Connection: SRAM's Portuguese Chain Manufacturing Facility

Mar 1, 2018
by SRAM  

CONNECTION
An Introduction to SRAM's Coimbra Family

Words by Joe Parkin, SRAM Writer // Photography by Adrian Marcoux

In January of 2018, the SRAM chain development and manufacturing facility in Coimbra, Portugal, turned 50. For the past half-century, dedicated people and intricate machines inside this factory have converted raw metal into the bicycle drivetrain component that connects all the others-the chain.

The Coimbra factory's first contract came from the French manufacturer Peugeot, who needed chains for its bicycles and mopeds. Then came Sedis chains. The German bicycle, motorcycle and automotive component manufacturer Sachs ultimately acquired the Sedis brand and then, in 1997, SRAM bought the Sachs bicycle division. And with that, SRAM Portugal was formed.

Chains from this factory have propelled bicycles to grocery stores throughout the world, helping to deliver food for billions of meals. They've carried students to school and employees to work. They've helped people of all ages find the freedom of bicycling. And they've won just about every bicycle race on earth.

Chains look simple. They're composed of inner and outer plates and rollers, which are connected by pins. Their look, whether the design intent is for heavy machinery, automotive, motorcycle or bicycle use, is basically the same. Even the most modern bicycle chains look mostly similar to the ones first seen on bicycles in the late 1800s. Until that is, you look at them close up.







Though men outnumber women by the slightest of margins at SRAM's Portugal chain factory, the boss is Isabel Gomes (far right) who started her career here in the 1990s, and spearheaded the facility's first ISO certification. Two generations of Reis men help keep chains coming off the line-Antonio Reis is a master toolmaker who is closing in on four decades of employment at the factory, and his son Pedro, an electrical engineer, is a cog in the automation and integration of the facility's many machines. Pedro Santos (left) leads SRAM's chain engineering effort in Coimbra. He holds in his hands hundreds of chain designs, many of which were drawn by hand. Many of those old designs were impossible to make when they were first conceived, but some may hold the secrets to tomorrow's bicycle drivetrains. Eugenia Martins (far left) serves as SRAM Portugal's Quality Manager, and is tasked with ensuring that manufacturing here meets the latest international certification, and that the many kilometers of chain coming off the lines here each week adhere to the highest possible standards.



The facility has been operating since 1968. There are plenty of other factories that have been operating for 40, 50, 60 years or more that have stopped being relevant, but that hasn't happened in Coimbra.

There's a strong cultural and human element to this place's success. If you want to understand what makes Coimbra special, look no further than the region's rich intellectual heritage and its people.

Europe's western-most country, Portugal explored the globe during the 15th and 16th centuries and brought home maps of new landscapes to Europeans. Coimbra has a close connection to Portugal's heritage of discovery and hosts one of the oldest continually operating universities in the world. Originally founded in 1290 in Lisbon by King Dinis, The University of Coimbra was eventually permanently located to Coimbra in 1537.

SRAM has built a special connection with the University of Coimbra and encourages its leading engineering students to intern at the chain development facility. Some students also go on to work there after graduation. It's proven a fruitful connection. The majority of engineers working at SRAM's Coimbra factory came from the University of Coimbra.

Newly constructed, the modern 3-story open office space houses the business administration and engineering staff. A basement-level test lab allows engineers to test, prove and improve not only their design philosophies, but also SRAM's manufacturing processes.





More cogs means more complexity. When this factory in Coimbra first began producing chains, each one of these vertical columns would be producing chain outer-plates. With an Eagle chain, each one of these columns is another step in the process of creating the plate shape for Eagle's 10-50t cassette.



The factory building, where the meticulously engineered chains are produced, is located just a few steps behind the new office. As you enter, large rolls of steel immediately draw your eye. The rolls are fed into the massive stamping machines, where the raw material becomes an inner or outer plate for one of SRAM's many varieties of chains.

If you follow the path of the ribbons of metal being drawn in for stamping, you see racks hold seemingly endless amounts of raw materials. But though it looks endless, these racks are depleted twice weekly, for a sum total of roughly 50,000 kilograms of raw material per week. If you look left, you'll find an impressive collection of machines dedicated to maintaining the tooling needed to stamp and cut the individual components of each chain.

