Last Friday Nick (@Neuhaus_Metalworks) and I took a field trip up to White Industries HQ, located in Petaluma, CA. Sean Walling (official title: Utility Player) gave us a shop tour and showed us all the fancy machines and products.
A quick background on Sean: he is the builder behind Soulcraft. Decades before that, worked for Bruce Gordon and Ross Shafer (Salsa Cycles) during Norcal’s handbuilt bike renaissance in the 80’s and 90’s
Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe Sean’s pragmatism and ingenuity is the reason why we use straight gauge .75x.035in chainstays and 1.25/1.375in seat tubes with welded on toppers on many of our custom mountain bikes today.
A recurring topic was the impact of Covid. According to Sean, it forced WI to optimize its structure to better respond to changes in demand. New machines, new workflows, more efficiency. One thing that helps: every hub is built to order.
- Finished Hub bodies sit in neatly organized bins
- All the bearings, hub caps, etc… are kept on hand
- Bearings are pressed in
- Freehubs (titanium!) are assembled and ready to go
- Hubs are assembled, boxed, and shipped in one pass
Interchangeable parts and building-to-order hubs allow them to say yes to that random person who calls asking for a 100h rim brake tandem hub (that was a joke).
I was most impressed by the polished and engraved finish on the hubs and cranks. I didn’t realize how time-consuming and manual the polishing can be. To achieve their signature finish and logo, the hubs must be CNC machined > polished > CNC engraved. WI runs the engraving and hole drilling operation at the very last step to ensure the details of the engraving are sharp. That is some attention to detail. Most other hubs laser etch the anno!
Polished hubs waiting for the holes and engraving:
Sean said that during Covid, they realized their production was bottlenecked at polishing. So they invested in robotic arms to push parts against a robotic buffing wheel to achieve a consistent finish. One of the robotic arms lives in a gigantic box, bigger than my studio apartment.
I usually have ethical qualms about robots replacing people (even though my background is robotics). But in this case, I believe it is warranted. Robots are good at jobs that satisfy the 3 D’s:
- Dumb (menial)
In this case, you can’t pay me enough to hold a crank arm to that buffing wheel all day
In the middle of our tour, some sketchy-looking guy showed up with a fixie. Turns out he was Ross Shafer, founder of Salsa Cycles! He said he reads the forum, and gave us a shoutout. These days he’s busy riding motos and building guitars in his shop.
Ratchet broach, or medieval weapon?:
Who named this machine “American”?:
I’ll admit, as a consumer, I always overlooked White Industries. I’ve never a big fan of flashy bike parts or made in USA for the sake of MUSA. WI makes great stuff, but in the fancy bike parts world, other brands are often associated with dream bikes. However, Sean made a good point: the DNA of WI has always been very practical and utilitarian. Their focus has always been to work with bike shops (and builders) to manufacture parts that solve problems (tandem hubs, the legendary ENO freewheels, ENO hub, EC37 headsets, etc). WI focuses on making the best parts to the best of its abilities. They let that do the marketing, and I totally respect that.
There were two things that stood out to me:
- How many machines and people are required to serve a “niche” side of a “niche” sport.
- How many resources they dedicate to polishing and engraving that WI logo!
- They could switch to laser engraving and 90% of people would not notice!
The reason for the visit was to discuss specing Astral (which was recently acquired by WI) on our complete builds. As of now, WI and Astral are still operating separately, and in Sean’s words, they are still “figuring out garbage pickup and shipping accounts”. I am excited to see how things evolve!
Lynette and Sean: the two people who will probably pick up the phone when you call for that 100h rim brake tandem hub.