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Sum of its parts: Inside Taiwanese manufacturing giant FSA

In-depth
1 Mar 2018
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Photography Mike Massaro

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 one-man 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 top-level 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.

‘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.’

Quality control

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 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, hand-held 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.

 

Staying authentic

For FSA, doing its own laser etching serves a purpose beyond corporate branding

‘We laser-etch everything here and that helps ensure there’s no counterfeit product,’ says FSA product director Mark Vandermolen.

‘There aren’t any FSA sub-contractors that can do these logos. It’s much less of an issue now, especially with components, although bicycle frames can be another matter.

‘If anything gets faked, it’s carbon products, the majority of which tend to be frames. But a few years ago we’d occasionally find things coming in for warranty that were FSA or Vision branded but weren’t the real deal, which is why they had failed.

‘By controlling things like laser etching and also coding everything we make with QR codes, we’ve managed to virtually cut this out. My advice to any consumer is that if the price of a component is too good to be true, it probably isn’t authentic.’