By Daryl Ecklund
Austria does things differently from the rest of the world. Austrians take great pride in their mountainous land, and 80 percent of the people build their own homes. They share a deep love for their homes, villages and neighbors. But, don’t let the Old World charm of Austria fool you. The country is deeply committed to advanced production and high-tech products. About 30 minutes outside of Salzburg lies the small farming town of Munderfing (population 3000). Munderfing is where suspension manufacturer WP Performance Systems is nestled. WP’s manufacturing plant is enormous, and it seems odd that it sits by itself in a small Austrian farming community; however, being out of the ordinary is part of the Austrian culture.
WP MANUFACTURES SUSPENSION FOR BMW, SHERCO AND TRIUMPH. AND, IN THE GPs, WP SUSPENSION IS USED BY THE FACTORY-BACKED CLS KAWASAKI TEAM.
It is no secret that WP has a close relationship with KTM. In fact, KTM’s race department is just down the street, while KTM’s R&D and manufacturing headquarters are in the town of Mattighofen, about 10 miles away. Since KTM, Husqvarna and WP are owned by Stefan Pierer, it is often assumed that KTM owns WP, but all three are in fact separate companies. KTM America president Jon-Erik Burleson refers to WP as a “distant cousin” of KTM. For its part, WP manufactures suspension for BMW, Sherco and Triumph. And, in the GPs, WP suspension is used by the factory-backed CLS Kawasaki team with great results.
Although WP Performance Systems is best known for its suspension, the company has diversified into the production of exhaust systems, frames and radiators. WP produces exhausts and frames exclusively for KTM and Husqvarna, but it makes radiators for Ducati and Audi. MXA’s interest in WP mainly concerns its KTM and Husqvarna suspension components.
Of great interest to motocross racers worldwide is the prototype WP air shock that has been tested in competition by Ryan Dungey, Ken Roczen and Andrew Short. WP head of R&D Torbjorn Gustafson told us that WP also has an air fork in development that will be standard equipment on the European version of the 2016 KTMs, bit not the Canadian, American or Australian models. The R&D department is where all of WP’s product ideas germinate. Every product starts with a simple idea voiced by the race team, a rider or a WP engineer, but getting an idea to come to fruition is a huge process. It starts with a prototype; but only after countless hours of testing, both on real-world test machines and with computer models, does the actual product see a test track. There are many hoops to jump through before an idea makes it to the production line—not the least of which is a cost-factor analysis.
A good example of WP’s prototype testing is the air shock. Torbjorn Gustafson told MXA that WP has the technology of the air shock all figured out, but the actual cost to produce it as standard equipment on a production KTM would bloat the sticker price.
WP HAS THE TECHNOLOGY OF THE AIR SHOCK ALL FIGURED OUT, BUT THE ACTUAL COST TO PRODUCE IT AS STANDARD EQUIPMENT ON A PRODUCTION KTM WOULD BLOAT THE STICKER PRICE.
The biggest section of the WP factory is the production area, where they assemble all of WP’s suspension components. The assembly starts with shipments of vendor parts. To make the parts supply system run seamlessly, WP sends out wooden crates to its parts suppliers, and the crates are returned with the necessary parts in them. Once these parts arrive, they go into a locked section of the warehouse. Locking the newly arrived parts away from the assembly lines ensures that WP’s quality-control department can inspect a sample number of the new parts before the shipment is moved to the warehouse and the parts are released for production.
The system is designed to guarantee quality, but once in a blue moon the assembly line will come to a screeching halt when a much-needed part is still in the locked inspection area. Everything is stopped until quality control inspects the missing part and it gets moved to the production line.
ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT PRE-ASSEMBLY JOBS IS PUTTING TOGETHER SHIM STACKS. THIS JOB IS ONLY DONE BY WOMEN.
Every day WP has a production schedule that dictates which forks and shocks are going to be assembled. All the necessary parts are pulled by their part numbers from the warehouse and moved to the correct pre-assembly stations. As with most assembly lines, the workers do one task over and over again. Based on time and efficiency studies, most tasks are simple and allow the largest number of completed parts to be assembled each day.
One of the most important pre-assembly jobs is putting together shim stacks. This job is only done by women. Why? WP finds that women have better manual dexterity. The shim stacks are also the only part that WP makes specifically for the American market, which means that American WP forks differ from their European-bound counterparts. It is only fitting to develop U.S. settings for U.S. motocross tracks.
After all the pre-assembled parts have been put together, they go to WP’s state-of-the-art assembly-line machines. These machines were developed by WP’s R&D department specifically for the new 4CS fork. They have turret-style stations that allow one worker to do several tasks in quick succession. As WP’s Kyle Gugliemetti told us, “This is where the magic happens. There are four of these machines placed next to each other with a worker stationed at each one. Each machine does a set of crucial steps. The product of each turret is placed on a cart for the next turret and is then repeated until the fork is completed at the fourth turret on the line.”
The first machine has fork spindles to the right of the worker and rebound pistons (with the 4CS hydrostop nettle) on the left. The first turret puts the cartridge rod with a seal head, rebound piston, nettle, spring guide and screw-cap adapter together. The second turret assembles the cartridge with the spring and cap installed. The third turret puts the spring on, along with a few small details, and the fourth turret assembles the fork tube and end cap.
After the assembly is complete, the forks move on to what is known as the “pencil stamp.” It is a process that WP has been doing since the 1980s. This machine engraves two different sets of numbers on the fork. One set of numbers is the date when the fork was produced, while the other is the article number identifying what type of fork it is and what brand of bike it will be installed on. Included in this number code is the model year and the exact model it was produced for. These numbers are not serial numbers but batch numbers. All the batch numbers are kept in a WP legend and are referenced by both employees and customers for many purposes.
IF A FORK FAILS THE TEST, EVERY FORK FROM THAT BATCH IS INVESTIGATED TO FIND AND FIX THE ISSUE.
Once assembled, the forks go to a quality-control dyno. Forks are randomly selected from each batch and are run through a few slow strokes on the dyno. WP has production-level tolerances for each fork produced. There are only two possible results—pass or fail. If a fork fails the test, every fork from that batch is investigated to find and fix the issue. If it passes, it moves on to the next step of the process.
The final step is when WP prepares the forks to be shipped to the end customer (and it differs with each one). KTM, for example, requires the forks and shocks to be placed on clean cardboard in a wooden box for a minimum of 24 hours to ensure there are no oil leaks. BMW’s shocks also undergo the cardboard test, but every BMW part is placed on a conveyor belt that holds it up in the air where it cannot be touched by human hands for at least 24 hours. During that 24 hours, the parts go up and down on the long, elevated conveyor system. If there are no leaks, they are shipped to BMW.
MXA enjoyed our time at WP. We know that the next time we swing a leg over a bike, we will take a moment to think about the incredible amount of time and effort that went into creating the suspension underneath us—that won’t stop us from telling the truth about how it performs, but we will feel bad for having to do it.