Sum Of Its Parts

Cy­clist vis­its FSA’S fac­tory in Tai­wan to see what mass com­po­nent manufacture looks like in the mod­ern age

Cyclist - - Contents - Words JAMES SPENDER Pho­tog­ra­phy MIKE MASSARO

For­get be­ing a frame­builder! Go be­hind the scenes at FSA in Tai­wan for a glimpse of just how im­pres­sive mass pro­duc­tion can be

Cy­clist has vis­ited many fac­to­ries down the years, but this is the first time we’ve been given such an of­fi­cial wel­come. On the steps in front of FSA’S head­quar­ters in the Tai­wanese city of Taichung is a sign an­nounc­ing our ar­rival, and within sec­onds of en­ter­ing through large tinted doors we’re greeted by head hon­cho Dou­glas Chi­ang and prod­uct direc­tor Mark Van­der­molen, and pre­sented with wa­ter, cof­fee and a tray of bis­cuits that wouldn’t look out of place in a bak­ery shop win­dow.

The hu­mid­ity out­side is cloy­ing, but in­side the cli­mate is per­fectly am­bi­ent, and as we’re led into the board­room there’s a strong sense that things here aren’t just neat, but clin­i­cal. The chairs around the large ta­ble look to have been ar­ranged us­ing a ruler, the hun­dred or so com­po­nents adorn­ing the walls reg­i­men­tally hung by type and model.

FSA is not a com­pany that leaves any­thing to chance, and when we see the fac­tory floor it be­comes ap­par­ent why. The scale of pro­duc­tion here is mas­sive. As Van­der­molen ob­serves, ‘You don’t get this big by ig­nor­ing the small de­tails.’

Big data

‘Tech­ni­cally we are two brands, FSA and Vi­sion,’ says Van­der­molen as he guides us through a sea of boxes and pal­lets in the fac­tory’s load­ing area. ‘Vi­sion is aero kit and wheels, while FSA is com­po­nents, such as bars, stems and chain­sets and most re­cently our wire­less elec­tronic groupset, the K-force WE. We’re es­sen­tially man­aged and head­quar­tered by the same team, with US and Euro­pean of­fices and five fac­to­ries across Asia, two of which you’ll see to­day. Just in those two we have 450 em­ploy­ees.’

Even at their most boom­ing times, large, es­tab­lished Euro­pean com­po­nent mak­ers such as 3T and Cinelli only com­manded work­forces in the hun­dreds, so it’s in­cred­i­ble to think that FSA, which Van­der­molen de­scribes as a medium-sized com­pany by Far East stan­dards, counts thou­sands of em­ploy­ees on its pay­roll. How­ever, as those tiny ‘made in’ la­bels on so many ev­ery­day prod­ucts at­test, this is the way of mod­ern manufacture.

Ac­cord­ing to The Econ­o­mist, Asia pro­duces al­most half of the world’s goods, with China and Tai­wan re­spon­si­ble for around a quar­ter of global man­u­fac­tur­ing out­put by value, up from 3% in 1990. It’s es­ti­mated that around 60% of the world’s bi­cy­cles and parts are pro­duced by the two coun­tries. When we push to hear more spe­cific num­bers on FSA’S out­put, we’re told these are highly guarded se­crets, but that FSA is one of the top five com­po­nent man­u­fac­tur­ers

in the world. Im­pres­sive, es­pe­cially given its rel­a­tively hum­ble ori­gins.

‘FSA came out of TH,’ says Van­der­molen, al­lud­ing to the large ‘TH In­dus­tries’ sign that adorns the out­side of the fac­tory. ‘TH was started in 1970 by Dou­glas’s fa­ther, Chao Shui Chi­ang, and it grew out of mak­ing head­sets and bot­tom brack­ets. In 1993 Dou­glas de­cided to cre­ate a high-level brand of bike com­po­nents and set up FSA – Full Speed Ahead – in Cal­i­for­nia. Then in 2003 we ac­quired Vi­sion Tech, a one­man band started by Pe­ter Fraiman. It made the first in­te­grated aer­o­bar and had time-tri­al­lists and triath­letes flock­ing to pur­chase its stuff, but sadly Pe­ter’s fa­ther wasn’t so sup­port­ive of his son’s dream, and Pe­ter was forced to sell up.’

