They say, if you like eating sausages, you should never visit a sausage factory. I'm a vegetarian, so maybe that doesn't apply to me. But what about mountain bikes?
If you’ve spent the past 15 years buying into the glitz, technology and hype of the mountain bike industry, what’s it like to go behind the curtain and see the process before the marketing team get their hands on the story? Polygon Bikes recently gave us the chance to find out, with a visit to their factory and assembly facilities in Surabaya, Indonesia.
With a local market in Indonesia of 250 million people, Polygon Bikes could happily exist solely in the domestic realm – there’s plenty of bikes to be sold in a country that lives on two wheels. But in the past five or so years the team at Polygon Bikes have been looking outwards, undertaking a global expansion in the high-end market that’s underscored by their sponsorship of some of the world’s most high-profile riders. Here in Australia, we’re really the first port of call in this worldwide conquest, and already Australia is Polygon’s largest market outside Indonesia.
Polygon are one of just a small number of brands that actually possess their own factory and assembly facilities, and they’re amongst the largest manufacturers in the world, producing almost half a million bikes a year
While the brand’s profile around the world has grown considerably off the back of the UR Team’s successes and the Red Bull Rampage winning riding of Kurt Sorge, until recently I doubt many people outside of Indonesia could’ve told you much more about Polygon than name a handful of their sponsored riders. What few people know is that Polygon are one of just a small number of brands that actually possess their own factory and assembly facilities, and they’re amongst the largest manufacturers in the world, producing almost half a million bikes a year. This includes building bikes for some other well-known brands too, the marketing departments of which would love to convince you wasn’t the case. (Sorry, no names here!)
Getting behind the scenes of global bike brand is rare, so when we were offered unrestricted access to Polygon’s factory and assembly facilities, we were on the next plane to Surabaya faster than you can say ayam goreng.
Surabaya is ‘proper’ Indonesia, and while it may only a short jump across the Java Sea from the tourists and touts of Bali, the contrast is sharp. Stuff gets made here – the Indonesian domestic market is a growing, increasingly wealthy beast, and Surabaya is one of main cities servicing this demand. In the middle of the wet season, it’s an exciting place to be; humid, surging, spicy.
The Polygon factory, like many in the municipality of Sidoarjo, is blended in with the surrounding neighbourhood. There are no big smoke stacks or huge concrete carparks, instead kids with school backpacks on skip past the gates, a warung opposite sells drinks and noodles. The factory has been there for over 20 years, and the neighbourhood has evolved around it. In as much as a factory ever can, it feels welcoming. With the opening of a gigantic sliding door, I step inside into a world that underpins the entire cycling industry, but which I’ve never experienced before.
I didn’t know what I was expecting, but not this scale, that’s for sure. The huge space stretches away from me, dominated at the far end by tremendous dual, two-storey ovens that heat treat the frames. The smell of solder and metal being cut takes me back instantly to my high school metalwork classes! It’s warm, but not stifling, and surprisingly a lot quieter than I’d expected, the noise all kind of disappearing into the massive roof space.
At any given moment, there are a couple of hundred employees in the welding factory (three shifts keep it running 24 hours a day), and overseeing them all is Ronny, a man who joined Polygon on the factory floor 15 years ago and whose pride in the space is clear. He insists that it’s kept spotless, the floor is a clean as a car showroom, and he walks me through the whole process.
Either side the entrance are towers of the raw materials which will one day be rolling down singletrack or bitumen, maybe in some part of the world far from here. But long before that happens, the huge lengths of tubing must be lopped into sizes that are suitable for whatever frames are being produced at that moment. There’s never just one model of bike on the go in the factory at any given moment either – the days of long production runs are gone, and the way business is done in the bike industry has changed. It’s all about shorter runs, more diverse models, all with staggered delivery times, which makes managing the logistics of a production schedule much tougher. Somehow Ronny doesn’t have a grey hair on his head.
Once the tubes are cut, they must be shaped, and at Polygon all the tube forming is done in-house. A separate workshop is dedicated to designing and machining up the various dies and moulds that are then inserted into the huge hydraulic presses which shape the tubes, or put the correct bend in the stays. The same workshop oversees the two CNC machines too, which produce the head tubes, linkage plates, shock mounts all the other frame elements that require the intricacy of machine work. The shaped tubes are then mitered by terrifying looking machines that slice through the alloy like butter, before being moved onto the brazing area to have cable guides or other frame fixtures added.
