Lubricating the Gears of Greatness

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"We needed to communicate measurements and results to technical and nontechnical people. LabVIEW gave us the ability to switch to a graphical representation of the data in a form that cycling professionals can easily understand, which speeded up development time greatly."

- Alex Trimnell, Muc-Off Ltd

The Challenge:
When meters mean the difference between immortality and anonymity every tiny optimization is crucial. In the world of professional cycling this could not be more true. Muc-Off set out to create the world’s fastest, most durable bicycle chain lubricants with the ultimate aim of making world records tumble. To achieve this, they required a truly accurate, scientific test bed.

The Solution:
Using the CompactDAQ platform and LabVIEW software to quickly create a test rig that can scale with changing requirements in a fast-paced and competitive sport. By accurately validating the performance of their revolutionary bicycle lubrication, Muc-Off helped Sir Bradley Wiggins smash the 1 hour world bicycle distance record.

Alex Trimnell - Muc-Off Ltd
Martin Mathias - Muc-Off Ltd

Muc-Off has been in the cycling industry since the early 90s, and we pride ourselves on driving innovation. We often solve problems that other companies have not realised exist yet. We believe that this engineering ingenuity keeps us growing and diversifying to make a positive impact. We provide products for all forms of cycling—from commuter to competitor—however, our involvement with the world’s best cyclists and cycling teams has solidified our position in the upper echelons of the cycling world.

We officially partnered with Team Sky in 2014. International-level cycling is comparable to premier automotive sports like F1 in which the tiniest details matter. In a sport where seconds can separate winning and losing in a 21-day tour, cyclists must make progress wherever possible. Marginal gains mean everything, so when we claimed we could make Team Sky’s elite cyclists faster by creating the world’s best lubricant they challenged us to prove it.

This challenge drove us to create a test system that could accurately test and measure the performance of our lubricants on professional-grade bicycle chains. We needed a way to prove that our lubricants are the best available and can make the difference between winning and losing. We needed to create a system that we could adjust in many different ways and still provide incredibly accurate test results that are repeatable time and time again.

With buy-in from Team Sky, our chemical engineers ramped up work on formulating a lubricant that could perform flawlessly while other members of the team set about developing a proving ground for it. We had to create the rig in an incredibly tight timeframe to keep ahead of the chemical engineers. With respect to the chain and lubricant, we developed a test rig that emulated the essential aspects of a bicycle. The basic rig consisted of a large sprocket at the front called a chain ring, which the crank arms and pedals attach to on an actual bike. It also included a rear cassette on the back, which is the same as the gears that connect to your rear wheel on any bike, and a chain links between these two parts. We made the rig mechanically adjustable to mimic countless different bicycle size and geometry combinations. We had to replicate this flexibility in every other part of the rig as well, including the software, sensors and instrumentation, and the drive for the system.

We added a dynamometer (dyno) to the test system to accurately replicate cyclist inputs to the rig and conversely obtain measurable outputs. In one of the available configurations, this rig consisted of a motor that drives the chain ring like a conventional dyno to analyse torque and speed at both input and output. Early iterations of the rig used LabJack measurement devices for data acquisition and control, but this lacked the software interface and the flexibility we needed. The team needed the ability to adjust the rig to deal with different sprockets, chain types, gear ratios, power expectancies, and speeds. The LabJack offering simply did not have the customisability, hardware diversity, or specialist support to do the job in the tight timeframes required.

Figure 1. Lubricant Test Rig

We reached out to NI because we knew of the company’s status in the areas of data acquisition and control. After consultation with one of the field sales engineers at NI and a quick demo of LabVIEW Signal Express, LabVIEW software, and the CompactDAQ platform, we knew that NI could deliver the flexibility and scalability that we needed. We could customise the software to supply the vital data needed for each individual dyno configuration and test run. We could easily scale the hardware to allow for extra test parameters, such as driving gear changes or measuring vibration.

We saw that the combination of NI software and hardware was incredibly easy to use. However, at Muc-Off we are not software engineers. We are chemical and mechanical engineers, which meant that any sort of coding needed on the project would involve a steep learning curve, and that led to natural apprehension. We needed to see for ourselves how easy or difficult the NI offering was and how appropriate it really was to our application. We started development in the easiest way possible with SignalExpress, which has a configuration-based environment that made it simple to complete preliminary testing and confirm NI was the way to go for us.

