BionX reorganization? (they’re NOT calling it a “bankruptcy”)

March 27, 2018
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The BionX ebike power system has been an odd member of the ebike community. It has struggled over the years, and here’s what I found out about who they are, where they have been, and where they might be going.


WHO IS BIONX?

Back in 1998, a company was formed in Quebec (Canada) called Energy and Propulsion Systems. In the year 2000, the name was changed to “BionX”. Then, in 2007 it was bought by the global automobile parts company Magna.

The original entrepreneur who started this was Jean-Yves Dubé, who had been responsible for repairing large mining trucks’ electric hub motors for several years at an asbestos mine. In 1998, he founded his company EPS, and introduced the bicycle drive system “AmiGo” onto the market.

 

 

Jean-Yves Dubé,  the founder EPS

 

But…the story of the modern BionX company has been defined by two men from Austria…Manfred Gingle, and Frank Stronach.

The early BionX motor was a relatively small diameter (The P-series), but…it did have some innovative features. One of the quirks of direct-drive (DD) hub-motors is that there is some “wasted” airspace near the axle on the inside of the housing case. BionX designed a proprietary controller that was pancake-shaped, and fit inside the motor. I think the concept itself is brilliant, but BionX made the controller hard to hack, and this is one of the reasons hot-rodders didn’t like them at the time.

Putting the controller inside the motor housing will remove a lot of wiring clutter. If you also include a torque-sensor inside the motor (the early BionX kits use a DMS “strain gauge” torque sensor on the motor axle), then you don’t even need a throttle cable going from the handlebars to the internal controller. However, even if you hack into an early BionX to add an external hand-throttle, the major part that passes from the inside to the outside is just a cable with two power wires, the positive and negative to the battery (sweet!).

BionX is one of the few companies that actually tried to innovate with new ideas, and yet they continue to struggle. Their closed proprietary systems are hard to hack into, and that is on purpose. Canada and the countries in the EU are a much bigger market for ebikes compared to the US, and their governments want to restrict the amount of power that ebikers can use. Its currently 250W for most EU countries, and 500W for Canada, Switzerland, and Austria.

If an ebike is easy to hack into, then it is easy to raise the amount of power it has, and also the top-speed that it can cruise at. There is an international struggle to define what is “safe” for the population. My personal view is that pedal-only bikes can easily achieve 28-MPH (45 km/h), so…why are ebikes limited to 16-MPH is the EU, and 20-MPH in the US? (25 and 32 km/h).

As to power, imagine that a mother has a child and two bags of groceries  on a cargobike, and she has to climb a steep hill? limiting her to even the “generous” 750W power limit in the US is just ludicrous. At least the bicycle-friendly city of Portland Oregon allows 1,000-Watts of power. I would gladly support a street-legal speed limit of 20-MPH (for safety) if there was no power limit. Having a power limit is ridiculous and just plain wrong (for safety, when riding around cars). I have a car that can achieve 100-MPH, but I easily maintain the local speed limit. However, cars on side-streets usually have a speed limit of 25-MPH, so if given a choice, I would choose a legal ebike speed limit of 25-MPH, and having however much power I wanted.

I only mention all of this “personal opinion” in order to provide some context for the struggles that BionX has had. First of all, the BionX system was EXPENSIVE. That’s fine if it was an exclusive high-end system that provided something desirable that you couldn’t get anywhere else.  As to performance, BionX was focused on the Canadian and EU market, and they were smart enough to realize that USA customers would be a hard sell. We have it good here right now (and we know it!). As long as you ride in a safe manner, the police in the USA generally don’t care how much power you have.

 

OHM ebikes are based in Canada, just like BionX. Shown here is an off-road OHM ebike with the large-diameter D-Series hubmotor.

 

As a business model, once you write-off the US market, you are working with a handicap. Canadian customers have options, and…the EU has Bosch and Yamaha mid-drives as an option as of a couple years ago. Right about the time that mid-drives were taking off? BionX was promoting their improved hubmotor, the D-series.

