When the brothers Ties (aged 44) and Taco Carlier (aged 45), both graduate industrial designers, returned form a business trip to New York about 16 years ago they suddenly had a vision. They could carry commuting by bike, as they knew it from the Netherlands, to the rest of the world. Having San Francisco, London, Paris in mind. They wanted to develop a smart e-bike for commuters that would help them travelling even hilly distances in warm weather with grace. Back in Amsterdam they went for their first model and began one of the biggest stories of growth the cycle industry had seen in a long time under the Vanmoof brand.
“Apple” approach makes problems
The capital is needed urgently. One major problem was apparently the uncertainties in the supply chains. Unlike most bicycle manufactures Vanmoof design nearly all parts of the bicycle on their own. In this “Proprietary parts strategy” the Carlier brothers see one the most important features of their business model. They market it as the “Apple” approach, i.e. to develop the design and the technology inhouse and to outsource the production to suppliers. It is, in fact, an advantage to outsource certain product risks. It can, however, be expensive in the case of small quantities and has the decisive disadvantage that the components are not compatible with spare parts of third-party suppliers available on the market. This reduces flexibility.
The concept showed its vulnerability when supply chains were interrupted during the pandemic and bicycle parts became scarce goods for almost all manufacturers. Warehouses throughout the industry were overflowing with unfinished bicycles and delivery times were skyrocketing. For Vanmoof a major problem: The Dutch could not use other parts than those they had developed themselves. In addition, insiders assume that suppliers in the Far East had prioritised in production buyers of standard components with higher quantities. Requests on this topic remain unanswered by Vanmoof.
In addition, the strategy directly affects the customer service. As a direct marketer Vanmoof runs hardly any own shops or workshops, but appears mainly online. In the event of a defect, however, customers cannot simply go to their trusted workshop, because they have hardly any suitable spare parts. “Bicycle dealers are already under stress right now anyway. They are not forced to accept bikes where the spare parts supply is not assured, where they do not know the technology or where they lack the tools to read out and adjust the motor,” says Dirk Zedler (aged 60) who regularly draws up test reports and experts’ reports on bicycles with his institute for bicycle technology and safety. The only option for Vanmoof customers is often to send in the bicycle for repair.
For manufacturers this can also have disastrous economic consequences. “If you cannot perform the repair due to missing parts, you have to reimburse the purchase price in the end, at least pro rata,” says industry expert Zedler. “Then the whole calculation blows up in your face.” According to internal documents, total provisions of eight million euros have been made by Vanmoof for repairs or replacements during the warranty period in 2021 alone.
Simple and frail technology
Experts are also critical of the quality of the technology assembled on the bikes. According to safety expert Zedler, the major shortcoming is the front-wheel drive. This type of drive unit was common in the early days of electric-assisted bikes, but is clearly outdated today. No matter whether market leaders Bosch, Panasonic, Brose, Yamaha or Shimano, they all go for the mid-mounted motor and that for good reasons. Spokes of a bike the motor of which is in the front wheel fork would often brake faster. It is a fact that Vanmoof keep with their approach. The new models S5 and A5 introduced only in March 2023 are also equipped with a front-wheel drive unit. Economically, this might be attractive. “This way you can cheaply produce bicycles,” says Zedler.
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Authors: Lutz Reiche and Anna Driftschröer