Words & Photos: Wil Barrett

Following on from Part 1 & Part 2 of our tour at Fox Racing Shox, it’s time to give you a sneak peek into the inner workings of the place where it all happens. Located in Watsonville, about 20 minutes drive from Santa Cruz, Fox’s US factory is home to some 800-1000 employees depending on the time of year. This is where the vast majority of Fox products come from, including their forks and shocks, as well as the entire motorsports manufacturing division too. Currently, only the magnesium fork lowers and the D.O.S.S dropper seat posts are manufactured in Taiwan. In speaking with the guys from Fox however, there was discussion about the potential of streamlining OEM production over to Taiwan in order to supply forks and shocks in a more timely fashion for bike companies who are speccing them on their complete bikes. One of the big problems the industry currently faces is the fact that a complete bicycle is built up from so many parts from so many different suppliers. Shipping costs aren’t getting any cheaper, so the ability for more components to be built and sourced in the same location would make a huge difference to both lead times and the end sticker price. Whether Fox will move any of its manufacturing over to Taiwan/Asia is yet to be seen, though it was an interesting discussion regardless. In the meantime, this is where the magic happens!

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I reckon this would be the sign that you know you’ve made it in life; when you finally get your own personalised car space! At 74 years of age, Bob has stepped back somewhat from his previous role of managing the company, but he is still regularly seen at both HQ and on the manufacturing floor. He’s still into motorsports, but he is also an avid mountain biker, and word on the street is he’s pretty good at it too.

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Make no mistake, the Fox factory is a dead-set proper manufacturing facility. With the machines roaring into life from about 4am each morning until late into the evening, factory workers turn up across 2 different shifts depending on their weekly schedule. All forks and shocks are made to order – there are no storage facilities here. Orders come in at one end, and the necessary number of forks/shocks come out the other end, whether it’s a series of DRCV shocks for Trek, or a batch of 32 TALAS forks for Giant. They’re then stickered, packaged, and sent off for shipping in an alarmingly quick turn around time. If you’re struggling to think of just how many units come out of this single Californian factory, have a think as to how many bike companies spec Fox product on their bikes. Then have a think as to how many of those bikes are sold worldwide, across each model, and each size. Mark explained to me that Trek, Giant, Scott, and Specialized are the 4 “big ones” when it comes to their customers, and they make up the vast majority of their production. As for numbers, we’ll give you a hint; it’s a shit-ton of forks and shocks!

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The fork assembly line is not unlike any other high-efficiency manufacturing line that you’d see in the bike or auto industry. Each employee has a specific task, whether it’s installing a seal, preparing a shim-stack assembly, or pressure testing O-rings. Tasks are rotated frequently in order to keep workers stimulated, and multiple shifts will see workers bounce around the factory between the fork/shock lines, as well as the motorsport divisions.

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Macined alloy top cap assemblies awaiting installation (above). Fox manufacturers nearly everything in-house, with only the forged one-piece Magnesium lowers coming from Taiwan. Some of the forks upper tubes also come from Taiwan, though most are produced in the US. For the high-end Factory forks and shocks, stanchions are shipped off to Japan to have the special Kashima coat applied, which is used to reduce seal friction to create a smoother suspension feel. The stanchions are then shipped back to the US to be assembled in the complete forks and shocks. From there, most of those Factory forks are then packed up and sent back over to Asia where they’re assembled into a complete bike. Chances are, the suspension on your mountain bike has earned more frequent flyer points than you have!

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Freshly assembled TALAS air springs await to be dropped into a fork chassis.

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This guy here is operating a fluid control system, which fills up the FIT cartridge dampers used on the Factory & Performance level Fox forks. A very specific amount of damping oil is required inside the sealed silicone bladders, and the damper must also be bled correctly so that no air is present internally.

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The system is computer controlled, so as to minimise the chance of any mistakes. With a complex ID labelling format for each fork and shock that goes through this factory however, any problems that become present out on the trail can be traced back to the exact time and date of manufacture, and even to the employee who carried out that procedure. Luckily it’s not the sort of thing that Fox need to do often, but in some cases they’ve had to reverse engineer a problem in order to find the source. They use Helium leak tests and other in-house procedures to help track down a dodgy O-ring or a mis-machined bore. This allows them to rectify the issue, and improve the assembly line to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

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Here the TALAS air springs are being assembled, and then tested for correct function. This has to be signed off before the springs make their way to the final assembly line, so that no dodgy springs can work their way inside a complete fork. Previous TALAS springs utilises a dual-air system, both for weight savings and tuning abilities. However, this air-based system was more prone to issues due to the increased amount of sealing it required. The new TALAS spring (2014-onwards), uses a coil for the negative spring, whilst still using air for the positive spring. With the exception of the travel-adjust feature, this configuration is the same as what’s used in the FLOAT forks, and the long negative spring is what provides such a smooth action to the forks initial travel. It has also improved durability in the new TALAS forks, whilst only adding a small amount of weight.