BionX is based in Canada (The US distributor is HawleyUSA.com in Lexington South Carolina), and they have been able to form partnerships with at least three Canadian bicycle companies…OHM, Miele, and Elby. From an engineering standpoint, I would like to suggest that their hubmotor system could still have a bright future when it comes to street-legal ebikes, but for off road? The mid drives will continue to dominate.


The P-series, and D-series

Here is a pic of a comparison between the early BionX P-series inherited from EPS and the slightly improved Magna P-series version.

 

The newer P-series hub-motor is on the left, and the older version is on the right. Locating the controller inside a DD hubmotor is brilliant…as long as you don’t get them hot.

 

A lower pole-count motor can run to a higher RPM without much frequency waste-heat from the laminations, and it could also run well with the affordable “low electrical-frequency” controllers available in 2004 . However if you increase the pole-count, it results in smaller magnets on the rotor, which will allow you to use a thinner amount of back-iron, making the hubmotor lighter. On the older version above (on the right), also notice the electromagnets are taller and heavier. So…it was capable of more power, but…only sold with a power-limited controller for legal reasons.

Here is a pic (below) of the 2nd-gen BionX P-series hubmotor. By having a high pole-count, the smaller magnets only needed a fairly thin layer of back-iron, which made the motor slightly more expensive (more electromagnets), but also?…it made the hub-motor a little lighter. Plus, I suspect they began using thinner laminations. I’m going to stick my neck out and state that…this is a GREAT design…for flat land.

 

The second-gen BionX P-series hubmotor.

 

Notice how the spoke-mounting holes (in the pic above) are in flanges that have had the metal in-between them removed (in the casting mold)? That is another feature that reveals that they were willing to put some effort into making this hub-motor a little lighter.

Just a few years ago, BionX introduced the D-series. You can immediately see that its’ large diameter means that it can never be stealthy, and everyone who sees it will know that you are riding a bicycle that is…”a little different”?

 

The BionX D-series stator on the left, next to a hubmotor stator with a common 205mm diameter.

 

One of the ways to increase the amount of torque that a hubmotor can deliver, is to increase the diameter of the stator and rotor, so it has more “leverage”. This is the main improvement that the D-series hubmotor represents, it provides more torque at the same input watts. Not only does it improve the acceleration torque (per applied watt), but…it also improves the regenerative braking ability (regen). Regen is famous for allowing the motor to act as a generator on a downhill, and actually pump energy back INTO the battery.

However, the amount of watts that regen can harvest is very small for a variety of reasons. Regen remains a VERY useful feature, but…mostly as a magnetic brake (that never wears out), which not only improves the braking options when you want to slow down, it will make the stock bicycle friction-brakes last a MUCH longer!

 

The rotor of the BionX D-series.

 

In the pic above, the rotor shown is the part that spins, and of course…it is the part that is attached to the spokes and rim. The “stator” is stationary, and connected to the axle. The rim of the section shown has a thin steel band running outside of the permanent magnets, and the rest of it is a stiff and light plastic side-panel. The cast side-panel ribs are not just a styling cue, they are actually a vital structural member that transfers the torque from the magnetic motor inter-action at the rotor edge, to the spokes and wheel-rim.

The plastic side-panels are another innovation. When you use aluminum (which is common), then…if you increase the diameter of the motor, you will also make the hub-motor heavier. By using plastic for the side-panels, they made the motor much larger without making it much heavier than the original P-series.

Most hub-motors attach the spokes at the rim of the motor in order to keep the spokes as short and light as possible. This is why the most popular hub-motors have a 205mm stator diameter, because making the motor large in diameter also means making the spokes shorter, and short spokes often break from bad mounting angles, and lack of length of mass to absorb shocks.

This is one of the ways that the BionX design should be remembered. They found an elegant way to increase the diameter of the motor, while attaching the “normal length” spokes near the hub. This isn’t the perfect solution for every hub-motor design, but…it is well worth remembering.

 

This is a picture I took at the 2015 Interbike meet. The side-panels had been skeletonized to show that the interior is light, even though it normally looks heavy from the outside (in stock form). Here, you can see that even with a larger diameter motor, the spokes use a clever method to attach to the hub, so they are normal length.

