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Bike aerodynamics testing in the lab

26 Mar 2014  | Julien Happich

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Bicycle maker Specialized has claimed an industry's first for the cycling industry. The company revealed an in-house wind-tunnel specifically designed and equipped to test bike aerodynamics and measure wind flows around new profiles.

Opened at the company's Morgan Hills, California facility, the 100 feet long wind tunnel provides enough air flow to simulate 30mph speeds that only top riders achieve, its test section is wide and long enough to do real research, claimed Specialized who plans to submit all its bikes and top athletes to closely controlled headwinds.

Before this wind tunnel was built, the company relied on third-party installations, often very powerful facilities designed for aerospace and automotive research, but too powerful and with airflows at lower speeds never quite clean enough for bike testing. Renting wind tunnel time could cost engineers up to $10,000 per day, yet the force data they could collect around the bikes under test was barely above the noise floor of such places.

Now the engineers at Specialized can accommodate dynamic biking scenarios such as changing wind conditions, fit teams of up to nine riders and still gather cleaner, more granular data than they got used to, without having to pay by the hour.

Since the facility was built from scratch, Specialized's manager of performance road, triathlon and aerodynamics R&D engineer Mark Cote was looking for a flexible and open test platform that would allow fast reconfiguration and new test builds on the go. Specialized partnered with National Instrument to develop an entirely new measurement and control system based on NI's LabVIEW system design software, NI's PXI hardware and the NI vision development module integrated with commercial off-the-shelf components such as cameras.

"This is a typical case of a domain-specific company turning to NI because it couldn't find agile-enough dedicated instruments for its needs," explained Rahman Jamal, technology & marketing director Europe at National Instruments.

"Often, test and measurement is seen as a cost issue, here Specialized publicized its wind tunnel as a competitive advantage," Jamal said.

In the first run, the company may come up with new products and innovations directly derived from the newly acquired data, but in the future, Specialized could offer consultancy services for other bike manufacturers.

When it relied on third-party wind tunnels, Specialized was testing its products and concepts nearly finalized, only to check their aerodynamics against CAD simulations or to find unexpected surprises late in the development phase. Instead, the in-house wind tunnel and instrument set allows the bike manufacturer to fine-tune its tests and focus on particular data as the prototypes evolve.

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