In the summer of 2001, Ryan Connolly wanted to build a bicycle from scratch. Connolly, a master's student majoring in manufacturing systems engineering, had met a master frame builder in Palo Alto and convinced him to come to the Product Realization Lab (PRL) and share his knowledge.
That fall quarter, Connolly learned to design and build a frame and fork. In the winter quarter, he built all of the necessary tools, jigs and fixtures required to build not just a single frame, but many.
Word of his pet project spread throughout the lab, and by the spring quarter, Connolly himself was teaching a dozen students how to build their own bicycles. He never stopped. For the past dozen years, Connolly, now a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering's Design Group, has taught ME 204, Bicycle Design and Frame-Building, one of the most popular courses offered at the PRL.
"It takes over a hundred hours, but when they leave this class, they will ride away on a bicycle that is as well designed and constructed as any bicycle from a custom shop," Connolly said.
Each year, about 12 students enter the two-quarter course with many of the skills required to build a bike – some can already weld and braze, but each student must already be comfortable working in the PRL. They start with a rough blueprint, and each week Connolly and Scott Kohn, who has co-taught the course for the past several years, lead the class through the next steps in the design and manufacturing process. The students start with lengths of steel tubing and learn how to manipulate several specialized bike tools used by professional bike builders to craft a frame.
"It's not just about making the frame," said Oliver Riihiluoma, who just completed his master's degree in mechanical engineering. "There are a hundred parts that go onto the frame, and you've got to figure out how to make them all work together. The frame needs to fit the wheels, the wheels need to be compatible with the brakes. You need to have a lot of patience and confidence in your design."
Many of the students who take ME 204 have aspirations of working in product design or similar roles after graduation. The experience of aligning hundreds of small steps is a great exercise in project management, said Kohn, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
"They need to figure out what components they'll need, source them and order them in the correct sequence so that production doesn't slow down," Kohn said. "They need to weigh aesthetic decisions against practical considerations."
Building a bicycle is a surprisingly tall order, and the tiniest details can be the difference between a bike that glides and one that tips over. Align the front fork at the wrong angle, for example, and the front wheel will swivel erratically like a broken wheel on a shopping cart.
"Sometimes they make bad design decisions, and they have to start over," Kohn said. "Figuring out how to salvage some parts of the project and move on is a really useful experience."
One of the most popular courses run by the Product Realization Lab, ME 204, teaches students how to build bicycles, but also patience and project management. (Video: Kurt Hickman)
Michael Beck, a 2014 graduate, said that he has taken nearly every course offered by the PRL. He jokes that he majored in "making stuff," and feels extremely confident with a variety of tools and techniques that he has learned at Stanford. Still, the product design major said ME 204 challenged him in surprising ways and taught him lessons beyond the toolbox.
"I blew a hole through one of my tubes. It was on one of the most visible parts of my bike, and I really didn't know what to do," Beck said. "Scott grabbed some tools and showed me how to fix it, and now you can hardly tell. It was an awesome lesson and reminder to ask for help when you need it instead of freaking out."
Passing the course involves a very straightforward exam: Each bike must be assembled safely and soundly enough for the instructors to ride. And although a few students are usually wrenching right up to that final moment, the ride usually goes smoothly.
"It's a pretty clear design goal – either it runs or it doesn't," Connolly said. "I take personal pride in that of more than 150 students over the years, we've had a 100 percent success rate of students completing their bicycles."
Watching students grin as they cruise around on their shiny new bikes never gets old, Connolly said. Several strangers have already complimented Riihiluoma's new ride, which he said he checks on every few minutes when he parks it outside a coffee shop.
"A lot of things that you build at Stanford, the motivation is to get a grade. You might spend a ton of hours making a prototype, or even a really polished product, but you still toss it at the end of the quarter," Riihiluoma said. "This bike is going to be with me a lot longer than that. It's awesome to graduate and take this with me."