The future of MTB suspension with Öhlins
© Oskar Sahlin
Exclusive interview with the Swedish suspension manufacturer about past mistakes, present processes and future possibilities.
To conquer the future, you’ve got to know your past - something that the world-class suspension company Öhlins has not only realised, but also embraced. Both when it comes to their manufacturing process and their R&D into future products. 5 years ago they took a leap into the world of MTB suspension but came up a little shorter than expected. Now, in 2018, with a bunch of new World Championship-winning products in the line-up, Öhlins is back with a bang. So how did they use their past to create the present and how can that be used to see into the future? Keep reading to find out how they learned from their mistakes, where focus was shifted too and how trends of the past can be used to predict the future of MTB suspension.
Past, present, future.
With over 40 years of experience in suspension technology, Öhlins combined expertise across all the different areas is huge. Immense even. What started out as a one-man band in the 70’s, focusing solely on motocross, has grown into one of the largest suspension manufacturers in the world, including road racing, F1, snow scooter and MTB. The company has over 450 titles worldwide to its name, including the most recent MTB victory with Loic Bruni in the 2018 DH World Championship in Lenzerheide.
Last year was our first one in DH racing and we managed to take three wins at the DH World Championships.
“Last year was our first one in DH racing and we managed to take three wins at the DH World Championships – Loic Bruni, Miranda Miller and Melanie Chappaz all won their respective categories. That has never been done by anyone before!”, says Hugo Tengå, marketing manager at Öhlins. A pretty decent way to start off their DH racing “career”.
Learning from the past
But the road to the top is often full of obstacles, and Öhlins’ path has been no different. While the expertise with coil suspension runs deep – apart from MTB, the company’s entire product range is built upon it - the entry into the world of air was a road the company hadn’t been down before. While their MTB coil products have been praised by the industry, Öhlins initially received criticisms for their first range of air products, and are currently dealing with a recall of the older version of the RXF air forks.
“We currently have sent out three teams to different parts of the world who work with correcting the problems. People have voiced criticism that we launched our new fork only a week prior to the recall, but in all honesty, we’d been planning the product launch for 6 months - it was simply a coincidence. Dealing with a recall means tons and tons of administrative tape to go through and that takes longer than you think”, Hugo Tengå explains.
People have voiced criticism that we launched our new fork only a week prior to the recall, but in all honesty, we’d been planning the product launch for 6 months - it was simply a coincidence.
The important thing for Öhlins has been to take a step back, regroup and learn from these early mistakes. In a world that moves so quickly, it is important to slow down and look back sometimes: “We grew so fast, with new suppliers and processes needing dialing in. On top of that, we had some issues with our new factory in Taiwan, so we realised that we needed to take a step back, clean up, and re-asses our production process to get it all running smoothly again”, Terje Hansen, team leader at MTB Öhlins says.
Refocusing to create the present
The pieces of the puzzle are definitely falling back into place for the Swedish suspension giant. The company has released no less than three new products this year – all of which have been incredibly well received - and they have also given their older products a facelift (now named EVO) to improve quality and function.
“Our main focus in this whole process had been quality and getting the standard back up to where it should be. Obviously, the function of the product is important, but we feel like the function was always there it was just hampered by the quality problems we were experiencing”, Terje Hansen explains.
As for the new products, it has been all about listening to the demands of the market and the voices within the industry, as well as, utilising their own expertise and experience. It’s been about testing the products in-house, with private test pilots and together with the Specialized Gravity-Racing team to produce what has become known as the “Swedish Gold” – top of the range MTB suspension products. One thing that becomes clear when walking around Öhlins enormous factory on the outskirts of Stockholm is that quality and innovation is the backbone of this company. Every room has people and machines working with sample tests, prototypes, assemblies, fine-tunings and R&D. Just for MTB there are over 700 prototypes that have been tested and evaluated over the years.
One thing that becomes clear when walking around Öhlins enormous factory on the outskirts of Stockholm is that quality and innovation is the backbone of this company.
Spotting trends to see the future
Another thing that makes Öhlins stand out in the world of suspension is that they have been around for so long. “There is so much expertise within these four walls”, Hugo Tengå says, “and most of the technology that’s been developed here over the years goes hand in hand. It can be transferred from one sport to the next. What was created for motocross to begin with, has later been developed to fit with road racing, which has then been used for car suspension. The technology we use for MTBs today, was primarily designed for motocross”.
This vault of knowledge and experience is what gives Öhlins the edge over their competitors. They have seen trends come and go in all the big suspension based sports, and as MTB is such a young sports compared to MX, road and car racing, all they have to do is look back to see the future.
MTB racing today is what motocross was about 20 years ago.
“MTB racing today is what motocross was about 20 years ago”, Terje Hansen explains referring to the latest trend of different wheel sizes, linkages and frame designs. It was a true dejá vu-moment for the Öhlins crew when the MTB market suddenly exploded with 29’’ and 27,5’’ wheels and new boost standards. “We saw similar trends in motocross before the market stabilised and the products standardised. I believe we will see something similar happen with MTB in the future”.
What will MTB suspension look like in the future?
Whether it will be in 10, 20 or 30 years Terje Hansen doesn’t know, but he is certain that trends like wheel sizes, linkages and designs will eventually standardise across the industry. It will be more about small adjustments and refinements, like it is in motocross and MC racing today. Before that happens though, we will first experience the boom of e-power.
“In the next 5 years we will definitely see more intelligent suspension where there is some form of e-power involved”, Terje Hansen speculates. “I think we will see different kinds of valves – whether they’re mechanical or electrical. For example, FOX have just launched their Live valve, which is a step in that direction, and with the boom in the e-bike segment it is pretty clear that e-power is here to stay. In the future, thanks to this, suspension will be able to “feel” if you’re going uphill or downhill and adjust accordingly”.
By connecting your suspension to some kind of GPS controlled app in your phone, the valves will be able to know where on a DH track you are and adjust accordingly.
Hugo Tengå adds: “Different forms of valve technology is definitely the future. By connecting your suspension to some kind of GPS controlled app in your phone, the valves will be able to know where on a DH track you are and adjust accordingly”.
The future of Öhlins MTB
Where does Öhlins see themselves in all this. Will they be part of the future of MTB suspension? “Of course - we’re here to stay and hopefully grow”, Terje Hansen says confidently.
The XC block at the bottom of the pyramid is by far the largest one, so of course we’ve discussed our possibilities.
Whether or not that growth includes the XC market, only time can tell, but there is definitely a longing to conquer the entire MTB pyramid. While most suspension brands started at the bottom of the pyramid – with XC – Öhlins started at the top. “We started with the narrow DH segment and then moved down a step to the slightly wider trail segment. The XC block at the bottom of the pyramid is by far the largest one, so of course we’ve discussed our possibilities”, Terje Hansen says, but adds that in the nearest future it is all about getting the new processes dialed and polished, pushing the new range of products and then, obviously, continuing the R&D behind the scenes in order to keep up with whatever the future of suspension has to offer.