 

It is worthy of note that…years ago?…I rode a BionX hubmotor ebike, and I was amazed at how silent it was. I researched it a bit and found out that they were using a “sine wave” controller, which was rare at the time, and a little more expensive (they are becoming common now). Their high price ensured I never considered a P-series at the time, but I pondered if one of those hubs could be modified to be a mid drive motor (a wasted opportunity, that never bore any fruit?).

When the D-series hubmotor came out, I tested it as soon as I could, and I was not disappointed. It also uses a near-silent sine-wave controller, and it is as quiet in operation as ANY ebike I have ever ridden, along with being very torquey. However, it does NOT have a lot of copper mass, so it is doomed to use a low level of power. This means it is not appropriate (IMHO) for off-road, although…I continue to believe it would work wonderfully for a street-legal ebike at 48V. Especially if the heat-shedding could be improved (see below).

If you see a BionX hub advertised as a “D500”, it’s a D-series with a controller that is factory limited to 500W, which is the legal power limit in Canada, Switzerland, and Austria.

 

The BionX D-series laced to a 20-inch bicycle rim, the smaller rim would dramatically improve hill climbing ability, although it would have a more difficult time with large potholes, and this particular rim-swap would lower the top-speed.

 

As soon as I first saw the D-series, I also immediately wondered how small of a rim it could be laced into. Just for the record, it easily fits into a 20-inch bicycle rim, as seen in the pic above. This means it would be a great solution for a BMX, or possibly a longtail cargobike with a 20-inch rear wheel, like two of my favorite cargobikes, the Juiced ODK-II, or the Xtracycle Edgerunner.


BionX under Magna, and then split off

Frank Stronach and Manfred Gingle both grew up in the small German-speaking town in Austria, called Gutenberg an der Raabklamm, and their early lives were shaped by the great depression, and also WWII. In the 1950’s they emigrated to Canada, and started a small machine shop that would grow into the international automotive parts supplier called “Magna”.

 

Frank Stronach, in front of a Canadian Ford EV. His engineers performed some of the electrical design work.

 

In 2007, the new electric car company “Tesla” launched their electric Roadster. This is when Magna decided to “get their feet wet”, and in that same year, Magna bought BionX. The name is a play on the word “Bionic”, meaning a fusion of humans and machines. They may not have known much about electric bikes at the time, but the BionX company was struggling and thus “affordable” to buy. I’m sure that Magna felt they could use their global clout to promote whatever technologies they now owned, in a way that could turn the company around.

 

Manfred Gingl on a BionX ebike with the original P-series hubmotor and battery. Notice their battery pack was triangle-shaped way back in 2007…

 

The original P-series hubmotor was not a great performer, but…if you restricted it to the 250W-to-500W markets it was designed for, it would not overheat. However, if you wanted to upgrade its power rating to make it appeal to off-road ebike buyers (where there are no power limits), it was automatically heat-limited in its potential.

And then, in 2011 they decided to upgrade their product line from 36V to 48V for more power, but…an unexpected marketing disaster happened, where a high percentage of their new 48V batteries failed. They had changed the battery pack manufacturing to a Chinese supplier to improve profits, but unfortunately, they chose a company that performed poorly. A major problem was the transistors in the BMS’s. It would be bad enough if they only needed to swap-in new transistors (or even replace all the BMS’s), but…the failed BMSs drained the batteries down to zero-volts, and the cells were permanently damaged.

This was a huge headache for the dealers, because BionX did not want to release any proprietary information to allow the dealers to make repairs (when repairs were even possible). BionX only wanted to deal with remove-and-replace, which hurt many dealers, because of the way the warranty support contracts were structured. Many customers who had previously been happy began abandoning BionX. And after that, many dealers began abandoning BionX…

This incident was a major reason that the bicycle manufacturers Diamant, Riese und Müller, and KTM decided to switch away from BionX, and into Bosch mid drives.

