Cane Creek brought out the second mark of their enduro fork, the Helm, recently that now sports a series of upgrades in the same chassis.
Pete had a chat with Cane Creek’s product manager Sam Anderson to find out how a small team found out what they needed to change on the Helm and how they went about it.
What was the impetus for updating the HELM fork?
Helm has been out for three years now and we’ve learned quite a bit from building quite a few of them, riding them a tonne and getting feedback from our service centres. Updating Helm was part of a natural cycle. Newer is always better until proven otherwise too.
That’s the nature of making a product and keeping it relevant. Helm was needing an update and we went ahead and made those changes.
Was there one thing that made you realise you needed to update the fork?
There wasn’t anything glaring that made us thing we need to change this, but we had compiled a list of things that gradually added up so it was really more about timing and making those changes all at once. It also gave us the opportunity to offer a new product rather than implement the changes individually.
Arguably the most important change was to remove the threads on the air seal head on the stanchion on the air spring. We did that originally because it was easy to remove, you don’t need any specialist tools to do a travel change. It was done that way to allow people to do that at home. What we had noticed is that the air seal head is very torque sensitive and if you over torque the seal head, then the stanchion will flare out which causes bushing problems and performance issues.
By removing the threads, we added a circlip to the air seal head and that removes any potential problems with over-torqueing. That was probably the most important change both from a production stand point as well as travel changes and at our service centres.
I would say the air spring got the biggest change overall. Our damper had some updates, but the air spring performance was our main goal. By removing the threads, the design of the air seal head also changes, and as a result, we’ve gained 16% in volume in both the positive and negative air chambers. That really helps improve off the top sensitivity.
On the piston, we went from an alloy piston with plastic back up rings to a Delrin piston which performs the job of the piston and the back up ring. That was done to reduce friction inside the fork.
All of the changes were made to reduce friction and really provide a supple performing fork.
Once you’d decided to update the air spring, what happened next?
We started to redesign the piston, then make a couple of prototypes in-house, as well as prototypes for the air seal head to confirm that it is indeed easier to install, increases spring volume and does what we wanted it to do.
The easy thing about changing a part that we know a tonne about is that it doesn’t take a whole lot of time to get it right at the first time of asking.
A lot of these changes were on a wish list until we could focus in on making it happen before we make a timeline to change the product. We already had a list of what we could do and opportunities for timing that correctly.
In the damper, we reduced the oil viscosity from 4 to 2.5w, also going to Motorex for the oil. The wiper seal on the oil seal head has also seen an update to an SKF low friction model. On the compression side, we wanted riders to generally be more in the middle of the setting. We had some feedback that the fork was so supportive that compression damping could be run at fully open.
That, in effect, was reducing the perceived range of adjustment. The base valve of compression received a change in shim stack, a reduction in spring rate and a reduced preload of the shim stack. We also balanced the midvalve of the compression tune on the rebound piston to match the changes to the base valve. Those changes overall created a reduction in initiation force on the damper, and a more consistent increase in damping per shaft speed velocity (The faster you go, the more support the damper provides).
How many people are involved in that process and what do they do?
Sam Anderson – Product Manager, Communication with service centres to pull feedback on the Helm, Determined the goals for the new fork based on our opportunities and abilities, Test rider of Prototypes
Jeff LaForge – Design Engineer, created the designs for all of the new parts
Alex Dawson – Suspension Production Manager and Engineering Tech, His experience on the assembly line with original Helm was vital for improving the assembly process for Helm MKII. He also played an important role in testing prototypes
Ashton Hall – Manufacturing Engineer Updated production assembly, work instructions, new fixtures, managed and created the Bill of materials for all new part numbers and SKUs.
Rob Bee – Product Coordinator – Sales Collateral and training, instruction manuals, overall prep for selling the product.
Does it take long to get a working prototype in-hand?
CNC’ing parts maybe takes 5-6 days once we have some time between several projects to do that in house. If you want a forged item or a production intent item, generally those parts take between 45-60 days to get those samples.
Overall the project takes about a year, even if you already know what you want to change.
How many prototypes did you make before settling on what would be the production model?
The air seal head had two or three prototypes. The damper went through 3-4 iterations as well
Beyond prototypes, what form did your testing take?
We’ll put between 50-100 hours of testing on a single chassis with the each change. All of the test chassis during this project were ridden by our employees in Fletcher, NC.
How important are athletes to testing new product?
We don’t have anyone pro racing on Helm or fully supported on Helm. 90% of us ride these fork and shocks. Alex Dawson is a ripper on a bicycle. There’s a few guys, including myself and our demo guy who are relied upon to ride the sh*t out of these things and make sure that they’re good to go. We beat our own bikes up for the good of our own products.
We can ride here year-round in North Carolina and in some ways the winter is the best time to ride here. It can get into the 30s and unbearably humid here in the summer. But the relatively comfortable climate all year and the vast amount of trails close by really are critical for us to test ride on any given day/month of the year.
Is modularity with older models important when designing new internals?
By removing the threads from the air seal head, and therefore the stanchion, putting the new air seal head into a MK1 fork would require a new Crown Steerer Assembly. It would be a difficult and expensive process to go down that route.
You can add the new SKF seals to the MK1 casting. The damper could be dropped in as well. If you have a coil Helm Mk1 then you could do that for a more supple ride.
Did you have a Eureka moment when you new you’d got it right?
Realising that all the tiny details that by themselves wouldn’t be too noticeable, but together, that just how different the fork feels compared to the MK1. When I first put the prototype on the bike, I could most certainly feel the performance benefits and the Eureka moment was realising that all the small changes had made for a big change in the fork, especially as we hadn’t changed the chassis at all.