Once the raw metal has been converted to a chain component, it is subjected to multiple rounds of treatments designed to make it stronger and more durable. There are also processes to make the final chain assembly more uniform.

These steps involve both chemical and heat treatments at varying temperatures. The chain components are finished with a succession of polishing rounds. Many of the machines used in this part of chain manufacturing date back to the early days of the factory, but each has been retrofitted over time to automate it and add quality controls.



Waste not. Compared to the massive amount of raw metal that comes into this factory each week, the amount of scrap sent out for recycling is miniscule. And yet those charged with steering SRAM Portugal in an ever-Greener direction are constantly seeking to reduce the energy used and the waste created by this facility. The Portuguese government mandates a reduction in total energy draw year by year, but the chain factory is ahead of that curve.




Chain science | From raw metal to packaged product, about the only process not done here in the Coimbra factory is the gold color marking XX1 Eagle chains. There are, however, myriad chemical and heat-treating processes that the individual chain components are subjected to before they are assembled.



If you weren't already mesmerized by the noise of stamping operations, the heat and glowing spectacle of the small chain pieces being poured from the well-worn furnaces will captivate you.

Finally these stamped and treated and polished chain pieces are placed into bins and carted off to another massive wall of racks. There they wait for final assembly.

During assembly, machines that continue to be refined and adapted to each new chain technology feed the individual chain parts through the process. Sensors alert the operators to anything that might compromise the integrity of the final product.

And it is incredibly impressive to watch as piles of chain collect on tables, are fed through machines that pre-tension them, test for any possible defect, and lube them before final packaging. Some chains will be packaged in big bulk rolls, others in boxes of complete chains cut-to-length, and still others are individually packaged for retail sale.

The most impressive thing about the bicycle chain is its uniformity. Every link has to perform as well as the last one (more than a hundred times per chain) constantly and consistently throughout its life cycle. If you're lucky enough to see this process in person, you will place a greater importance on the humble component that connects your drivetrain and makes your bike go.





Hardened by heat | From the low-temp treatment that chain parts receive post-chemical treatment, to the hours-long heat that pins endure, to time in the Ripoche ovens or the fire breathers, to the behemoth furnaces that spit out hundreds of plates at a time, heating treating is an essential part of the overall chain equation.



The modern high-performance bicycle chain is quite different than those that Coimbra produced back in the late 1960s. Chains now are lighter weight, require more advanced manufacturing processes, and are subjected to greater stresses by riders.

Quality is a common theme here in Coimbra. The facility's workers, from the front office to the assembly technicians, live it and breathe it. Flags signifying the most current levels of ISO Quality and Environmental certification fly proudly next to the SRAM logo painted on the factory. These are not levels of certification that are easy to achieve, and SRAM was the first company in Portugal to reach the sought-after ISO 9001 : 2015 certification.








Facts and figures | Each assembly machine counts in the thousands of meters. Collectively, these machines are producing more kilometers of SRAM chain than most mountain bikers average per week.



Each day, the factory tests raw materials for uniformity, tests assembled products for quality, tests processes for accuracy, and investigates new ideas about chain design for their feasibility. After the initial intrigue of old machine tools and stamping operations and heat treating and the sight of actual kilometers of chain being produced, when we exit this factory, we're treated to a story that reinforces the fact that this place is decidedly human.

In the early days of the Coimbra factory, night shift workers decided that one of their heat-treatment furnaces operated at the perfect temperature to cook one of Portugal's most beloved foods: cod. The workers rigged up the furnace and began preparing Cod and Potatoes Ripoche, named for the French-manufactured furnace where they cooked the dish. It was a hit.

Eventually, engineers on routine quality checks noticed chain parts that were covered in a strange layer of grease. That meant the end of the Ripoche food-preparation method.

Portugal's ancient sea-going tradition has long treasured the codfish and continues to honor this humble animal in its cuisine. Portuguese cooks mastered the storage and preparation of these and other fish long before modern methods of refrigeration and cooking were available. When someone from Portugal tells you that there are at least 365 ways to prepare codfish-one for each day of the year-they are really telling you that there are actually thousands. And tomorrow's method will be even better than today's.

