I think that the most exciting sounding jobs are those that are in the field of design and prototyping, which then (hopefully) realise an exciting and iconic product. In reality, most of these jobs are about failure, although with a fast learning curve. This is what I call ‘failing forward’, and more about this later.
One of the essential early steps in the inventing process is the creation of a prototype, which is a sample or three-dimensional version of the design vision. My perception of those that create prototypes is that they have a lot of fun and get provided with rewarding experiences. I guess this is because developing a prototype provides the opportunity to really tap into creativity. It must be truly exciting to see an idea transformed into something tangible and real.
However, most prototyping work ends in failure, because it’s a key part of the learning and testing journey to realise a product or system. I did a bit of research and found that one of my favourite products, WD40, has its own prototyping story. The WD40 website lists over 200 uses for their product, and I think I’ve sprayed the stuff on all of them. What I’ve never known or even considered, is where the brand name of WD40 actually came from. Surprisingly, WD40 got its name because it was the 40th attempt to produce an effective product. This means 39 prototypes, 39 failures and one globally successful product. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.
Doing a bit more Googling and I learnt something else about that accepted daily consumable, bubble wrap. Apparently, bubble wrap began life as a failed trendy, textured wallpaper. It then progressed to a failed home insulation product, before finally winding up as an effective packaging material, which also keeps people happy who to like to pop the stuff.
Sometimes, a prototype successfully makes its way through the design and testing process to the market place, and fails there instead. A good example are the Oakley Thump MP3 sunglasses. I love Oakley products and sunglasses and this model came with a built-in MP3 player. I bought a pair of these and they were expensive ($495 in 2005). They didn’t have a great sound, and as it turned out, unless you were a MotoGP rider wearing them on the grid and listening to pre-race sounds for 10 minutes, they weren’t great and they hit the unfashionable button on the street. Even mine went on eBay in the end, although I might regret it as even product failures can increase value in time.
The term ‘rapid prototyping’, which has become a key part in any research and development process, has been much enabled by technology, and is used in every sector from food through to bicycles. This concept can realise a real product to eat or ride in super-fast time and allows the design team to keep responding to failures and developments. It’s possible for anyone to rapid prototype things in their shed, kitchen or bedroom nowadays with the advent of great tools, processes, software and 3D printing.
Rapid prototyping is also about learning, rapidly! Firstly, it takes time to get a human being to a point that they can expect failure every day, and be excited by it. The world’s best designs are by people who strive to find things that eventually work, and by being obsessively interested in what doesn’t work. These people ‘fail forward’ every day and relish the struggle of it. A perfect, finished product can almost be an anti-climax to them, which is where the excited marketeers then step in. In summary, learning to fail really well via prototyping as a learning tool, develops the mind, the energy applied and the product outcome.
The scene is now set for this prototype story, which is obviously about the bike in the pictures. The bike that bears no markings, no brand and no clues as to where it was made. A friend was showing me around his garage containing exciting bikes and bike parts and I saw this frame lying on top of a load of stuff. It looked unusual, so I picked it up. It felt both chunky and light at the same time. I enquired about it and I was told that it belonged to someone who wanted to sell it. My friend who knows a ton of stuff about the cycling world explained that the frame is believed to be a prototype, but was not sure where from, or who built it. It’s probably a 1990s frame. As we’re in Switzerland, close to Italy and with lots of start-ups, it could be from anywhere locally. The forks are made by ITM in Italy, and these carry the only identification on the frame. The frame has never been painted, although some tubes are lacquered and some are bare aluminium. There is every size and shape of tube in the frame, and the seat and head tubes are over-sized. It has been built with strength and light weight in the design criteria. My friend and I agreed a ‘rescue package’ price and the frame came home with me.
I put a pair of wheels on it and stood back to study it. Is it a trials bike? I don’t think so with that full set of gear cabling on it. It does have a very low step over height, it is well braced and with great welding joints. It does show signs of good use with marks on the frame from cable rub, and it is also in good condition with no dents. To date, nobody has been able to identify it or come up with a validated story for it, so it’s my mystery prototype. If it really is a design prototype, I’m very pleased because a lot of prototypes get destroyed when they’re finished with. The frame size is actually perfect for me so it must be a medium.
Real prototype bikes are generally built up with a mix of components or what ever is in the workshop just so testing can commence, and that’s what I’ve done with my build. The parts are a mix of NOS stuff or things that I just had in my shed. The wheels came off a Cannondale, the brakes and drivetrain are all a mix of stuff that I got from my usual Swiss source https://diaryofacyclingnobody.com/the-ultimate-aladdins-cave-of-bike-shops-is-in-switzerland/. The tyres are the classic Terra One, Rider T1s that fill the frame and forks, roll and grip really well, and with correct pressures, provide the suspension (see sidebar link to buy some). The saddle is a good quality WTB product which I’ve never liked on any other bike so it was destined to live in the cupboard for good. However, on this bike, it’s really comfortable.
It is great fun to ride. It accelerates quickly and the drive is really direct. No energy is wasted on this bike. Without any suspension, it is limited to how fast and how big it’s safe to ride it over really rough stuff, but it does put a smile on your face. The other thing I’ve noticed is that people give it a ‘double take look’ when I pass them because it is quite a unique design and with no branding, a bit of a puzzle to them as well.
Regardless of not knowing where it’s come from, who made it, or why, I think its a fun bike to ride and I like the romantic thought of having a real prototype, that is rapid, in the shed and ready to go testing anytime. If you’ve got any thoughts or information on this frame, don’t hesitate to email me or leave a comment.
All photos by the Author