From Biomedical Instruments to Wooden Bicycles

Creative people have a natural drive to enquire, to explore, to build, to challenge. At Invetech we have a great many creative types where their product development drive doesn’t end at the office, but extends into virtually all facets of their life. This partly explains one designer’s journey from creating world-first mousetraps to elegant bamboo and wooden bicycles.

Brendyn Rodgers is an industrial designer based in our Melbourne office. Like many designers, his passion is to develop breakthrough ideas and technologies, explore the possibilities of new materials or solve complex human-machine interactions. A creative individual with a career spanning more than 30 years, these days he seeks out the more challenging projects such as new technologies to more effectively and safely dispense dishwasher detergent, or designing biomedical instruments that will provide more rapid cancer diagnoses. But beyond the workplace, how is this creative energy directed?

Designing the better mousetrap

d-CON No View, No Touch Mouse Trap

If designing a new type of bike is as challenging as designing the better mousetrap, then Brendyn is an obvious choice as he’s done both. In talking with Brendyn about some of the greater design challenges he’s faced in his career, the most mousetrap is indeed one of his most memorable. This was no frivolous idea from a mad inventor, but a serious undertaking from consumer goods giant ReckittBenckiser. To be sold under their d-CON brand in North America, this trap was to be unique in that it was to kill the mouse without the consumer having to see or touch the dead mouse.

“What I found during this project was that almost every designer has aspired to build a better mouse trap at some point, and a lot of them have designed horrible ways to kill a mouse,” said Brendyn. “And unsurprisingly, improving on a product that has been redesigned thousands of times in history is a difficult challenge. Even the client had doubts about if what they were asking for could be achieved.”

Rather than view the project as an impossible task, Brendyn saw it as another design challenge to be worked through methodically, commencing with mouse psychology, then mouse-material compatibility through to understanding the science of how to quickly and humanely kill a mouse. Through understanding how a mouse moves through a room, how it can flatten nearly all, but not quite all of its body, how much force a mouse can exert (to release a trigger), and how you might rapidly and painlessly dispatch a mouse, a wholly novel rotary mechanism concept was conceptualized and consequently changed the mousetrap paradigm. Elegant in its simplicity, it sweeps the mouse into the trap so not even the tail hangs out, an indicator displaying if a tiny mouse has been captured. The d-CON “no view, no touch” trap has been a major success for ReckittBenckiser and has unsurprisingly resulted in a number of charmless copies.

Why build a bamboo bike?

Bamboo Bike Axle
Bamboo build #1 (detail)

It was a similar desire to challenge conventional thinking that led Brendyn on a journey of bicycle redesign, in this instance using alternative materials; first bamboo, and now plywood.

This passion for bicycles and their mechanical allure commenced nearly 20 years ago when a colleague invited him to take part in Around the Bay in a Day, a 200 km (125 mile) bike ride around Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay that raises money for charity. Despite some initial reservations, he bought a cheap mountain bike, began training and became hooked. While the long-distance cycling fell away over the years, the passion for bicycle technology continued. “I was seeking a new home project, and given my new in interest in cycling, was intrigued by a growing trend in the construction of bamboo bikes. Some of these were well constructed, but so many looked crude and unresolved. I began to think that I could do something similar, if not better.”

So, starting with Google and YouTube as references, he cut up his daughter’s old bike for parts and integrated these into a bamboo and carbon fiber frame. Nine years on, Brendyn says the bike still rides “beautifully.”

Technology applied to the wooden bike

The success of the first project led to many bamboo bike iterations, but while bamboo is an easy choice for a bike frame, it is time consuming to work with, particularly when combining with carbon fiber, and a single build could consume up to 100 hours. The lure of refining the construction method meant exploring new materials, new processes and new techniques.

Bamboo Bike Frame
CNC-machined ply frame

Brendyn began exploring the possibilities provided by combining laminated wood products with Computer Aided Design (CAD) and CNC router production techniques to cut precise frame components. His challenge was to develop a method to make a complete, complex three-dimensional bicycle frame from a relatively simple machining process typically used in the manufacture of kitchen cupboards.

As chance would have it, his son Joel was working as an apprentice furniture maker where he had access to a CNC routing machine. His employer was happy to let Joel and his dad experiment with it on weekends.

“I use CAD all the time for work, plus it was an opportunity to work with my son, who also likes bikes.”

This initial experiment has resulted in an evolving series of frame designs, each of which features a novel wood hinge which enables the rear stays to be flared yet remain part of the original flat piece of plywood.

Bamboo Bike Stays
Rear stays in an assembled bike

Brendyn also shares his hobby with a number of like-minded locals. “We call ourselves the ply guys,” he says. “One guy is a sculptor, so he sculpts beautiful bikes with an aim to make as much of the bike out of wood as possible. Another is an engineer for a plywood company. He’s a very precise guy who likes to make very precise products.”

For Brendyn, the project is an expression of his passion for pragmatic design, making things that are both simple and functional. He thinks his fixed-gear, single-speed models encapsulate this philosophy. “My goal as a designer is, in some ways, to bring a product back to its purest form, in this case a bike with a gear that is very simple to maintain and fun to ride.”

When he is asked about their performance compared to mass produced, commercially available bikes, Brendyn thinks they stack up pretty well. While slightly heavier than top of the range carbon fiber bikes, they are similar in weight and performance to their metal-framed counterparts.

The future

Despite seeking further efficiencies in the production process, he’s not planning on building bikes on a commercial scale. All models built to date have been for his own use or for family members, including the most recent built for his soon-to-be son-in-law. “At the end of the day, I’m just someone who passionate about designing and making things,” Brendyn explains. “Success for me is knowing I’ve created a product that is exactly as I imagined. That’s always been my motivation.”

Bamboo Bike Detail

Brendyn’s Flickr page is: BamboozledBren