The measure of a great cook is their ability to blow you away with the simplest and most humble of ingredients-again and again. The measure of a great factory is its ability to take a bicycle component that seems on the surface to be simple, and improve it every single day.

Every SRAM chain is proudly system-engineered and manufactured in Coimbra, Portugal.




Story by SRAM.


MENTIONS: @SramMedia




80 Comments

  • + 192
 I buy a bike, it has a chain. I need a replacement, I order it and it magically appears.

I really dig these articles that put ‘faces to craft’. Thanks for making chains! Unlike a certain WC downhiller I actually need them.
  • + 3
 tru dat
  • + 4
 My electricity also seems to appear out of the socket. Don't what everybody's issue with global warming and shit is.
  • + 7
 @colincolin: Politics. Which we fight tooth and nail over on our $800 iPhones we replace every two years.

...when we're not riding our $6000 bikes that we replace with new every season or two.
  • + 9
 Would like more info. Please send me a link.
  • + 68
 Absolutely, I love these "How Its Made - PB Editions", please keep em coming, and if allowed then grab videos of some of the machines going, then even better!

Keep up the good work guys!
  • + 4
 Sram posted this, PB forward it...
  • + 2
 I've just had bad luck with SRAM chains. All of the ones I've used (X1 and XX1) have all broken in half the time a Shimano or KMC has, for some reason
  • - 5
flag RedRedRe (Mar 1, 2018 at 8:10) (Below Threshold)
 @Ryanrobinson1984:

You are 100% correct.
SRAM chains are likley "engineered" to wear fast your drivetrain–and your wallet.

SRAM top of the line chain last 2/3 of a Shimano chain and 1/3 of a Campagnolo chain.

TEST:
www.bikerumor.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Wippermann-connex-chain-11-speed-wear-test-results-2.jpg
  • + 1
 @Ryanrobinson1984: I heard the reason is radness
  • + 1
 @Ryanrobinson1984: that is pretty interesting to me. A decade of working on bikes, always put customers who break chains, onto SRAM chains. Shift worse but experience tells me they’re less likely to break.
  • + 37
 Now just ditch the huge amount of plastic packaging and you’re onto a winner
  • + 2
 A chain would very likely destroy a thin plastic bag on the way to your doorstep. It could leak oil, get bent, etc. I think the packaging used makes a lot of sense. Also most people's lunch produces more waste than this box. If you're really that upset about it use it for spare parts in the workshop. Or like recycle it like everybody else.
  • + 61
 @colincolin Shimano have been using cardboard boxes for years.... Was only a suggestion
  • - 7
flag colincolin (Mar 1, 2018 at 1:12) (Below Threshold)
 @fatalityBMX: That's a better option tbh. But if recycled the difference in sustainability is minor.
  • + 4
 To those who downvoted me and to myself: I have to take that last statement back.

Cardboard might be worse for the environment than plastic.

Here's an easy to read interview of an american chemistry professor. If you think he's biased or his statements are bullshit research for yourself.
cascade.uoregon.edu/fall2012/expert/expert-article
  • + 39
 chains come in small boxes. No problems there. Unlike fkng shifters which come in boxes that could easily contain a crankset. And then, attached comes fkng encyclopedia Britannica on how to install them. So that when Billy Bob breaks his collar bone somewhere in US, he doesn’t sue the company selling these. It’s insane how pointlessly big packaging Shimano uses for their products. And this exclusive packaging for Ultegra/ Dura Ace and XT/XTR?! Get the fk out... i throw these boxes straight into the garbage. Stop pretending that you are selling ltd edition Leica
  • - 5
flag Ryanrobinson1984 (Mar 1, 2018 at 5:55) (Below Threshold)
 @colincolin: 'leak oil'???
  • - 16
flag Ryanrobinson1984 (Mar 1, 2018 at 5:57) (Below Threshold)
 @WAKIdesigns: why does it have to be 'Billy Bob somewhere in the US,' you shit head?
  • + 1
 @colincolin: Use paperboard or foil. Problem solved and both recyclable.
  • + 63
 @Ryanrobinson1984: because US is the country where people sue people over anything, where any product use injury is an opportunity to get money, and where fkng plastic rounded spoon for kids can have a safety instruction. Where in manual for a drilling machine it says that it should not be used as dental drill. Where a pack of peanuts says that it may contain traces of peanuts so it may pose health risk for people with allergies. If not US market half of products in the world would have 3 sentence long manuals.It's nothing against people from US, it's against your stupid overgrown juridical system. You intelligent head.
  • + 13
 @Ryanrobinson1984: Because some use common sense and other just call a lawyer after they messed things up because of the lack of the Grey matter put into Action. And the Country of US & A is just world leader in using rather a lawyer than thinking first.
At least this is how the old world sees the US...
  • + 2
 @WAKIdesigns: as an American, I agree with you saying we have an overgrown system and that a number of our citizens are entitled little twits.That being said, I highly disagree the manual is to blame for size of box.