Not only does FSA de­sign its own prod­ucts and sell un­der its own name, it also makes prod­ucts for other brands, sup­ply­ing large brands such as Gi­ant and Merida with com­po­nents at source. On top of that, FSA and Vi­sion also sub-con­tract some prod­ucts out to yet more man­u­fac­tur­ers.

As Van­der­molen rum­mages through the stacked up crates to show us all man­ner of head­set cups, crank spin­dles and raw alu­minium stock ready to be ma­chined into chain­rings, he comes across one such ex­am­ple.

‘These are crank “blanks”,’ he says, re­fer­ring to a crate of dull, crank-shaped pieces of metal. ‘There’s still a lot of work to be done, ma­chin­ing the ma­te­rial, pol­ish­ing, an­o­dis­ing, as­sem­bling

and sur­face fin­ish­ing. They have been forged [where molten metal is poured into moulds], a process we some­times do our­selves, but for more in­tri­cate forg­ing we go to other ven­dors, who are non-bi­cy­cle re­lated but ex­tremely skilled at forg­ing.’

The blanks will even­tu­ally be moved through a star­tling num­ber of CNC ma­chines housed in the fac­tory’s bow­els – 30 or so in to­tal. Some of these ma­chines are fed by ro­bots with parts for ma­chin­ing, oth­ers ser­viced by hu­man hands. Each ma­chine has a dol­lar value listed on its front, which of­ten runs to six fig­ures. ‘We want to re­mind our em­ploy­ees we’re in­vest­ing in the com­pany, the peo­ple and the prod­uct with toplevel ma­chin­ery,’ says Van­der­molen.

By and large ev­ery­thing be­ing made here is from alu­minium al­loy and will be branded FSA. We’ll see car­bon com­po­nents and Vi­sion wheels be­ing made in a se­cond fac­tory visit later to­day. How­ever, as we en­ter the first of three side rooms there are some in­ter­est­ing ex­cep­tions.

See­ing it through

The first room is the qual­ity con­trol of­fice. Sev­eral rows of desks are at­tended by tech­ni­cians busily in­spect­ing com­po­nents, from stems to sprock­ets to bars to crank arms. Each has a spec­i­fi­ca­tion sheet and a com­puter, on whose screen is dis­played a spread­sheet. One such tech­ni­cian is deftly work­ing a set of Vernier cal­lipers over a stem.

Each ma­chine has a dol­lar value listed on its front. ‘We want to re­mind our em­ploy­ees we’re in­vest­ing in the com­pany’

‘He’s check­ing all the di­men­sions and tol­er­ances,’ says Van­der­molen. ‘The cal­lipers are wired into the com­puter so ev­ery mea­sure­ment the tech­ni­cian takes is put into a cen­tral data­base with a time stamp, so we know ex­actly who checked the part, when and the out­come. Ev­ery­thing has to be ac­count­able, from the raw ma­te­rial to the fin­ished prod­uct, so we can track ev­ery­thing back if there’s a prob­lem. For ev­ery batch we check five pieces, and if one piece fails, an alert goes out and we re­ject the batch.’

Again Van­der­molen is cagey about num­bers, but with over 2,000 items in FSA and Vi­sion’s in­ven­to­ries, qual­ity con­trol is un­doubt­edly a large and im­por­tant un­der­tak­ing. ‘We have a re­jec­tion rate far be­low 1%,’ he adds proudly.

