10

What limitations cause Shimano to stop at 11 gears and 409% overall ratio, whereas Rohloff can cram in 14 gears and 526%?

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    Probably just consumer demand. Shimano and SRAM focus on products that appeal to a very large market. A 14 speed internal hub is something only a very small part of the cycling population would have a need for. – Kibbee Oct 22 '16 at 9:52
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    Hmmmmm.... could it be that Shimano and Sram stop at 11 because it would be weird to make an internal hub that had more range/gears than their traditional top-of-the-line cassettes? – BSO rider Oct 22 '16 at 9:55
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    Might have something to do with the fact that in Germany a Rohloff costs 8 times the price of a Nexus 8. Rohloff is a well established brand in its niche, Shimano probably doesn't see competing with it profitable. – ojs Oct 22 '16 at 11:18
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    Because the more gears it has the more complicated it is, the more failure-prone it is, the more it costs, the more it weighs, the larger it is. Yeah, you can trade off one factor for another, but Shimano et al have chosen to trade off the gears. – Daniel R Hicks Oct 22 '16 at 11:56
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    A top of the line Alfine 11 is about 500 USD. A cheap Rohloff is 1500. Totally different markets (and Shimano+SRAM have a way bigger market for their derailleur systems). – Batman Oct 22 '16 at 15:12
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There are a couple of likely reasons IMO.

First, Shimano don't make anything like a Rolhoff and that's intentional. Shimano market strategy is all about mass sales to bike manufacturers, and expensive, complex IGH are not part of that. Even their spare parts - those sales are not a huge profit centre, but they do take a lot of staff time (even though their staff supply wholesalers). Their whole importer/wholesaler/retailer supply chain works like this, it's about supporting the sale of new bikes.

Whereas Rohloff stock spares for everything. Ring your Rohloff importer and ask, they will almost certainly go out of their way to help you, because that's the company ethos. But then, Shimano sell more top level groupsets than Rolhoff sell hubs. Rolhoff have chosen a market that Shimano ignore: the "buy it once" market. Few sales, at a small price premium. But loyal customers.

Second, the engineering is hard. This is not simple commodity manufacturing. Rolhoff make the machines to make the parts to build the hubs. They also have a really smart IGH designer who has been working on this one thing for twenty years. Shimano would have to put one or more of their really smart engineers on the design for a couple of years too. Instead of those people working on products that might actually turn a profit.

Note that you can't just copy a Rolhoff or any other complex machine. What goes in to the process is not what comes out. For, say, a gear, they start with a blank. How big? Only the maker knows. Then it's machined, with a special gear-cutting machine. Do Shimano have a machine that can make this gear? Maybe, maybe not. But they definitely don't know the exact design dimensions and tolerances. Then it's likely heat and chemically treated before final machining/polishing. Again, the details are important but you can't work them out from the final product.

Finally, given shitmanos reputation for briefly making short-lived crap, the Rolhoff market is going to look at a $1000 14 speed hub from Shimano (or 15, 16 etc) and say "how long is the warranty" and if it's the standard shitmano two years... They're going to snigger. Shimano would have to work hard to convince customers that they're even capable of offering a competitive warranty to the Rohloff one.

(I have owned a Shimano 8 speed hub... It failed after 5000km. Three times. So arguably 3 of them. After the last failure it couldn't be fixed because Shimano didn't support that model any more. A new wheel would have cost about a third as much as a new Rolhoff-equipped wheel. If I was stupid enough to fall for that trick again, anyway. By contrast, I have a low 5000's serial Rolhoff - 16 years old - that has been cheaper per kilometre and obviously much more reliable. The two hubs are not even trying to do the same job, except in the very broad "both are bike parts" sense.)

  • Even if Shimano could manufacture all the parts required, they probably can't just copy Rolhoff's design, because it's probably protected by a number of patents. – David Richerby Oct 23 '16 at 10:09
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    @DavidRicherby I was more trying to suggest that they can't even copy key parts of the design, and may not be able to make equivalent parts easily (or, possibly, at all). Much as the US can't make Atlas 5 rockets any more, that knowledge has been lost and no-one is quite sure how key things worked. – Móż Oct 23 '16 at 20:39
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    Looks as though IslaBikes is doing a variant with their "you can't buy our kids bikes, you can only rent them": Guardian story ... and return them when your kid(s) grow out of them – Móż Oct 24 '16 at 3:04
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    @dlu your edit to force my answer into plural form was unwarranted. – Móż Oct 24 '16 at 20:35
  • @Móż - I'm sorry thought it made it more readable, but didn't mean to overreach. Please revert it. – dlu Oct 24 '16 at 21:38
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Making an internally geared hub with 14 speeds that is reliable is prohibitively expensive. A Rohloff hub alone costs than most people's bicycle. It is a hard sell to most people except for a few, making it a real niche market. There was nothing like it when it first came to market (must be over 20 years now), and once there it was the instant leader of a very small market place.

There is little incentive for most manufacturers to try to compete. Unseating Rohloff in such a small market is not the best business decision, and making is cheaper version of it is exceedingly difficult. The amount of complexity and tolerance is to get 14 gears is crazy. Shimano comes close with their 11-speed hub, which is their most expensive internal hub and if I'm honest it does not appear to be as reliable as the 8-speed version (I had the 11-speed hub for a couple years and had nothing but troubles).

The truth is it's a hard problem, it's already been solved, and there's not really feasible (yet) to do it for cheaper. This is why Rohloff is currently the only one.

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    I appreciate you taking the time to write, but this doesn't really answer why it's a hard problem/exceedingly difficult/prohibitively expensive; I'm wondering what part of the product engineering cycle stops them. It is unusual in our technological society for a basically unaltered product to lead a market uncontested for 20 years. It's like if Mercedes invented a better transmission in 1998 and Honda and Toyota still didn't have an equivalent in 2016. – joseph_morris Oct 23 '16 at 3:28
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    @joseph_morris It completely answers those questions. It's hard because you're trying to cram a lot of stuff into a small space. I'm sure Shimano could produce a competing product but the point is that they'd be fighting for a share of a very small market and that's not worth their while. It's actually like if Mercedes invented a better transmission in 1998 that was only relevant to a tiny segment of the market and Honda and Toyota said, "Fine. You can have that market segment. There's too little profit in that segment for it to be worth investing to compete with you." – David Richerby Oct 23 '16 at 10:06
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    The hub limits the available space which doesn't apply to a gearbox on a car that suffers no such limitations. To fit a 14-gear-system into the space of an 8-gear-system needs high precision i.e. expensive machining. The materials that need to be used will also have to be of a higher grade because the cogs will be around 50% narrower and yet have to support the same load. – Carel Oct 23 '16 at 10:09
  • @DavidRicherby possibly it's a close parallel to Honda and Toyota leaving the "supercar" market to other manufacturers, even though both do dabble in high performance motoring at times. Partly it's also brand credibility - they don't have the same reputation that Mclaren or Bugatti do, and it would take a lot of work to develop it... much more effort than they'd ever see back as profit (are supercars even profitable?) – Móż Oct 24 '16 at 22:06

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