From my experience in retail packaging has more to do with merchandising than anything else. When you visit a bike shop, think about where most parts are kept. The company with the bigger, more uniform colored, evenly organized box is going to be way more noticeable behind a counter/up on a shelf in an open shop or even on a sales rack than a box smaller than a fist amongst 600 other small boxes.

Take the new eagle shifter boxes for example, Jet black with a mirrored eagle encompassing 5 sides of the box, size 9 font saying sram ___ in dark red/mirrored black squished in the upper right hand corner. Stands out among all other shifters by a long shot. open it up and find shifter and manual tucked neatly into less than half the box.
  • + 3
 @HaydukeLives: Those boxes are great for organizing stuff in the garage though. I keep them from customer builds, and they are great for chainrings, lube bottles, etc
  • + 2
 @HaydukeLives: it's not just the manual that makes the box big, I meant that it is attached. And with merchandizing I will give you an example. Bozes with E13 or MRP chain guide VS Saint bashguard/guide box... Also I could get if XT/XTR was kept as it is, but these boxes are actually small. It is the lower end stuff that comes in huge boxes which are not exactly pretty.

@kmg0 - yeah, it's just that there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of them and vast majority ends up in trash 1 minute after people take the stuff out of them
  • + 4
 @WAKIdesigns: I largely blame the US legal system, but that’s only part of the problem. Our medical insurance system takes action without our permission. I tweaked my knee on a bumpy sidewalk and took out my badly damaged MCL. About two months later I get a letter from my insurance saying I had to tell them what sidewalk it was because they wanted to sue the homeowner who did not maintain it. WTF? It was easy to fill these forms out saying I can’t remember because it was dark, but that’s not always the case. They work together. That’s why I can’t have a pump track in my yard for my friends. Even if my best friend got hurt, he couldn’t stop his insurance company from suing me. It’s crazy here!
  • + 1
 @HaydukeLives: I never really understood the premium packaging on high end bike components. Its a little different than buying laundry detergent at the supermarket, where companies fight for eye-level shelf space and unique packaging designs. I would imagine the majority of customers purchasing Eagle drivetrains and such made their purchase decisions before seeing the packaging or even stepping in to the bike shop.
  • + 1
 @colincolin: Also, once saturated with oil or grease, cardboard is not longer recyclable.
  • + 1
 @nuttypoolog: Yep its why motocross tracks close constantly too. The insurance companies always want someone else to pay. We need to take this shit back, and destroy these peoples lives before they destroy ours.
  • + 1
 Why not compostable, manufacturing and recycling plastic takes too many steps. All packing should be compostable!
  • + 1
 Jesus F#@k can you guys give it a rest already? If one of you or your family was injured due to a perceived product defect you'd be lining up a lawyer. Either that or you're all corporate scabs punching sideways and down.
  • + 2
 @JWadd: yes, so that when a stupid twat crashes, he has no insurance, he’s money for treatment of whatever he injured runs out, he can sue the crap out of innocent people as the only way to get money. Fantastic. That’s the exact reason why I never sign any agreements when selling used stuff to people. And some want that. Typical: customer is never guilty. Good luck if this is how you deal with “shit happens”
  • + 24
 Must be some sort of irony in a chain manufacturer having its own pump track where you’re not supposed to pedal...
  • - 1
 You beat me to it, was gonna lose the same question! Although SRAM chains are fine.
  • + 9
 Side note: ISO 9001 certification doesn't mean that you produce good quality, it only means that you have control over you production process.