Com­pared to the hive of in­dus­try in qual­ity con­trol, the next room is a ver­i­ta­ble li­brary – just one large or­ange ma­chine, two tech­ni­cians and the only noise a pe­ri­odic thunk. This is where car­bon cranks are in­spected, and while in the main qual­ity con­trol of­fice items are checked by straw sam­ples, here ev­ery sin­gle crank pro­duced gets an­a­lysed. In­side and out.

‘This is an x-ray ma­chine,’ says Van­der­molen of the or­ange con­trap­tion. ‘The cranks are such a high-stress part of the bi­cy­cle, and ours have two sep­a­rate hol­low cham­bers in­side, so we need to make sure the in­sides are sym­met­ri­cal and the wall thick­nesses are even.’

To that end, it’s one tech­ni­cian’s job to place in­di­vid­ual crank arms onto a con­veyer belt while the other stares at the x-ray screen look­ing for de­fects, not un­like the se­cu­rity checks at an air­port. If there are any de­fects a but­ton is pressed and the crank arm is ejected into a box la­belled ‘NG’, oth­er­wise they drop into a box la­belled ‘OK’.

‘NG means “not good”. It’s a pretty uni­ver­sal term here in Tai­wan,’ chuck­les Van­der­molen. ‘An NG hap­pens if per­haps a blad­der mould hasn’t been in­serted prop­erly or some­thing hasn’t been laid up quite right. Again the fail­ure rate is very low – we’re close to 100% suc­cess.’

Of the three rooms, how­ever, it’s the third that’s most en­thralling. It’s here that alu­minium parts are laser etched with the FSA logo – and in the case of one con­spic­u­ous-look­ing crankset, an en­tirely dif­fer­ent man­u­fac­turer’s brand­ing.

‘I’d ask you not to take pho­tographs of that,’ says Van­der­molen, mo­tion­ing to said crank. ‘And you re­ally don’t want to get your hand in there!’

‘There’ is un­der­neath a laser, which with mi­cron-level pre­ci­sion traces rapidly across the crank arm to pro­duce a per­fectly crisp sil­ver logo. It’s a marvel to be­hold. Ev­ery part is placed in the etch­ing ma­chines by hand, and judg­ing by

the num­bers of parts stacked up it’s thou­sands per day re­quir­ing dozens of sets of hands.

‘We try to au­to­mate as much as pos­si­ble,’ says Van­der­molen, ‘But some things – and it might of­ten seem the most ba­sic of things, such as mov­ing parts in and out of ma­chines – need that hu­man el­e­ment.’

Ma­chine hands

The fac­tory con­tin­ues up­stairs, where fur­ther assem­bly, fin­ish­ing and pack­ing is hap­pen­ing. One sta­tion tech­ni­cian is hard at work press­ing crank spin­dles into crank arms, an­other is as­sem­bling bot­tom brack­ets. Next to each ma­chine or sta­tion is a set of ‘golden’ prod­ucts, ex­em­plary ex­am­ples em­ploy­ees need to copy for the parts they’re mak­ing. Large dig­i­tal dis­plays list num­bers of a given prod­uct turned out that day, next to the tar­get num­ber and the per­cent­age com­pleted. One such sta­tion is ded­i­cated to mak­ing square-ta­per bot­tom brack­ets, which are nigh-on relics in road cy­cling but, given to­day’s tar­get of 8,000, are clearly still very much in de­mand else­where.

Ev­ery fin­ished piece is pack­aged and its box signed off, stick­ered and pho­tographed so FSA has re­course for any claims of miss­ing ship­ments. It’s a Swiss watch-level op­er­a­tion

‘When I worked in a bike shop I was happy build­ing one set of wheels in a day. These guys can make a set of wheels in an hour’

with the mes­meris­ing draw of a fish tank. But if there’s a ‘queen’ process, it’s wheel assem­bly.

