Novatec may not be a familiar name for those in the West. They are pushing to get your attention though, signing Kyle Strait, Eric Carter and Brian Lopes in 2012. While the name may not ring any bells yet, there is a fair chance that if you have an OE-branded hub on your bike that it was made in their factory, as they are one of the biggest suppliers out there. We were invited to their factory in Taichung, Taiwan, to follow the production of one of their hubs from start to finish.
With a factory of this size they can't alter production just for us, so this article features several different types of hub through production, but they are all made in the same way, on the same machines - just the technology and material quality changes as you go up through the range.
| This is how a hub starts life - as a solid rod of aluminum. There are probably precise details of the grade on the cards at the end of the rack, but my Chinese is not good enough to translate it. Different parts are made from different size rods, but every major part of the hub starts life like this. It is then chopped to length, ready for cold-forging.|
| This hellish-looking thing is the cold-forging press. On the day we visited it was out of order for maintenance, but it makes little difference as we wouldn't be able to see inside anyway. Essentially, the metal is forced into a mold under extreme pressure, like putty. To make metal deform like that you need mind-bending amounts of force - this machine develops 500 tons - it's hard to even try and get your head around those kind of numbers when you consider that a single ton is more than the human body could bear.|
| The raw parts are then heat-treated. In the simplest terms, the metal is cooked and it loses the softness that allowed it to be pressed into shape - after heat treatment the metal would shatter rather deform. This means it can't be reformed, but it will hold its shape, as you wouldn't want your hub body deforming.|
| This is a hub body after heat-treatment. You can see that complex details are already there from the forging process, but there is excess material around the outside of the shell and it is covered in a layer of carbon from the oven.|
| Although the basic shapes are there from forging, the tolerances aren't tight enough yet, so next the parts are polished and CNC'd. Excess material is removed and they are cut back to the exact sizes and specifications they need to function together as a hub. |
| Before and after. You can see the difference between the raw hub shells that arrive from heat treatment and the refined pieces that leave to be anodized. Like most companies, Novatech get the anodizing done by another company at another location.|
| Once the hubs return from anodizing the decals are applied by hand to each hub with painstaking precision.|
| Finally, they are sent upstairs for assembly. It is surprising how many different processes and stages there are to put a hub together, and all of it must be done by hand. First off the bearings are pressed using a hydraulic press to seat them precisely.|
| Assembling the freehub is incredibly involved and the number of small parts that must be put in there is surprising.|
| With the freehub done there are still two more stages to complete the process, ending with tightening it all together.|
| This is the most impressive part of the process - the people who assemble the hubs are trained to listen to the exact sound the hub should make and can pick up faulty ones simply from the noise they make when the freehub is spun. This is repeated several times throughout production by several different people to make sure dodgy freehubs don't make it out of the factory.|
| Finally you have it - a finished hub. This one is actually a pre-production sample of one of their high-end Factor hubs that they will be launching this year, packed full of interesting ideas like super-fast engagement and a reinforced freehub body.|
| Not all hubs leave the factory straight away - their higher-end ones that are to be made into wheelsets go upstairs to be built by hand. The wheelbuilders each make more than 100 wheels a day and to watch the speed and accuracy of their work is amazing.|
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