This is no statement that they produce rubbish, never used their chains
  • + 1
 Exactly, with ISO9001 you can produce crap as long as it's the same crap over and over
  • + 1
 Made in the poorest/cheapest country in Western Europe. Good point.
  • + 2
 Yup! I live about 8km from the factory and know a few people who work there!

Their salary is like 600-700 and they do shifts (it is an average salary in Portugal)!

The engineers obviously earn more.

The only benefit of working there is that employees get SRAM parts way cheaper than us...
  • + 2
 @zdebruine: IMO a country is not poor or rich only because of the amount of money. For example I don't look to the UAE as a rich country. But yes, it's a fact money here is not very abundant :-).
  • + 3
 Good stuff. Although if the Gold Eagle chains are treated with the Ti Nitride coating after being assembled as a chain in this factory, isn't that just admitting that it does nothing for friction reduction and is just there for extra cost and looks? Surely they need to treat the pins and plates before assembly, so the contact surfaces actually get the low friction coating?

Anyway, good article, always found SRAM chains hit the sweet spot of vfm and durability, and made in EU is a bonus
  • + 1
 It doesn't say that, it just says they don't do ti-nitride in house.
  • + 4
 Nice article. What about the wages this portuguese receive?
  • + 1
 Not sure about numbers, but I bet it's much less then the others SRAM factorys.
  • + 4
 @ArkangeL: Cost and quality of life are just as important. Talking about wages in isolation is meaningless.
  • + 2
 @BenPea: That's true, and when outside researches, find that you need at least 738 euros per month to live with dignity,that's 158 more than the minimum wage without taxes, and that's if you live outside the capital or the other big city(Porto), because in that case would be even higher.

Now take your conclusions.
  • + 1
 @ArkangeL: Thanks for that.
  • + 2
 More than Eastern Europeans including Balts...
  • + 3
 Why would you think its less in Portugal than in China? SRAM typically takes care of their people decently well and I don't think it is just the US-based ones, so I'd be surprised to know if they were exploiting their people there.
  • + 2
 @ArkangeL: It's true the minimum wage should be around 800 net, no doubt about it. But it's like @BenPea says, you must compare everything. I have been in countries where people earn triple as minimum wage and the difficulties are pretty much the same, it's just a matter of proportion.
  • + 1
 Correct @migkab:
  • + 1
 Thanks for the great article I always enjoy seeing those and being able to put faces on components or bikes that I like riding.
  • + 2
 Cool article. I always wonder why the lube they use on new chains is so sticky and terrible for mountain biking
  • + 3
 for anti corrosion in long term storage but, yeah it is shit
  • + 1
 Awesome, I'm a SRAM chain fan, and this makes me even more happy to be one! Oddly enough... I now feel like purchasing a new chain. Love me a fresh PC-X1
  • + 2
 Nice pictures but if PB can make a 15minute video would be more awesome to watch!!!
  • - 2
 Boy, with Portugal's impact on colonialism- and the horrors colonialism as a whole incurred, (from 1415's capture of Ceuta to 1999, when they turned over their last colony- Portuguese Macau, to China) , you'd think we'd be boycotting chains made there.

Just trying to keep the ol' "boycott stuff because of connecting dots" theme going. Smile
  • + 2
 love it! Amazing. Thanks pinkbike
  • + 1
 "And they've won just about every bicycle race on earth."

WHAT ABOUT GWIN
  • + 2
 I wana visit Portugal just to buy an Eagle chain. Hihihihihi....
  • + 1
 Worked for SACHS back when this factory was making the Sedis chains, predecessors to all SRAM chains now made there.
  • + 1
 Aaron Gwin will probably not read this article
  • + 1
 This article is off the chain!
  • + 1
 "system engineered" what does that mean?
  • + 0
 "Story by SRAM".
In other words *ADVERT* made to look like an article.
Top journalism there PB.
  • + 1
 Very nice catch LOL. I still love my SRAM chain though LOL.
  • + 1
 BEST. CHAINS. EVER.
  • + 5
 @enduroelite This 'article' is about SRAM chains, not KMC chains. Confused much? LoL
  • + 1
 @m1dg3t: I really like SRAM chains. I'm NOT a fan of KMC chains....
  • + 4
 @enduroelite: I'm a big fan of KMC chains!
  • + 1
 @kmcchain: good for you!
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