Brompton bicycles are unique, both in their design and the way they are made... and where they are made - you will find few global bike brands still manufactured in their city of origin. We continue to design and build our bikes in West London because it is the only way to ensure the necessary quality on our hand-built bicycles. Moving production offshore in search of lower labour costs, business rates and taxes would certainly bring some obvious benefits, but these would be outweighed by the consequences of losing control over quality and, ultimately, losing the confidence of the consumer.
The Brompton consists of some 1,200 parts, over three-quarters of which are unique to our bicycles (exceptions include the chain and various screws, washers and other sundry fixtures). As most parts have had to be designed in-house to meet our particular needs, we have also had to design and build the machines, tools and fixtures needed to manufacture them, including over 500 purpose-made press tools, moulds, braze jigs and assembly fixtures. We are continually refining our manufacturing methods, raising productivity, and every year sees a large investment in new machinery and equipment.
The 22,000 ft² Brompton Bicycle factory is on an industrial site nestled between railway lines and a motorway. The brazing, assembly and engineering areas share one building with the office space, and most of us, from bike builders to the managing director, use a Brompton ourselves, so we have a good feel for how the product should be. We give great attention to training on the shop floor and every operator is always made aware of how every job he or she does contributes to the finished product.
We have complete control of materials and for every bike we ship we can identify whose work went into each stage of its manufacture. The result of all this in-house specialisation is excellent quality control and a final product that is fit for purpose; we have real confidence in the quality of what we make here.
With 80% of the componentry on our bikes designed and made for Brompton, the work that goes into designing, researching and developing our products is clearly critical; this is reflected in the fact that 50% of management resource is dedicated to design & development.
Technical advances are being made all the time in bike manufacture and some are both genuinely innovative and useful. However, we have never used off-the-shelf products just for the sake of saving costs, preferring always to implement the best solution to any design or engineering challenge; more often than not, this has meant going down the expensive, slow road to developing a unique solution in-house.
Besides conducting R&D in-house, we also undertake almost all the testing ourselves, with only the finished products being tested externally in independent testing. And with so many unique parts and unique engineering solutions, we have had to produce over 500 different purpose-built press tools, moulds, braze jigs and assembly fixtures; all designed and developed in-house as well.
The Brompton is built to be used and made to last. It is vital that all of our raw materials are tested and controlled to ensure they are right for the job, and this is one of the Engineering department's key roles. As these materials move through the factory they continue to be monitored and checked as they are transformed into finished bicycles.
Over the years, the range of engineering we have done ourselves has evolved; in the early years of the company everything, even the most basic wire-bending, had to be done in-house because no one else produced exactly what we needed for our bikes. With time we've been able to outsource some of the most basic functions but most of the manipulation of materials continues to be done in Engineering.
For much of our work we have purpose-built machinery: we use specially-adapted hydraulic presses for nearly all of the tube manipulation and we have CNC machining centres to make the all-important hinges. It is in Engineering that design and manufacturing meet, where tube and extruded metals are formed and worked into the raw assemblies which will eventually be combined by hand to make up the orders, and where the Brompton's renowned quality is built into each bike from the outset.
The Brompton is brazed rather than the more common practice of welding. Brazing is a highly-skilled and labour-intensive method which introduces less heat to the metal than welding: this maintains a stronger frame with less distortion. This enables Brompton to continue to use high tensile steel alloys which deliver the rigid frame that is at the heart of Brompton's quality ride and longevity.
The Brazing department typifies Brompton's hand-built approach: although a machine brazes the joints around the hinges, most of the joins on the bikes are brazed by hand, and each Brompton frame part can be traced to the brazer who made it.
This part of the manufacturing process is outsourced. The steel frames are sent to our painters where each frame is phosphate pre-treated prior to being given a robust polyester powder coat finish. There are a variety of colours available, including a transparent lacquer option which shows off the brazing workmanship that goes into each bicycle.
On return from our painters, every part is inspected before being made available for Assembly.
The various components and painted frame parts are pre-assembled then assembled to create the bikes themselves.
It is the only way to ensure a truly well-crafted bicycle.
Every bike that leaves the factory is given a final, thorough check over by our experienced inspectors; they conduct over 100 checks, make sure that nothing was overlooked in any of the earlier checks and that the bike is worthy of the Brompton name, before putting our logo on it and boxing the bike ready for despatch to the four corners of the globe.
We really have little option but to take this trouble, as there is a lot more to a folding bike than a conventional machine, and if the bike is to ride and to fold properly, every engineered detail has to be right. The final 30 minute inspection brings the average time spent on building a Brompton to over 6 hours; it's very labour-intensive, but we feel it's the only way to guarantee the kind of hand-built quality that is the hallmark of our bicycles.
We are of course reliant on outside suppliers, the quality of whose work must also be up to the standard we set for our bikes. Specialist UK suppliers include foundries in the Midlands, powder-coaters in Glamorgan, Berkshire and London, a wheel-building firm in Wolverhampton (which has mastered the difficult art of making small wheels really true), injection-moulding companies, precision machinists and many other firms in different parts of the UK.
As we have grown, we have found that component suppliers began to regard us, and our specific needs, as valuable clients, and we have therefore been able to outsource some of the more basic jobs which used to take up a good deal of Engineering's capacity. The bicycle components we outsource come from Europe and Taiwan, most items being specially designed for Brompton to suit the needs of a high-performance folder.