Once the tubesets are all cut, shaped, mitered and have had any fixtures fitted, it’s off to the welding bays, along with any CNC machined frame parts. Front triangles and the rear ends are initially tack-welded, before being placed into a jig and having the final welding completed. Prior to heat treating, the frames must pass a quality control inspection, before heading into the massive ovens to be hardened. Post heat treatment, the frames are again checked for alignment and a second quality control assessment then moved off for finer finishing work, such threading of bottle mount nuts and reaming of seat tubes.
The final process involves cleaning and prepping the frames ahead of painting. Any surface abnormalities are hand sanded and threads are double checked. Frames are then moved through a sequence of baths of various solvents and solutions to first clean and then apply a zinc phosphate coating that inhibits corrosion, before a final session in an oven to dry them out.
Painting and assembly takes place in a different building (for now, Polygon are building a new welding factory this year on the same site as their assembly facility). Before entering the painting and decal areas, our shoes are covered with protective plastic to prevent us tracking in any dirt or dust. The entire space is sealed off from the outside world, and the air pressure is raised, so that air (and dust) is only ever pushed out of the facility and never sucked in. It’s completely spotless.
Throughout the entire painting and decal process, the frames are constantly moving along a long suspended conveyor. First up, they receive and undercoat from an automated sprayer that uses first gives the frames electrostactic charge to ensure the paint is drawn to the metal for minimal over-spray. A final undercoat is delivered by hand to those areas which require extra coverage, or which are hard for the automated sprayer to reach.
After moving through a drying oven, the frames are given a final once over to remove any imperfections ahead of the receiving their outer paint job, which is done by hand in painting bays which have a constant flow of recycled water running down the wall behind the frame being sprayed to capture any over-sprayed paint.
Decaling is the final step of the process before the frames head upstairs for the assembly line. It takes place in a wet room, with a team of workers each responsible for the application of just one or two decals as the frames progress along the conveyor. If you’ve ever tried to apply a decal without trapping an air bubble, you’ll know it’s not an easy task! Now imagine doing that while the frame is moving…
The final stage in the entire process is the assembly line, where it all comes together. The logistics are pretty mind boggling, with all the elements of construction, painting, and component warehousing having to come together at the same time to ensure there are no bottlenecks when it comes to the assembly process. Polygon warehouses all their components on site, with all the larger items stored in a huge racking system with automated picking.
Like the painting process, the assembly line does not stop moving, every aspect having to be completed precisely and in a very short window before the frame moves on down the line into the hands of the next worker. On the main assembly line, the task of building a bike is broken down into small individual tasks. Take the assembly of a wheel for instance: one worker places the spokes into a hub, another laces the wheel, a third checks its true and tension, before a fourth fits the tube and tyre. The efficiencies this brings are pretty staggering and a bike can go from a bare frame to being boxed and ready for shipping in just a few minutes.
The exception to this are the bikes which receive what Polygon calls its Royal build. Reserved for higher-end bikes (and all bikes destined for Australia, regardless of price point), the Royal build means that a single worker handles the entire build process from start to finish. It’s a job that’s normally reserved for workers who are passionate riders themselves, and while it mightn’t have them same stresses as the production line, the mechanics are super efficient, building a bare frame into a complete bike in under an hour, including pressing in suspension pivot bearings.
On the day of our factory tour, the assembly team were getting ready to run an extra shift, which wouldn’t finish up until around 11pm in the evening. It’s a busy time for Polygon, and outside in the loading area a string of semi-trailers waited for their freight of bikes; there was 14 of them scheduled for that day alone, each with a 40-foot shipping container on its bed. Things are busy at Polygon, and with their operations throughout Europe just beginning to hit their stride, who knows what things will look like for Polygon in a few years time. Before arriving in Surabaya, I’ll admit to feeling a little apprehensive – did I want to see what the inside of the sausage factory looked like? Would going behind the marketing curtain make me feel a bit jaded about the whole industry, or would I leave in a positive frame of mind? Thankfully, I finished the day feeling not only happy about the standards and conditions that Polygon has in place, but completely blown away too. When you’re out there on the trail, feeling pleasantly isolated, the origins of your bike are probably the last thing on your mind, and rightfully so. But I know now, that I’ll remember to occasionally say a silent ‘thank you’ to the people whose labour made each ride possible.