sram force e tap axs 1x electronic groupset

Why electronic groupsets like Shimano Di2 are the future?

For years, many photographers insisted on DSLRs and ignored mirrorless cameras. Then, something very silly happened: camera makers started making mirrorless cameras with a DSLR “hunch”. Now, everybody is flocking to mirrorless cameras, selling their perfectly fine DSLRs for pocket money and grabbing mirrorless cameras at highly inflated prices. Why? People doesn’t like change. But when it’s unavoidable, or that change provides real opportunities, they follow the crowd.

Campagnolo Super Record EPS rear derailleur
Campagnolo EPS system has the right design for the electronic rear derailleur: instead of using toy-ish, plastic miniature gears that is prone to break or slip, they use a lead screw based design. And its beautiful, too.

Electronic groupsets is good for ordinary people like you and me. The reason is not the groupset itself: they’re heavier and more expensive. Thing is, in Shimano-speak, they are capable of “syncro-shifting”. For those who don’t know what it is, it automatically adjusts gears so that each consecutive gear combination that is selected is the perfect combination. Let’s say you have hypothetical 3s chainrings, namely A,B,C; A being the biggest chainring. Then you have 10 speed cassette,”1″ being the smallest cog (hardest gear). On such a combination, ideally, you would not shift 1 to 10 when chainring A is in use. You go like, A – 1,2,3, B-4,5,6 and so on. And there are “almost overlapping gears” – like, A – 3 have a similar ratio to B-1, but A – 3 have lower gearing, and also chainline is more straight. It’ s hard for normal people to pick and choose when you’ re new to cycling, or that chainring – cassette combination. Especially with 3x chainrings which is almost extinct. Syncro shift takes care of this: You use just one shifter, and it sequentially shifts up and down. This makes smoother transitions possible. And that’s why 1x drivetrains and electronic shifting is such a crappy idea. For now, at least.

Having an electronic groupset worries people, because of the fact that batteries die. I don’t blame them. These electronic groupsets are not designed good enough. A nice electronic groupset should be chargeable by a powerbank, or standard, 5 volt smartphone charger. The batteries I know are 7.4 volts, and even the big Shimano Di2 battery is something like 700mAh, which is not much – motors are tiny, electronics are 3.3v, so why 7.4 volts? Why force people to use proprietary chargers when they are not needed? Well, you know why…

I have very much to say about current electronic groupsets, and only a few of them are nice. But let’s face it, its the future.

Why? Because though they are expensive today due to bling factor, they are simpler to produce, and need less materials, machinery and labor. Think about STI shifters: they are made up of countless tiny metal and plastic parts, put together by elves (probably). This is insane. While the electronic shifter is just a 0.10$ switch, 10x less moving parts. Even the cables on mechanical groupsets are state-of-art: an inner, hard but flexible cable put together by a protecting sleeve. I can’t imagine the machinery producing these. In electronic shifting, you have an ordinary cable, costs 0.30$ to make tops. And sold for 100x. Huge profits. Or, wireless: even the

Shimano BT DN110 A Di2 Battery
Shimano Di2 battery in your seatpost. Yet the original Di2 design is a bit awkward, cables running back and forth, this is a battery pack that you can rebuild by yourself, as it uses standard 2 ICR14430 batteries inside.

most advanced, ANT+ enabled IC’s cost less then 4$.

My best design and engineering award goes to Campagnolo electronic rear derailleurs, which doesn’t need a spring tension. Basically, it’s based on a linear actuator, moving the cage. Packaged with Campagnolo artistry. Believe it or not, these electronic derailleurs, when designed correctly, doesn’t cost much then a mechanical derailleur.

There are various reasons why they’ll be more common in future. One reason is the rise of e-bikes. I think an electronic groupset is much suited to these bikes then mechanical ones, because somehow they can “talk to” the electric motor, and adjust correct gears when cyclist wants to pedal. Or, connect to braking system, and automatically engages to lower gears when cyclist slows down. This is something that’s going to happen in a few years, if not less.

Electronic groupsets will be much more profitable for groupset manufacturers, because they’ll wear out fast and controllably. Probably they’ll keep insisting on rubbish plastic gears, and since the motor units are tiny and generally ultrasonic welded, you’ll be forced to replace the whole unit. Repairs no more. I don’t expect to see any goodwill; as current electronic groupsets works only on predetermined number of gears. There is no excuse for an electronic derailleur to not work with 12 speed cassette. Since cassette widths since from the invention of bike gears is almost the same, an electronic derailleur can work on 7 or 13 gears, if the manufacturers wants to. Please someone challenge me.

It’s not just groupset makers – electronics makes possible to grow the ecosystem – smartwatches can connect to cadence, speed and HR sensors, even power meters, and share data to Strava, much like cycling computers such as Garmin, Polar, or lower end models like XOSS. We may see shoes with built-in cadence sensors, maybe even powermeters in the future. Bosch started making bike motors, and if I’m no wrong, they are also making ABS systems for the e-bikes. So it’s not just frame makers and component makers anymore. Each big gun joining the ecosystem – like Bosch, Samsung, Garmin etc – making the pie bigger as the average cyclist nowadays is tempted to buy a lot of things, compared to 2 decades ago.

