Industrial designer and professor Lance Gordon Rake previously shared the story behind the Semester bamboo bicycle, developed with Pamela Dorr and various collaborators in Hale County, Alabama. Now, less than a year later, HERObike is pleased to present its second project on Kickstarter, the Beacon Alley Skateboard, which represents Rake's further research into bamboo as a versatile, renewable raw material for the socially conscious organization. Once again, he was willing to share the story and process behind the project.
Since the beginning, I have been working with John Bielenberg at Future Partners and the graphic design partnership Public Library to develop the products and the business. Ultimately, all we ever wanted to do was create some nice jobs making well-designed products using the resources and people of rural Alabama. The bamboo was there. Traditional craft skills were there. We used design to put these things together in a way that could make a sustainable small enterprise that might serve as a model for developing rural communities all over the world.
The MakeLab shop in Greensboro Alabama has become a kind of research center for bamboo fiber composites. Many of the materials that are in a Semester bike—bamboo, fiberglass, carbon fiber—are also in a Beacon Alley Skateboard. The skateboard is a product with a very demanding user group who expect incredibly high performance at a fair price. The Semester bike is in a demanding, competitive category as well. And if your product doesn't look good, it's a non-starter.
The past 11 months have been a bit crazy: We had a successful Kickstarter campaign that finished last August and we managed to deliver all 45 bikes and frames by our promised date in February. Since then, our little shop has been building about ten Semesters per month, in addition to our standard "Gilligan" bamboo bike and our Gilligan kits for the DIY crowd. We are developing international markets for Semester—we've already shipped them to seven countries and this seems to be an area of rapid expansion. Right now, I am working on ways to dramatically lower costs so we can make a bike that delivers the look and ride quality of bamboo for less than half of the current price.
I really didn't know much about weaving bamboo until I went to the Bamboo Studio on the IIT-B campus in Mumbai in 2012. For the Semester, I was working Bamboo like wood, using the tools and techniques that furniture makers would use. In India, most of the craftspeople split bamboo and weave baskets. Because my research is aimed at expanding markets for rural craftspeople and raising the value of their work, I worked on designing things to be made with existing materials and skillsets.
Splitting and weaving bamboo opens up a world of possibilities. I realized that the weaving process changes the material from a wood-like material to a fabric material. So we can made high strength composites using bamboo fiber in the same way we use carbon fiber or fiberglass. Bamboo fibers are incredibly strong and very resilient, which is why bamboo fly rods are still the gold standard.
Of course, many design applications require that responsive feel, but also stiffness in key areas. We can achieve this by using various layers of core materials and fibers to "dial in" the exact properties we are looking for. A skateboard is put under a huge load so it needs to be strong, but riders also want the board to have a responsive feel. Existing boards are made with seven plies of maple and pressed into shape with hundreds of pounds of force. Beacon Alley Boards are made in match molds using a sandwich core construction using materials I learned doing aircraft interiors. The final shape is pretty standard, but the construction is completely different.
We think that the bike and the skateboard complement each other and will broaden the product line that MakeLab has to offer. With more diverse product offerings we think we can increase and stabilize the workload, enabling us to hire more full-time employees and continue our efforts to train young people in contemporary crafts.
We already have a stand-up paddleboard prototype that I think will be our next product. Different in many ways, it's still a high performance product in a high design category. I've recently been taking some of my design students to Greensboro for a couple weeks at a time to test prototypes and learn about the process. They seem to get a lot out of it and it's a lot of fun for me.
Check out the Kickstarter campaign for Beacon Alley Skateboards here!