Here is a rough timeline of the major events for BionX:

1998, The EPS ebike kit company is formed

2000, EPS name is changed to “BionX”

2004, Company founder Jean-Yves Dubé sells shares to Pascal Larose, who has a background in automotive development

2004-2006, Robert Guimond accelerates the international marketing development at BionX

2007, Magna buys BionX

2010, Magna forms “Magna E-Car systems” in Detroit, Michigan USA

2011, Gingle buys out Stronach’s share of BionX, and Stronach invests heavily in BionX

2011, A major recall of defective 48V battery packs and controllers from new Chinese suppliers

2011, BionX invests in electric-assist paddle boats for tourists

2013, BionX introduces the D-series hubmotor

2015, BionX GmbH is formed to be the EU distributor, in Haas Germany

2016, BionX partners with HawleyUSA.com as their US distributor

2018, BionX files for a reorganization protection from investors

It’s been speculated that Magna only purchased EPS to get access to certain patents, because they always knew they wanted to somehow be a part of the growing EV and hybrid vehicle market. (Maybe this patent?…or possibly this one?). Here’s a snippet from an article from that time:

“Including Auburn Hills (Michigan), Magna E-Car Systems has four facilities throughout North America and three facilities in Europe working on several programs, including the Ford Focus Battery Electric Vehicle, a Volvo hybrid program, and powertrain controllers for General Motors…Magna was selected to receive funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 to support electric-drive vehicle components manufacturing. The grant was part of the $2.4 billion in Recovery Act funding announced by the Department of Energy” [Magna E-Car systems also has a facility in Grand Blanc Township, Michigan…Troy, Michigan…and Rochester Hills, Michigan, along with their original facility in Aurora, Ontario Canada].

Another curious business venture was the heavy investment by BionX in a new electric-assist paddle-boat, to serve tourists on the lakes of Canada and the EU. It is called the SeaScape.

 

A BionX electric-assist paddleboat for the lakes.

 

I don’t know if this was a good idea or a bad one, but…I didn’t know about them until I began researching for this article. That investment happened only seven years before their current troubles, but…I can’t imagine that it helped. It’s not a bad design, and as far as I know they have that particular market all to themselves, but…it was marketed at $6,500…each. There are some places where paddle boats are actually popular with tourists, but…the non-electric “Sun Dolphin” model sells for about $500.

I’ve also read that BionX was hired in 2011 by GM to develop EV and hybrid drive systems for GM, and that partnership did not prove to be as profitable as they hoped.

This initially doesn’t look like a total “bankruptcy”, but simply a reorganization. This would give them some breathing room to get back on their feet. Either they can chart a new course that will return them to profitability, or at the very least…some investor will pick up the broken pieces, and start something good from what’s left of BionX.

I think the BionX name still has some potential. If they focused on using the D-series as a platform for street-legal ebikes, that is one area where they really shine…

 

Here is an infrared image of a D-series after a hard run. the orange areas are the heat from the electromagnets

 

If someone decides to partner with BionX during the reorganization, it will likely be due to the potential of the D-series, which I consider their most viable product. However…

The D-series does not shed its heat very well, and that limits the amount of power they can output. In the pic below, I was annoyed that the only way to open the motor up is to split it down the middle, instead of simply unbolting a set of sideplates. I am also disappointed in this design decision because the outer rim is covered in plastic, and it needs to have the back-iron of the magnets in the rotor exposed to the air to allow them to shed heat better.

Many recent hubmotors have been given a performance boost by adding heat-shedding fins to the outer rim, and also adding “Ferro Fluid” to the magnets inside. Whether you think those things are a good idea or not, the D-series doesn’t even allow that as an option.

 

BionX doesn’t want anyone but the factory to open up a D-series motor, so they made it really hard to do. Pic courtesy of Madin88, from Austria.

 

In spite of how difficult the factory has made it to physically hack into the controller, their security codes were de-ciphered and a German forum published the information on how to change the top-speed setting, so ebikers who liked the D-series could go a little faster. Search for BionX CAN bus, if this interests you.


