Despite the name, Wheels Manufacturing doesn't actually make wheels. What they do make, however, are lots of everyday items you may not have thought much about, like headset spacers, rear derailleur hangers, bottom brackets and bottom bracket adapters. The company makes an awful lot of that stuff, too, with more than 440,000 spacers made each year. Take a walk inside with us to see how it's done.
Save for some shop supply items like ball bearings and cable donuts, Wheels Manufacturing produces all of its wares inside a modest facility in Louisville, Colorado. Every item is produced via CNC machining and the company deals exclusively in aluminum, carbon fiber, and Delrin.
Raw stock is delivered through the back of the building where it's sorted and stacked. Despite the enormous volumes Wheels Manufacturing produces, there isn't actually much raw material kept on hand at any given moment. As it's purchased by weight, it makes sense to only buy as much as is needed.
From there, much of that material gets chopped up into smaller and more manageable pieces before they're fed into one of Wheels Manufacturing's army of CNC mills and lathes. Making headset spacers and seatpost shims is a fairly straightforward process (especially for carbon spacers that already have the correct internal and external diameters and only need to be cut to size). Machining nearly 200 different types of rear derailleur hangers with the exact dimensions needed for a perfect fit, however, is a little trickier.
Wheels Manufacturing first starts with a stock OEM hanger and measures every surface with a precision coordinate measuring machine to ensure a perfect match. From there, those dimensions are translated into CNC code that the machines can understand.
Hangers are machined out of short pieces of aluminum plate, with each segment yielding about six parts depending on the model. The mill doesn't simply cut away all the excess material around each hanger and spit out finished parts, though. In the first step, the machine only mills away material on the front face and sides of each hanger.
Afterward, each plate is removed from the mill, flipped over, and then dropped into an aluminum template that's milled away with the exact negative image. That assembly is then reinserted into the machine where the backside of each hanger is finally cut away.
In this way, each hanger remains individually fixtured throughout the process to maintain the required dimensional tolerances. This method also allows Wheels Manufacturing to produce more hangers than if they were machined one by one.
Every machined aluminum part still requires finishing work after it's done on the mill or lathe as otherwise the edges would remain razor-sharp. Freshly machined parts are tumbled in giant tanks filled with small ceramic bits and cutting fluid. After an extended stay, they emerge with smooth edges and an impressive polish.
Final steps include anodizing – which is done off-site – and packaging, after which the parts are ready to ship.
Sounds simple, right?