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Blue Anodized CTD dials are loaded into trays for final assembly.

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Towards the end of the damper and spring assembly lines lies a conveyor belt that sees each fork enter as a series of individual pieces, before exiting as a complete item. A heavy press tool joins each steerer tube to the fork crown and upper tubes, which is operated by hand by 4 different workers. Wiper seals are pressed into the fork lowers, and lubricating grease is applied to the internal bushings and wiper seals. Dampers and springs are installed as the fork makes its slow journey around the assembly frame, and then the uppers are introduced to the lowers. Once everything has been bolted together, each fork is loaded into a press that uses a handlebar up top to simulate the front end of a bike. The tester in charge of this task compresses each fork to ensure the travel is smooth and consistent. Each adjustment dial is checked, and in the case of the TALAS system, each travel position too. The guys who operate this machine develop a very fine-tune sense for damping and spring feel in each fork – they can very quickly tell if something isn’t right, whether it’s related to the damper bleed or a poorly installed wiper seal. What’s incredible is that every single fork must pass through this ‘press test’, before it goes on to cleaning, stickering and shipping.

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After each fork has been assembled and tested, the forks are sent through a special washing machine to remove any residue oil. Lots of oil is present during assembly, in order to ensure that the fork is properly lubricated where it needs to be. However, that same oil ends up coating the outside of the fork, and so it needs to be removed before stickers are applied and before the forks enter their cardboard boxes.

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Using a special degreaser, the slow conveyor belt pulls each fork through the parts washer, with shiny clean forks coming out the other end. They’re then placed on a drying rack to air dry.

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With a final rubdown with a lint free rag and some isopropyl alcohol, the forks are then ready for stickering. Small stickers are placed on the lowers around the wiper seals in order to specify the exact model of fork, as well as any specific ‘tune’ that has been applied to the damper. Some bike brands prefer a harder lockout tune for the Climb setting on the CTD damper, while others may prefer a different ‘Trail’ tune. It’s important that the forks are correctly labelled as such, and a custom ID number is also stuck on that helps the customer setup their suspension via the Fox iRD app.

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A special jig is used to line up the graphics perfectly square on the fork lowers.

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Multiple trolley’s full of just-finished forks. At the time of our tour, there were a dazzling array of forks awaiting final boxing and shipping, all suspended on movable trolleys  that were complete with checklists detailing their exact specifications. To think that some of the Fox product pictured right here has made its way onto some of the recent test bikes featured in Enduro Magazine is a mind-boggling realisation.

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26″, 27.5″, 29″ – CTD, CTD w/Trail Adjust – 100mm, 120mm, 150mm, 160mm – Kashima, non-Kashima – QR15, QR20 – Tapered, straight – Custom tuned, stock tuned – Black, White, Custom decals – TALAS, FLOAT – 32, 34, 36.

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Located in a different corner of the factory, the shock assembly line is a little smaller and a little more concentrated than the fork line. Fox carry out production of their own line of FLOAT & RC4 rear shocks, but they also produce proprietary items for the likes of Specialized, Trek, and Scott. As mentioned before, these companies make up the vast majority of production for Fox Racing Shox, and so a lot of the units being pumped out are destined for Taiwan and China, where they’ll be assembled onto complete bicycles before being shipped around the world to international distributors.

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A small jig is designed to allow for easy stacking of various compression and rebound shims for the shocks damper. In the above photo, there’s a schematic printed out above the work station that details the specific arrangement of each different shim.

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On the note of dampers and settings, we had a chat with Mark Jordan about the various inputs that Fox has to evaluate in determining the final performance of their products. In 2013 when Fox introduced the CTD damper, they received a whole lot of media criticism that the suspension performance (particularly on the forks) was unsupported and ‘divey’ in the Descend position. For the slower and less experienced riders out there, this smoother feel was advantageous for rougher sections of trail, but for harder and faster riders, the forks would tend to plough through their travel, sending your weight over the handlebars. This is the trick when it comes to designing effective mountain bike suspension products; do you design it for the pros who want to ride hardcore Gravity Enduro race courses? Or for the punter that is going to make up 90% of your sales and who simply needs smooth suspension performance? There’s only so much adjustability you can build into a spring and a damper, and so it’s an ongoing issue that every manufacturer faces when deciding on the final performance characteristics of their product. This is why Fox have a close working relationship with their OEM partners, with the offer of various custom tunes available so that each bike company can choose the right setting for their bike. It is a process that takes time and effort however, and not every bike company is so involved with that process. However, those little shim stacks being assembled in the above photo could be solely responsible for a bike reviewing well in a magazine, or getting the wooden spoon.

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After the shim stack assembly has been installed into the shock bodys, they are submerged in damping oil in preparation of the installation and bleeding process. The units sitting in the oil bath above are Fox CTD Remote versions, which use a handlebar remote to activate the CTD settings.