Just in case…

Whether BionX survives and moves on to a profitable future, or…goes the other way? We will still occasionally find a good deal on a used BionX hubmotor. And if they have a major change in their product line-up, there may be thousands of orphaned BionX hubmotors for sale very cheap. If you find a good deal on a BionX hubmotor (for any reason), the information below might help you to re-program it. . I don’t know what any of the options below refer to, but…

From 2007
BIONX SYSTEM CONSOLE CONFIGURATION GUIDE – new

To enter the access section you push on MODE and CHRONO in same time.

2001: KM or Miles
2002: Generative Braking
2003: Time last with the battery
2004: Clock
2005: Wheel size
2006: Programming brake sensor
2007: Polarity throttle (0-5 volt or 5-0 volt)

3771: wheel size
3772: diagnostic mode
3773: max speed
3775: throttle max speed
3776: Speed that motor will start
5000: Full reset
1976: motor direction
1234: sensor speed signal; 1= slow 5= fast
1970: Configuration activation backlight ad DCDC automatic
0007: Sensor signal gain, 0.1 to 4.0
0008: Configuration of extra assistance 1.0 to 4.0
0041: activation of the I2C

Error Code
SMC_ERROR_VCTRL 20
SMC_ERROR_VPRCH 21
SMC_ERROR_RELAY 22
SMC_ERROR_BMS 23

The tech info above courtesy of Marty

0001: serial# console
0002: serial# battery
0003: serial# motor
0006: speed gain
0008a: extra gain and 0008b: speed up to extra gain
0009: gauge knee
0010: strength of mountain mode (1..64) 0: off (software 6.0? or higher). In fact its a rather high support mode but with a maxium current limiter, it also applies to the throttle and can turn a throttle to a walking assist system. You with to mountain mode when long pressing (+)

2003: not available in recent software versions

2008: voltage DC / DC converter (available from 5.0V to 12.0V, only 1.5A max. Usually 2008 only shows the voltage, for changing it you need CAN bus tools, but I had one or two consoles where I was able to toggle between 6V and 12V)
2009: switch console (only G2)
3774: Overload protection (use 1 for yes, software 6.0? or higher)
3777: Cap sense (sensitivity of the finger sensor for SOC on 48V batteries)
3779: Boost

This is what you can do with the G2 console.

If you have the hacked CAN tools you can do much more if connected to a PC:

  • maximum speed motor / console
  • strength of each power and regen mode
  • maximum battery A in regen
  • maximum battery A in power
  • activate the option to show motor temperature in display
  • configure throttle mode (i.e. boost mode for EU legal throttle is possible)
  • change capacity of battery (of course only for correct SOC display, if you build your own battery packs)
  • change voltage of DC/DC output for lights
  • use “endurance mode” for battery (don’t know what it does exactly, limits battery A in power mode to 20A)
  • change time when battery enters deep sleep mode
  • change calibration of BMS single cell voltage measurement (sounds better than it is, usualy it’s a hardware problem and there is little to fix with software)

This tech data courtesy of Cephalotus


What’s next?

Magna E-Car systems and BionX have both verified that they will continue to share electric vehicle research and patents, but…their near-term future is murkey. I feel there is still value locked up in the BionX brand, and I am optimistic that they will re-emerge in some new form. Their future appears to be in the hands of Manfred Gingl, and his son Paul. Here is a very short video with both of them speaking.

 


Written by Ron/spinningmagnets, March 2018

 

Grew up in Los Angeles California, US Navy submarine mechanic from 1977-81/SanDiego. Hydraulic mechanic in the 1980's/Los Angeles. Heavy equipment operator in the 1990's/traveled to various locations. Dump truck driver in the 2000's/SW Utah. Currently a water plant operator since 2010/NW Kansas


4 Comments

  1. Thanks for the really interesting deep dive .

  2. Thanks so much for your continuing great articles

  3. Thanks for the article! I’m one of those who didn’t do enough research and bought a D500 for a Montague folder. I agree that lacing the D series in a 20-inch wheel is a great idea! I do hope that Bionx doesn’t die quite yet- at least, allow vendors to do what’s necessary to allow us to replace the proprietary battery with something else, if that’s possible. Otherwise, I have a cheap science experiment for someone when my battery dies.

  4. The newer D-series console, DS3, is different than the G2 console. The codes listed do not work with the DS3.

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