Inside: Intense Cycles' California frame factory

Making local manufacturing work

Intense Cycles is somewhat of a rarity in the cycling world these days in that it's a mountain bike-only company. Despite the growth potential, founder Jeff Steber has thus far managed to resist the financial lure of expanding into road and 'cross. Even more rare, however, is that Intense still does all of its aluminum frame manufacturing in Temecula, California, a town of 100,000 between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Steber is staunchly committed to keeping his operations in Temecula – not just for the sake of the three dozen or so employees that rely on him for their livelihood but also for business reasons. Whereas once the company's production times were on the order of several months, its new just-in-time manufacturing practices mean that a frame order can be fulfilled in as little as a week, Steber said.

"What can we do to make this more efficient so that it makes sense and is profitable here?" is a question Steber asks.

Alloy frames begin life at the Intense factory as raw aluminum billet and tubing. Some pieces are formed off-site (just minutes away) into sheets that will eventually be welded into monocoque-type frame sections, but much of the rest stays in-house where it's fed into a small army of CNC machines.

Intense has about 15 CNC machines at the moment, including lathes for turning cylindrical parts and custom hardware to multi-axis, turntable-type mills for crafting more complex parts. According to Intense, those machines are currently running on 20-hour schedules, too, churning out bits long after workers have gone home for the day.

Practical considerations mean that Intense's more recent carbon fiber frames are manufactured in Asia. Even so, it's only the molded carbon fiber front and rear triangles themselves that are built off-site. Other pieces such as suspension linkages and hardware (most of which are shared with alloy frame counterparts) are still made in-house in California, and they're assembled there, too.

Intense's molded carbon fiber front and rear triangles are made in Asia, but the suspension linkages and hardware (most of which are shared with alloy frame counterparts) are made in-house in California, where the bikes are assembled.

In keeping with Steber's 'keep it local' philosophy, even his CNC machines are sourced from nearby suppliers; Haas Automation manufactures the giant beasts just a few miles away in Oxnard, California. The proximity also makes for faster and cheaper repairs when needed, Steber said.

Once the individual frame pieces are finished, all of the associated bits are mounted into jigs for welding. Those jigs are specific for frame models and sizes and the company has retained fixtures for every production bike it has ever created – meaning that, in theory, it could recreate the venerable M1 downhill bike that first put the company on the map nearly 20 years ago.

Once the frames are welded, it's off to heat treatment, alignment, and quality control.

Steber said that powdercoating and anodizing were once farmed out to facilities in Santa Ana, California, about an hour away (given reasonable traffic, which is no guarantee in SoCal). However, even that was too far, Steber said, sucking up precious resources in terms of driving time and fuel costs. These days, frames are sent just a few minutes down the road and total turnaround time for paint is three to five days.

Intense's relatively modest volume help make these 'keep it local' practices viable. According to new company CFO Eelco Niermeijer, Intense still only ships 15-20 bikes and frames out the door each day – and that includes the composite frames that are molded elsewhere.

Even so, those numbers represent a staggering 40 percent increase in revenue last year – and with that has come a big boost in available cash. As tempting as it might be, Steber hasn't gone out and bought himself a fleet of fancy cars but instead has decided to reinvest the money – plus funds from a recent small business loan – into a "reinvention of our company and our line."

Included in that plan is the hiring of several key figures, which in addition to the new CFO include Andrew Herrick – formerly of Crankbrothers – as the new CEO.

Steber promises a rash of new products moving forward, including a carbon downhill bike (that will likely be designed around 27.5in wheels). Intense will officially unveil the first fruit of that labor on March 17. We're unfortunately sworn to secrecy until then but from the looks of things, Intense fans will like where the company is headed.

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