Many wheels, es­pe­cially the lower-end of­fer­ings, are made by ma­chine. Spokes are laced into hubs like bereft um­brel­las be­fore be­ing in­serted hor­i­zon­tally into ma­chines that at­tach rims and thread-on spoke nip­ples. These wheels then roll out ver­ti­cally into a se­cond ma­chine that robot­i­cally ten­sions the wheel. Higher-end wheels, how­ever, are built by hand the old-fash­ioned way, with spoke keys, hand­held ten­siome­ters and in­cred­i­bly keen eyes.

‘When I worked in a bike shop I was happy build­ing one set of wheels in a day. These guys can make a set of wheels in around an hour,’ says Van­der­molen, as one tech­ni­cian stands up and of­fers up a fin­ished wheel to a rack that’s primed for the graph­ics and stick­er­ing depart­ment. ‘We buy in the spokes, but we make all our own hubs and rims. The car­bon ones come in from our other fac­tory down the road.’

The fi­nal part of our odyssey takes us to that fac­tory, a short drive through farms, houses and yet more fac­to­ries. ‘The thing with Tai­wan is that the is­land is small and moun­tain­ous, so any­thing flat we have is used for food, liv­ing or busi­ness,’ says Van­der­molen. The out­side of the fac­tory is in­con­spic­u­ous, just an­other seem­ingly un­la­belled con­crete struc­ture, but in­side is a hive of in­dus­try.

Up­stairs great CNC ma­chines cut and stamp the sheets of car­bon fi­bre prepreg – bun­dles of

car­bon fi­bres pre-im­preg­nated with resin and wo­ven into sheets – into the nec­es­sary plies for either cranks or wheels. These in­di­vid­ual pieces, num­ber­ing around 50 per rim, are in­serted by hand into moulds. Each mould is then put into a heat press, or ‘cur­ing deck’, which ‘cooks’ the car­bon fi­bre sand­wich over the course of 15-20 min­utes to form the fin­ished part.

It takes four tech­ni­cians to move each wheel mould in and out of a deck, for while the fin­ished rim will weigh just a few hun­dred grams, the steel moulds weigh 180kg. Each mould is good for mak­ing around 3,000 wheels be­fore it needs re­plac­ing, and costs ‘thou­sands of dol­lars’. Given that this arm of the busi­ness makes around 1,500 rims per month, ‘you can see why car­bon fi­bre wheels cost so much’.

Much of what we see is deemed to be too sen­si­tive for pho­tog­ra­phy. ‘The layup sched­ule – in what order and at what an­gle each ply goes into the mould – is where the art of car­bon fi­bre con­struc­tion comes from, and it’s what ev­ery­one in this in­dus­try is try­ing to find out about ev­ery­one else, so it’s the part we can’t show you,’ says Van­der­molen. ‘You can re­verse en­gi­neer a lot of things, but with car­bon fi­bre it’s not like peel­ing back the lay­ers of an onion. Once car­bon fi­bre has been cured it’s pretty much im­pos­si­ble to take it apart to work out how it’s been made.’

And even then you’d need the man­u­fac­tur­ing skills to make your own – skills that FSA and Vi­sion un­doubt­edly have in abun­dance. James Spender is fea­tures edi­tor of Cy­clist, which is far more than the sum of its parts

Dig­i­tal dis­plays list num­bers of a given prod­uct turned out that day, next to the tar­get num­ber and the per­cent­age com­plete

Be­low right: A 180kg clamshell mould is pulled apart to re­veal a still-warm rim

Be­low left: Ev­ery car­bon crank arm gets x-rayed to check the hol­low in­side for flaws

‘Golden sam­ples’ hang on the wall of the qual­ity con­trol of­fice, each one a ref­er­ence used for com­par­i­son dur­ing QC test­ing

Bot­tom right: Clean­ing up freshly CNC’D chain­rings

The FSA fac­tory is crammed full of CNC ma­chines, but they still have to be man­u­ally loaded by tech­ni­cians who have their prod­ucts pe­ri­od­i­cally in­spected for qual­ity

Par­tially as­sem­bled wheels are robot­i­cally ten­sioned and trued be­fore be­ing hand-checked

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