Thule’s US headquarters is tucked away in the scenic hills of Seymour, Connecticut, adjacent to five miles of mountain bike trails and beautiful hills to ride road bikes through. What few people know is that their office building also houses a full manufacturing (with robots!), R&D and testing center, too.
In fact, 70% of what’s sold in North America is made here. They make all the strap-on bike racks and kayak racks, and assemble many of the other items from US-sourced and produced parts. Most of the plastics come from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Powder coating is done in New York, and some metal come from the US, too.
Besides keeping a lot of production local (or at least domestic), they do a lot to keep their operation green, too. The office was in the midst of a massive remodel when we visited with designs to let in more natural light. In the warehouse, they use knock-down pallets to reduce use of cardboard boxes and plastic pallet wrap. They also have 1,800 solar panels on the roof that generate about 26% of the energy used at their plant.
Hitch racks come in as 2″ bar steel – a couple truckloads per week in peak season. Round tubes for the hanging style racks come in precut (just visible on left, behind boxes). Those parts move to the cutter to be sized down, then to the puncher to have the appropriate mounting holes put in place.
Pieces are then put in a jig, welded by a robot, checked by a human and then bent into shape (shown in video above). They’re sent out for powder coating, returned an run through final assembly. The robotic welder works on parts fixed on a double-sided, lazy susan style floor. While it’s welding on one side of the wall, a worker is setting the pieces in a jig on the otherside. When the welding’s done, he spins it around and the process starts all over again. Each finished piece is checked for burrs or other rough weld spots and smoothed or spot fixed if necessary.
For the kayak and strap-on racks, powder coated tubes are bent in-house into final shapes. Karl’s holding a finished piece next to tubes in various states of getting bent.
At left, some of the hitch mount hanging rack parts before and after being put through the bender shown in the video.
At right are the round tubes for the strap-on racks. Those are bent in different machines (one of them is to the left of Karl with the orange part on top) that use internal mandrels to keep things smooth. These bends are done after powdercoating.
ASSEMBLY AND PACKING
Many employees ride their bikes to work. There are about 50 full time folks and up to 200 seasonal employees during peak season. When the office remodel is done, they’ll have their spin studio and P90X/workout room back. Right now it’s being used as a makeshift customer service center. There’s a lunch ride everyday, too.
Small parts come in packed in the knock-down pallet boxes. Not shown is the small parts room for warranty pieces, replacement keys and lock cores.
Assembly lines are all modular, so they can go from making bike racks to ski racks just by moving tables and bins around. Above, Thule’s Raceway bike racks are assembled before final packaging. Once it’s all put together and packaged, each box is weighed so they know all parts are included. Every box has a date and shift code so they know when it was assembled and packed.
Hitch mount racks like the Sidearm have the metal extrusions come in already shaped and cut. Then, the bike holding mechanisms, decals and small parts are attached in house.
This machine pushes the rubber carriers onto the hanging rack’s arms so that they’re perfectly spaced, then the covers and other bits are put on by hand. About the only things that come from Sweden already in their retail packaging are the foot packs, fit kits and AeroBlade roof bars.
The finished goods warehouse is pretty small, and there’s another one about the same size in CO. They produce here, so they don’t need to carry that much inventory of finished products. They also support Chariot, Croozer and SportRack brands, too. Just-in-time manufacturing cuts down on the amount of warehouse space necessary and should reduce the amount of obsolete inventory. In the foreground is the staging area for shipments. There’s a large room on the right for truckload shipments to major retailers like REI. To my back are UPS truck bays for pallet shipments to bike shops and other independent retailers.
Units are picked by machines and humans as one. The fork lift drives along wires under the concrete, and a human sits in and operates the lift to pull parts.
QUALITY CONTROL TESTING
UV chamber (gray pyramid, left) effectively puts a piece in direct, double powered sunlight for 500 to 1000 hours depending on the part. The roof boxes test to 2,000 hours before color fading but is still structurally fine. So, there’s no issue with leaving parts on your car 24/7. They even test the labels and strap parts, but those don’t last quite as long. Minimum passing grade is 500 hours. Roof bags pass at 1,000.
Next there’s a hot/cold chamber (beige/blue thing in corner) that tests well beyond the -4° F up to 140° F ISO standards to make sure everything functions in those temps, nothing melts in the heat and things don’t crack when dropped (or having something dropped on them) in the cold.
The salt spray tester (gray/red unit at right) puts a 5% salinity mist on parts for 480 hours minimum. To pass, a part has to come out with less than 0.03% rust on it. For their OEM partners like BMW, the standards have to match that company’s standards, which are usually tougher. In the foreground are three identical pieces with different powder coats that have passed or failed in varying degrees.
A 3D printer lets them prototype knobs and pieces to ensure fit and ergonomics, and they have a full machine shop that lets them make prototypes and test parts.
The Shaker table (shown in the video) lets them simulate 100,000 miles in a couple weeks. The computer mimics a cobblestone road in Belgium an holds 35lb bikes, up to five bikes depending on which Rick they’re testing. The entire floor had to be rebuilt with insulation 10 feet deep into the ground because it was shaking their entire building.
Not shown, a ceiling mounted winch lets them pull racks up and in multiple directions and angles.
Besides heavy bikes, they also test the largest kayaks and paddleboards they can find, then add weights to them. Why? Because the last thing you want is to have them fly off your roof or rack at 80mph. Their contractor racks are tested with a ton (literally 2,000 pounds) on the roof.
The “Sleeping Policeman” test involves driving a vehicle with a rack on it over a 6″ high speed hump at 18mph (30kmh) with the same 35lb bikes on it. Test engineer Chris Rine says it creates several G’s on the way up and down. Multiply your bike’s weight by a high five plus some and you get an idea of how much weight the racks will hold. In other words, pot holes and such shouldn’t concern you.
For road testing, they use a 55lb weighted bike and take them to Limerock Raceway for high speed maneuvering. Their test engineers have to go through Skip Barber race training, then get to whip cars with bikes on them through slalom courses and around the track. So yes, their testers get to drive vehicles around a race track and call it work.
More fun: Check out their solar power generation numbers here.