At first glance the idea of visiting a lock manufacturer to find out how it goes about making things that’ll protect your bike doesn’t sound very exciting. It’s not like going to visit the latest, lightest, most aero piece of equipment to be dazzled by. Still however, for years I’ve been promising to make the trip over to Germany to the historic home of Abus to see just how in 15 years of testing locks to destruction the lock maker always manages to come out on top.
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I start out at Abus’ dedicated cycling lock facility, set in the rolling hills and forests outside of Dortmund. Abus has 368 staff working solely on lock production here, with the lock designs developed in house by a 15 strong R&D staff, and it's here where Abus’ unique way of working begins.
Johannes Dietz, head of technical training, explains that the designer of each product (working within a team that includes engineers, product designers, materials scientists and more) sees the design through from concept to prototype, to devising the production process, manufacturing, assembly and even packaging, and on to its full evolution. Once this is done the designer then assumes ownership of the product throughout its lifetime.
I try and focus on the hugely impressive Granit X-Plus U-lock, a winner of countless best in test awards, to see how such a product is made and developed. In the lock's more than 10-year history it has had no fewer than a dozen or so material revisions alone. Head of research Christian Prellwitz explains: "We are constantly looking to improve our locks, we look to stronger metals, also trying to find lighter ones to make them more usable to be carried."
Lock up and throw away the key
Another element that Abus takes great pride in is the lock mechanism itself. Most of its competitors use an industry standard key combination, which offers around 2,500 combinations. With Abus, its lock uses 1.5 million.
Axel Roesler, sales and marketing director mobile security, tells us that this isn’t the end of the story: "Most lock pin combinations will have some that are very similar, if you take a five disc lock, you’ll have a 11111 or 22222 combination, these as you can imagine can be easy to pick, so in our 1.5million combinations we delete 3-400,000 combinations that we consider compromised." The legal standard in the UK is 1,500 combinations and in Europe it's 2,500, that Abus offers over a million certainly shows its commitment to security.
A lock like the Granit X-Plus is fairly typical in its component count. To construct the lock, between 50 to 60 tools are needed, which are built in Abus' in-house tooling department — and with a price of around 40,000 euros per tool it's easy to see why high-grade locks like the Granit carry a premium price. It's not just tools that are built in house either, quite often the machines that the tools are destined to be used in are too. Dietz tells us that "quite often we have to build a machine for a specific task, as they simply aren’t available to be bought off the shelf."
We see one such machine, nicknamed Robster 1, which is a fully automated robotic system that creates keys and lock barrels for the X-Plus range of locks. The machine cost 1.5million euros to build and is soon to be joined by a second 0.5 million euro companion. The fine-fiddly work of building these barrels used to be done by hand, but the workers who were once responsible haven’t been tossed onto the scrapheap.
Abus has redeployed the staff into quality control roles, taking responsibility over the Robster and also rolling out a new Key-A-Like service, where you can either use your existing plus key card (the unique serial bar code that comes with Abus Plus range locks) to purchase another lock using the same key or replacements and spares.
I took along a plus card from one of my locks and within minutes the Key-A-Like team had built me a barrel and spare keys. Later in the day I jumped onto the production line myself and built (rather clumsily) a new Bordo X-Plus lock.
Abus is a giant in all sorts of security, from window locks in your home to high-security solutions for the military, and its main production site hosts a staff in excess of 1,500 — with two further facilities in Germany and more overseas (handling low-cost products). That gives Abus an advantage for sharing knowledge, technology and materials. The Granit X-Plus’s lock casing is the same material, with the same dimensions, as one of the Home teams high-security door bars (designed to resist ram raids and serious power tools), for example.
My own hidden goal during the visit was to get behind the doors of Abus’ famed test centre. A room filled with a suite of purpose-built torture devices with the sole purpose of breaking locks and testing their longevity.
The first stop is a heated salt and steam bath where locks are exposed to 20 hours plus of extreme heated steam and salt water that simulates years worth of outdoor exposure. Prellwitz tells us that this machine alone has allowed Abus to experiment and improve its corrosion protection far beyond the original specifications and exceed industry standards.
Next I see the Paris-Roubaix simulator, which is used for testing the brackets that mount locks to your bike — often these bits are somewhat of an afterthought. Abus tests its own brackets for more than 200 hours of constant riding (imagine riding the Arenberg Forest cobbles constantly at around 18mph for that length of time and seeing what damage would be done) while Abus has found that the average competitor's brackets will last around 25-30 hours before failure.
I then viewed the tough end of testing. First, locks are exposed in a blast chiller, taking the temperature down to -40c. Next they're put straight into the machine that simulates sledge hammer blows where the impact test hits the lock shackle with a 3kg weight, first at a height of one metre five times and then two metres for another five times. The X-Plus withstood the attack and was still fully operational and perfectly good to use despite some minor cosmetic damage.
The next machine simulated a car-jack attack, so it pulled the shackle apart to try and break it from the lock mechanism. Here the X-Plus took 7.1 tonnes of force, that’s like a Transit van pulling on the shackle, before it cracked. Impressively, despite the shackle being broken, the lock mechanism still worked and the inherent stiffness in the shackle meant you’d still need a crowbar to open it and remove a bike.
The jaws of death came next — a hydraulically powered cutter that simulates bolt-croppers and much more. The Granit took 12.2 tonnes of cutting force before being spliced, I tried myself with some long bolt-croppers, my full 90kg and every ounce of strength I could muster, and merely made a dent.
The final machine simulates twisting forces (like crowbarring a U-lock shackle). The Granite took 1,312nm of twisting force at an angle of 30 degrees and still held out. To put that in context, that’s like a 130kg person pushing on the end of a metre-long bar.
The future of bike security
Abus’ R&D team has taken a keen interest in some of the lock projects turning up on Kickstarter, like the smartphone activated ‘Skylock’. Prellwitz tells us "smart technology is an interesting area, having a lock that can be operated by a smartphone is a neat trick. Though at the heart of it we want to make locks that are tough and reliable first.
"We are looking to how we can use smart technology, maybe in notification when something’s wrong. We also have electronically enhanced locks over in our motorcycle division, a motion sensing disc-brake lock that sounds a warning then a 100db plus alarm, that’s something we feel would be worthy of introducing into bicycle locks, especially over in the UK where plenty of people lock their bikes away in wooden sheds and detached garages which can be more vulnerable."
From what I’ve seen, Abus is a company that’s founded on its reputation for secure solutions. It certainly comes across that the number one priority is the product and not penny pinching for shareholders or investors — Abus is still owned wholesale by the founding Bremica family. Yes, some of its locks cost more than the competition, but I've come away convinced that alongside a few other market leaders when it comes to your pride and joy investing in the best lock you can makes sense, and even more so when it's from such a clever, conscientious brand like Abus.