Diversity means “cheaper”

We are living at times knowledge is democratised, we have very diverse tools available to public. Anyone with time, basic tools and programming knowledge can make a bike computer, for example. There are lots of manufacturers compared to past, at least in some areas that are not protected by silly, troll patents kept by biggest players in industry. 20 years ago, a handheld GPS device was a dream for most people, now we have much more advanced versions in our phones.

Regarding groupsets, electronics is not the end for affordable options for cyclists. Do not believe the hype; electronic derailluers is easy to make. If they became popular, many small companies will start making electronic groupsets, starting from China. My guess is that baseline prices will rise in small amounts – we’ll buy Altus, Claris, NX on raised prices, but new players will come up and challenge Shimano, Sram, even FSA. Because they will some market, and profit margin to make it possible.

Currently, we have alternative electronic shifting systems already, the most well-known being Archer components. It operates in a fairly simple manner; basically, this is a cheap linear actuator. I was planning to make something as such, but then I came across a guy at Kickstarter doing the same thing, so I don’t bother much. Idea is simple, you can make it yourself if you have a 3D printer and lathe, but making something a “product” is something very different, and a hugely hard one. Archer D1x Trail is something about 300$ and extra 250 grams at least, which is neither cheap or lightweight. It doesn’t look neat as a real electronic groupset, and you need to buy a pair to use it on your road bike, if that fits, and it does not have Syncro-shift function, which is #1 dealbreaker for me.

Yet the market is not ready for a cheap electronic groupset. In a very short time period, we will start to see Dura-Ace mechanical will be slightly more expensive then the Dura-Ace electronic. Then this trend will trickle down to more cheaper groupsets. Finally, high-end groupsets will be available as electronic only, and cheaper ones will follow. In a decade, we will start to see boutique brands, selling fancy mechanical derailleurs for maybe 1000$ or more. I expect Campagnolo will be the first to dismiss mechanical in favor of electronic groupsets, especially Campagnolo Record EPS and Super Record EPS will be “EPS only”.

Recently, there was an attempt from a Chinese manufacturer, WheelTop, which disappeared quite quickly. The problem here is that, small manufacturers will struggle to offer full-blown groupsets. I think offering a 1x shifter and rear derailleur at ~400-500$ is not a worthwhile investment for many, and does not provide the value like a full-range Shimano XT Di2 does.

Electronics are OK.

Back to DSLR example – some photographers still think DSLR’ s are more robust then mirrorless cameras.

That’s stupid. Same-level DSLR and Mirrorless cameras have aluminium, sometimes magnesium chassis, which is extremely strong. Given the heft to a DSLR, in case of a drop, DSLR is more prone to break. But that’s not the real problem: newer mirrorless cameras lack 2 moving mechanisms which is very prone to break: mirror mechanism and mechanical shutter. New mirrorless cameras do not have these.

Think old cars with carburetors: they are easily get out of adjustment and very hard to tune. They do not give any feedback about correct adjustment. In the last 30 years, I know no carburated car produced. I drive electronic injection cars for nearly 30 years. I knew every bit of car worn out, break down, but no injection system issue.

Electronics are much more reliable then mechanical, IF constructed to last. And its both easier and cheaper to build an electronic part that lasts, IF you want to.

Small manufacturers can change the game (?)

We currently have Shimano Di2, Campagnolo EPS, Sram eTap and lastly, FSA K-Force WE. There are rumors that Chinese groupset manufacturers like Sensah will go into electronic shifting game. Lastly, I’ve heard of WheelTop EDS OX, but became vaporware.

Derailleurs are relatively easier to design and manufacture, compared to shifters that have millions of tiny parts, made from gazillions of different materials. In electronic shifting, shifter is a push button.

Small manufacturers can -again- get some traction in manufacturing competitive bike parts with electronic groupsets: how can they can compete? I think, simplest one is to make a rear derailleur that works with every cassette, at least, 9 to 12 speed, which is super easy once you have a working electronic rear derailleur.

We may see “open source” architectures with smaller manufacturers lets you hack your electronic groupset, and connect it to anything. Like, you want to see your gears on your smartwatch? Why not!

diy electronic rear derailleur
Best DIY electronic derailleur design I came across so far!

People tend to think electronics is much more harder to produce, but it’s not – an off-the-shelf small DC motor replaces custom-made springs, crazy complicated molds to make derailleur bodies, or exotic plastics and composites. Just like the quartz watch replaced mechanical watches – at a fraction of cost. Not to mention they were much precise, lightweight and robust.

DIY crowd to the rescue

I’ve seen many DIY efforts with the electronic groupset move, this being going in the right direction:

It is based on Campagnolo design, not using servo motors which always draws a bit of current when it’s on. The problem with DIY designs is, they look crude. That’s very normal, because you’ll need a bespoke DC motor, preferably a N20 type with rather hefty internals. I’ve experimented with such motors and since they’re designed for light loads, they internally snap. That’s why this design uses a heftier motor.

That doesn’t mean situation will not change: with enough Kickstarter backing, someone can make bespoke DC motors. Electronics is a smaller hurdle. You can find a Chinese manufacturer that will happily manufacture the derailleur and even the shifters in low volume, with at least “bearable” price.

This design also include 2 derailleurs, so it’s a viable MVP candidate.

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