Industry Nine Factory Visit: How Their Hubs Are Made
Earlier this year, we dropped in on Jeff and the crew at Industry Nine to see what was new, which yielded your first look at their new road hubs and wheels. While there, we toured the factory and Jeff was kind enough to show us exactly how they make their hubs, why they’re special and provided a few lessons on machining and anodization.
Be forewarned, if you didn’t want a set of I9 hubs before, you most likely will after reading this. If you’re one of the folks that has waited patiently in the past for a set of hubs or wheels, you’re about to learn what the bottleneck is (it’s probably not what you think). And if you’ve never heard of Industry Nine, consider this a crash course on one of the few brands that’s 100% made in the U.S.
Welcome to the Industry Nine factory tour in Asheville, NC…
While this machine is actually one of the last things we saw on the tour, this is where the hubs’ lives begin. 3.75″ diameter billet 7075-T6-51 aluminum rods are sent through this cutter…
…and trimmed to the width of the hub shell they are to become.
After they’re cut, the bins of blanks head to the machine room:
First, the blanks run through a rotary horizontal lathe.
Industry Nine’s Jeff Baucom shows the first and second stage of the product while sporting a Blue Ridge gentleman’s beard. The process from his right hand to left takes about 90 seconds. No bottleneck there.
From there, they get milled in all directions by a vertical 5-axis lathe to cut away the material between the ridges for the spokes. A special modification gives I9′s equipment a sixth axis that creates the 8º angle for the spoke beds, which orients them so they aim directly at the rim…no bend that could stress the spoke.
The result is a hub shell for either road (above) or mountain (below).
Actually, the photo above shows the rear hub with disc brake rotor drillings, which, along with the spoke holes and threads, don’t get cut until after they take an Easter egg bath in the ano chemicals:
Anodization is an ugly process. Ugly to look at and ugly to work with and dispose of. Industry Nine brought their ano in house for quality control, but the side benefit is smaller tanks of chemicals being used overall. As for quality control, their ‘wall of shame’ shows why they wanted to bring it in house:
Shades of orange…
…and pink (although, this color’s various shades could just be because Dicky’s so hard to please).
Jeff said a lot of ano is done overseas, and they would get back batches of hub shells that were so far off the target shade that they were all but useless, with front and rear hubs not matching. Because the vendors were overseas, getting any sort of real recompense was difficult. More importantly, it did nothing to replace the hub shells and the time and energy that went into producing them. After anodization, the shells are drilled and threaded for the spokes and rotors. This is done after the ano to ensure proper tolerances and ensure proper contact between spoke or screw and hub.
If the machining of the hub shells seems impressive, it pales in comparison to the work put into the drive rings and pawls. Shown above, both parts are cut using an EDM (Electrical Discharge Machine) that sends an insane amount of electrical current through a thin wire (that gold stringy thing above, and below with the arrow pointing to it).
The parts to be cut sit below what you’re seeing here in a di-electric liquid bath. The wire threads down off a giant spool above the machine and is essentially wasted by the time it’s moved through the parts even though it never actually touches the metal it’s cutting. The electricity reacts with and erodes the metal to create the desired shape.
Seems like Jeff was showing me all the secrets there, so I asked if we could take pictures of everything and share it. The answer, obviously, was yes, and here’s why he’s not concerned about competitors taking this and copying them: The EDM machine used by Industry Nine costs somewhere between half to a full million dollars. The drive rings and pawls are made of incredibly hard A2 Tool Steel, which is a) very expensive and b) the same stuff tractor trailer gears are made from. They’re cut by the EDM to such precise tolerances and the metal is so strong that the wheels could be driven consistently with just one pawl making only partial engagement. Basically, the machines and materials used are so expensive that I9 only turns a profit because the equipment is paid for from the owner’s other company (which, coincidentally, used to make parts for several other cycling companies before launching the Industry Nine brand).
The drive rings are cut in stacks of four at a time, with each stack taking about 1 hour 45 minutes. The stack of four bars of pawls, yielding 88 total pawls, takes about six hours to cut. After being cut, each part is bead blasted and hand polished. It’s worth pointing out that each pawl has three “teeth” that engage with three teeth on the drive ring, not just one big point like on many competitor’s hubs. To be honest, and with Jeff’s admission, this is total overkill, but if they’ve got the equipment, why not make their hubs the best they possibly can, right? Their wait list and enthusiastic customer base seem to endorse that point of view.
Speaking of that wait list, it would seem this EDM-ing of the innards could be slowing down production. But no, that’s not the bottle neck either.
On the hill above their machining factory is the assembly room, where each complete wheelset is hand assembled to order. The wheels hanging above are waiting to be tested and boxed up. Could it be that the love and care these guys are putting into each wheelset is slowing things down? Could they just hire more people to build the wheels faster? The answers are “no” and “yes”, with the latter being irrelevant.
And we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Before they can build a wheel, they need…
Spokes! More specifically, Industry Nine’s proprietary, house-made aluminum spokes. I9′s spokes start life as a long, thin rod of alloy, as enthusiastically shown here. They sit inside that trough at left (behind the computer screen) and are fed forward through a 12-axis machining lathe.
The lathe cuts the threads on the end of the spoke, then machines down the body to 2.54mm. Jeff says the wider aluminum has the same tensile strength as a 1.8mm straight steel spoke, but weighs the same as some triple-butted steel spokes. They use a fat (wide) threaded end to increase the spoke’s strength, eliminating the common points of stress risers. Jeff says they’ve never had a spoke end up with stripped threads in the history of their company.
Each spoke takes two minutes to make, and while we stood there discussing the manufacturing process, only a handful inched their way out of the machine. That translates to 2 hours 8 minutes per wheelset, or fewer than 12 pairs of wheels per day per machine. I9 has two machines running 24 hours a day, and they’re currently at about a two week lead time.
It’s hard, if not downright impossible, to walk away from Industry Nine’s machine shop and not be impressed. Besides the obvious attention to detail, it’s the pride and enthusiasm that Jeff, Jacob and the rest of the crew there exhibit. The insides are made stronger than they’ll ever need to be. The endcaps are 17-4 stainless, surgical grade steel. Excluding bearings, everything part that makes up their hub is made in their factory in Asheville, NC. And the finished product is downright beautiful.
Do I want a set? Hell yeah.
THINGS TO COME:
Despite that pesky production bottleneck, Industry Nine is forging ahead with new products. Fortunately for their new road wheels, they’re using Sapim CX-Ray spokes, which eliminates the limited production problem.
For those cross country racers looking to shave even more grams than their already-ridiculously-light 1320g Ultralite Race wheelset, Jeff hinted that they’re prototyping and testing a 24-count, vertically stacked spoke mountain bike hub that would use traditional spokes (in other words, be very similar looking to their new road wheels). Laced to a custom drilled Stan’s Podium MMX rim, you’d be looking at a wheelset at 1200g to 1280g. At that weight with that rim, they’d be a race-only affair, but put a more durable rim on their and you’re still looking at a 1450g wheelset that’s all-mountain ready.
Oh, and see that bike up there? Looks like a cyclocross bike. Has tires like a cyclocross bike. Hmmm…what kind of wheels could it possibly have?
Big thanks to Jeff and the rest of the crew for showing us around!