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Each shock is mounted onto a bleeding platform, which pumps in damping fluid, whilst expelling out air. Like the fork dampers, the process is carried out to remove all air from the damper, so that only fluid takes up the internal space. Once fluid bubbles out the top of the damper, the locknut is tightened down to seal the damper.

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On the adjacent assembly line, Specialized Brain shocks are being built and tested to ensure proper function and sealing. You can also see the press tool that’s utilised for putting together the main shaft, shock body and air can into the one unit.

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After the main shafts have been mounted and the air can is threaded over the top, the oily shocks need to be cleaned and prepped for final assembly.

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Old mate was super keen to show us his role of degreasing and cleaning all the shocks heading through the assembly line on the day of our visit. Whilst singing away in his corner of the factory, he not only seemed happy with his responsibilities, but also dead proud of what he did too. Plus, he easily had the best moustache in the whole factory.

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As with the forks, the shocks need to be clean of any oil residue before they are stickered up and packaged for final shipping.

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Around the factory floor are various recording devices and tools that provide a visual reference for the factory workers performance. Each day a goal is set for fork and shock production numbers, with a ‘stretch target’ that encourages workers to be extra speedy. The reward for an efficient production line that exceeds its goals includes bonuses such as longer breaks, ‘Fox Bucks’ that can be used to buy Fox apparel & merchandise, and organised BBQ lunches where head office employees come down to cook everyone up a feast.

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22 seconds – that’s how long it takes for each fork to be built. Sometimes it’s quicker, sometimes it’s slower, and things like a machine jam or a faulty O-ring installation can quickly halt production. Whilst I didn’t get a chance to photograph them, stationed around the factory floor are a series of clear plastic tubes filled with orange ping-pong balls. When production goals are met and assembly is carried out without any errors, a ping-pong ball is added to the top of the pile, with the more balls representing exceptional performance. This is related to the bonus scheme for the factory workers, and it also represents a visual reference for their ongoing performance. When an error is encountered in production, or an OEM partner issues a complaint (such as Giant receiving a batch of shocks with a sticker installed incorrectly, or a pinched O-ring that leaks air), the bottom of the tube is removed and all the ping-pong balls are drained out. Speaking to the factory management team, they described the process as being quite important for their workers, with staff morale being closely tied to the ping-pong ball levels. It sounds like a bit of an odd psychological mind-game, but it serves a simple purpose in helping to drive better performance out of the factory.

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The stats on the factory TV include shock production too, with a graph highlighting spikes and drops in production throughout the day. The day that we were there, they were aiming to build 900 shocks in that particular shift. Just 900.

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After seeing the production line for the 2014 forks and shocks, we paid a visit to a separate corner of the factory where shocks were being assembled for the Ford Raptor line. For those of who you don’t know, Fox also manufacture suspension for all sorts of different motorsports, including jet skis, snowmobiles, ATV’s, and racing trucks. They also won a contract to manufacturer all of the shocks for the new Ford Raptor, which is kind of a 4WD on steroids, built to tackle the likes of the Paris-Dakar rally. As part of the contract, the Raptor line occupies a whole different area of the factory with specially trained employees and a whole host of additional QC processes to fall in-line with Fords requirements.

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In essence, the shocks that will be suspending each wheel on the Raptor vehicle are just like an enlarged mountain bike rear shock. Each one of these shocks however, is about the size of a human leg, with eyelets the size of your hand.

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Shim stack assemblies are being laid out before installation into the damping head. This process is nearly identical to the shock production line in the MTB division, except the shim stacks are a whole lot bigger.

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We also got a look into the QC test lab, where technicians use highly specialist equipment for determining exact tolerances of recently built shock bodies. This is a necessary process that needs to be carried out on a regular basis to ensure consistency of machining and production.

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It goes without saying that there’s a lot more than meets the eye when it comes to the humble rear shock or suspension fork on your mountain bike. Since witnessing each aspect of a shocks development from the research and design faze, all the way through to the production and shipping of that product, I’ve developed a huge new appreciation for how those products help to shape the ride of the overall bike. I’ve also learnt a lot about the complexities of assembly, as well as the challenges that come with managing 800 factory workers in an efficient and effective team. The fact that Fox Racing Shox have not only kept production in the US, but have also progressed its production abilities, is damn impressive to say the least. Next time you head out for a trail ride, have a think about where your suspension may have come from, and how it might have been put together from all those different pieces. Hopefully reading this article may have also given you a new appreciation for the development, time and expertise that has gone into producing that product.

And that concludes our coverage from our Fox Factory tour! A massive thank you goes to Mark Jordan for being my host for the factory and head office tour, as well as riding the pants off me on the local Scotts Valley singletrack. I had an absolute blast and enjoyed the heck out of many burritos!

For more info, head to www.RideFox.com or checkout www.SolaSport.com.au