Shifting gear

As a passionate cyclist and innovation professional of some 30 years, I’ve watched the evolution of bicycle technology with a personal fascination. In this article, I describe the considerable innovation in bicycle gear shifters, and use this to highlight four innovation practices:
• focus innovation on key aspects of user experience,
• simplify the user interface to appeal to a mainstream market,
• differentiate product through a distinctive (preferably ownable) user action, and
• use mechatronics to create a step change in performance.

Cycling aficionados be warned: this article is free of cycling jargon!

Focus innovation on key aspects of user experience

In the bicycle industry, component manufacturers, not bike assemblers, own the user interface: Shimano, Campagnolo, Sachs and FSA. When cyclists interact with their bike, they want to be able to shift gear smoothly and predictably – this is equally true for occasional leisure cyclists, year-round commuters or racing enthusiasts. No cyclist wants rackety half-in half-out gears, or a jolt to the knees when gears jump.

Stepping back briefly, it is good innovation practice to isolate the various elements of user experience, map these against the portfolio of innovation projects, and make sure that effort is being deployed where it can make most difference. Unsurprisingly, over the years, component manufacturers have prioritised gear shift as an area for innovation.

Simplify the user interface to appeal to a mainstream market

A gear shift adds cogs to, and removes cogs from, the transmission path. Until recently, bike gear shift has been purely mechanical, effected simply by pulling or releasing a steel cable, where the length of cable pulled determines the gear selected. Simple so far. However, designers and engineers face a trade-off, avoidance of jumping vs. ease of shift. Once selected, a gear must stay in the transmission path, regardless of forces applied to it by the road or the rider. If large forces are needed to stay in gear, it follows that the rider has to apply similarly large forces via the shifter in order to change gear. For the human hand, as force of actuation increases, so precision of actuation falls, a drawback of early gear shifter designs which were simply levers rotated in a continuous arc and held in place by friction. The cyclist needed much strength, experience and dexterity to judge where to shift the lever so that the bike was properly in gear, and in the right gear. Worse still, they had to do this while riding one-handed since early shifters were not mounted on the handlebars. Less experienced cyclists were deterred from owning multi-gear bikes and the associated components failed to win a mainstream market.

People find it easiest to make good decisions when given a limited number of good choices. For gear shifters, cyclists need to have a reasonable selection of gear options, and good pre-programmed set points wherever possible. With old shifters, the rider needed to select from a small number of gears but was presented, via the continuous shifter, with infinite choice. Then came a step change: the indexed gear system, based on a ratchet incorporated in the lever and a mechanism for tuning the index points by altering the length of the cable housing.

Differentiate product through a distinctive (preferably ownable) user action

The next major innovation came when gear shifters moved onto the handlebars, so that the rider did not have to compromise steering and balance when changing gear. Component manufacturers developed different solutions, requiring very different user actions: thumb shift vs. finger shift; short vs. long push; one lever vs. two. For frequent riders, these actions became hard-wired and subconscious and created a loyalty to the manufacturer’s system, a soft form of ‘product lock-in’, particularly as the same action on a rival’s system could produce a different and sometimes unfortunate effect! There are many examples in other industries where distinctive user actions help to build loyalty, like shaking Heinz tomato ketchup, opening Grolsch bottles, snapping KitKat bars, or sweeping a Flymo. In the case of the cycling industry, manufacturers were able to protect a unique user action by patenting the mechanism that enabled it, typically a closely-packed system of springs, ratchets and levers.

Use mechatronics to create a step change in performance

Gear shift nirvana? Not yet. Cyclists riding on rough roads, or in cold conditions, still lose the dexterity and strength to manipulate handlebar-mounted shifters. Cumbersome gloves and numb fingers make matters worse. In this light, the recent development of electronic push button shifters is a game changer, removing many of the constraints of pure mechanical systems. The shifter links wirelessly to an electro-mechanical actuator, effectively a mechatronic system. Such systems are readily incorporated in electric transmission bikes and therefore seem likely to stay. Today, electronic shifters occupy a premium niche and a market of early (and wealthy) adopters. Their move to mainstream will provide plenty of challenge for innovators. For example, aside from the challenges of cost and reliability, riders miss the ‘hard’ feedback and fast response of pure mechanical control.

Mechatronics is applied in many other industries – aerospace fly-by-wire, automotive drive-by-wire, assembly line tools and, increasingly, surgical instruments. Critically it can overcome a key limitation of pure mechanical systems: designing for human strength, experience and dexterity. I’m wondering which business mechatronics will disrupt next.

WRITTEN BY: Rob Wilkinson

I studied physics at the University of Cambridge and completed an experimental PhD before moving into industry. After an early career in Procter & Gamble’s manufacturing organisation, I led an environmental research programme at Shell. I am now a director at Innovia Technology focused on helping clients create commercial advantage from emerging technologies. I have facilitated numerous world-class client teams, both creating great ideas and finding ways of implementing them. I am experienced in innovation and growth strategy, working across a range of sectors such as: energy, aerospace, automotive, food+beverage and fast moving consumer goods. My core technical skills include sustainability, new energy, and low-cost electronics.