It was clear at this stage of the project that we could easily test out the NI software. The benefit of an extended evaluation period of longer than a month allowed detailed evaluation without any financial risk or investment. During this evaluation stage, we realised that LabVIEW would be more beneficial for us than SignalExpress in the long run. The graphical and intuitive way that LabVIEW empowers users to convert logical diagrams into functional code meant we could learn quickly and convert our ideas of an end product into a reality in the fastest and most simple way possible. We would also still have a huge scope to diversify, expand, and customise at any point in the process.

Figure 2. Chain Lube Efficiency Dynamometer Front Panel

We not only saw the value of the software and hardware provided by NI, but also in the ecosystem and services that surrounded those products. As we developed the initial iterations of the rig centred on SignalExpress, we took advantage of the training courses offered by NI to make transitioning to LabVIEW simple. In this time-critical environment, the training courses gave us an invaluable head start on development, which meant that we could meet race and event deadlines, such as the Tour de France, comfortably.

Figure 3. Test Rig in Use

Cyclists talk in cadence and rider watts, whilst engineers are more used to input RPM and torque. We needed to communicate measurements and results to technical and nontechnical people. LabVIEW gave us the ability to switch to a graphical representation of the data in a form that cycling professionals can easily understand, which speeded up development time greatly. Sir Bradley Wiggins used the Shimano Dura Ace 11 speed chain for his record attempt. This required some careful riding to cope with the torque, as some sprinters are reported to put out over 2,000 W on training machines and; hence, use a wider chain to deal with the power. For valuable results, we needed to look behind the numbers. These high wattages are only sustained for seconds, whilst the Daily Telegraph reported that Sir Bradley could put out over 450 W continuously for an hour or more. Published data describes the variance in chain efficiency due to lubrication, with chain losses ranging between 4.8 W and 9 W, until now. These wasted watts convert to lost meters/time, and Muc-Off continually strives to reduce these losses whilst increasing the lubrication longevity.

The main objective of our test system is to measure efficiency for analysis and comparison. We calculate the efficiency of the chain and lubrication using several Muc-Off test methodologies, each incorporating the measurement of torque and speed at different regions around the chain system. The method of load application is also critical in achieving the high-resolution results required to compare lubricant types. Choosing the scalability of the CompactDAQ platform is now paying huge dividends. Our testing parameters continue to grow as we strive for more application-specific accuracy, so the flexibility of our system grows with the simple addition of suitable NI modules. Whilst originally starting with the NI 9171 single-slot chassis to measure our key parameters, we experienced success and decided to ramp up the investment into the test rig. We now have a fully dedicated cabinet and can continue to expand the test criteria, yet keep the equipment portable enough to display at events such as trade shows.

Figure 4. Completed Cabinet


This new bespoke cabinet has helped us grow from a single torque and speed measurement to multiple torque and speed transducers used concurrently by utilising the NI 9201. The NI 9263 analogue output module controls speed and load, with control of other aspects of the application handled by a NI 9482 relay module. This is all housed in a 4-slot NI 9174 chassis.

We have proved that the test system is part of the winning formula, quite literally. We used the rig to test and optimise the chain that Sir Bradley Wiggins used to break the one hour bicycle distance record. The numbers speak for themselves. In terms of results, Bradley now has another world record to his name. From official Union Cycliste Internationale data, we can see that in terms of distance, we helped Bradley go 3 percent farther than any other man has ever cycled before in the space of 60 minutes In terms of technology, we created a lubricant that does not have a drop off in performance over this timeframe, meaning friction remains consistently minimal. No other bicycle lubricant has done this successfully before. Throughout the whole journey NI, LabVIEW, and Compact DAQ were key to proving that.

Ultimately, the aim is always to create ever more realistic testing in the laboratory, which will require even more diverse support from NI. We now work with NI frequently to help drive further marginal gains in professional cycling, while always aiming to bring the best of this technology to the everyday cyclist. So whether it is in-depth sound and vibration analysis or reproducing climate conditions, NI have the breadth of experience across many industries to assist in specifying and utilising the hardware and software to achieve our upcoming goals.


Author Information:
Alex Trimnell
Muc-Off Ltd
Muc-Off Ltd, 1st Floor, Unit 1, Innovation Close
Poole BH12 4QT
United Kingdom

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