 2003.

By 2004 it was the first manufacturer able to offer a complete wheelset made entirely in-house.

‘From there it’s been about refining and innovating,’ says Meier. ‘Now we have the most comprehensive wheel-related product catalogue of any manufacturer and are confident that our products are the best on the market.

‘For example, our 240s hub is widely considered to be the gold standard and our carbon rims cater for aerodynamic effects not yet considered by other brands.’

That begs the question: why isn’t DT Swiss more visible at the top level? Aside from a spell with the now-defunct team IAM Cycling team, DT Swiss has been absent at WorldTour level.

‘It has always been a question of opportunity,’ says Meier. ‘Huge companies like Shimano want to have a team completely equipped with its products, which makes it difficult for specialists to get a foot in the door.’

With this in mind, Meier says DT would rather invest in innovation.

‘We’d like to think that our products will sooner or later present such an advantage that the pro teams will come to us.

‘A few years ago when the sport wasn’t as professional there were top riders who would pay money for our hubs and bearings, because they said they just didn’t have quality issues with them: they could run them for so many thousand kilometres and not have to worry.

‘So we don’t think this situation is inconceivable.’

A family affair

From its early forays into developing performance wheelsets, DT Swiss quickly discovered that even though it had the capacity to make everything in its Biel facility, doing so simply wasn’t cost-effective.

As a result, the manufacture of its rims and hubs is shared between Poland, Taiwan and the USA, but to ensure a consistent level of quality is maintained, each facility uses identical machinery and many staff are trained in Biel before heading elsewhere.

However, all new product development still takes place at the company’s Switzerland headquarters, and despite its development over the years DT Swiss remains a family-run business that places a huge amount of stock in its employees.

‘Two families own the company, so that environment can’t help but filter down.

‘The hierarchy here is very flat – anyone can be approached because that ability to collaborate
is what fosters innovation.

‘We only employ people we know will fit into our culture, because we want them to have a good time working here,’ says Meier.

‘People who have a good time perform better, so hobby, private life and work merges here. Some of our employees have been here almost 25 years.

‘We make a nice T-shirt that sums up our ethos pretty well I think: it says, “work ride balance”. Come to think of it, we make a lot of products using that slogan.’

Wheel life

The development of DT Swiss through its wheelsets, according to vice-president Matthias Meier

2004 – RR 1450 TRICON
‘The Tricon was one of the first road wheels we did. It was kind of special in that it was already tubeless-compatible. There were these little beds that the nipples sat in, which slid into the rim and allowed the rim bed to be solid. It was unique at the time but because nobody was riding tubeless it went under the radar.’

2008 – RRC 1250
‘These wheels were our first step into carbon rim technology. They were a kind of prototype. We didn’t sell many of them because being made in Switzerland meant we could never make the price anywhere near competitive. They had classic spokes but a ratchet hub design that is pretty much the same as what we make now.’

2010 – RRC 46 DiCut
‘These were our first serious offering in the road carbon segment. They were made in Taiwan, so we could produce them in greater quantities. They have a 13.8mm internal width, which seems mad now, but back then everyone was on 21mm tyres. At the time this was cutting edge but the evolution is clear now.’

2015 – RC Spline 28C Mon Chasseral
‘The Mon Chasserals are special to us not only for how light they are – a set of clinchers weighs just 1,250g – but also because they were our first to win a stage of a Grand Tour, with Jarlinson Pantano at the 2016 Tour de France. It was brilliant for us because we worked very closely with the team.’

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