Connection | An Introduction to SRAM's Coimbra Family
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.
Modern chains are nowhere near as simple as their predecessors and SRAM’s Coimbra facility exemplifies the leading edge of chain technology. What makes SRAM’s Coimbra factory so special?
One obvious answer is that the facility has been operating since 1968. And in all that time, it has been doing basically the same thing since day one—making chains. There are plenty of 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 must be more to the story than simple longevity. As with every SRAM location, 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.
From the street, the Coimbra facility appears to be a three-story office building. Newly constructed, this modern 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.
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 metal. 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.
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.
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 typically subjected to greater stresses by riders.
As you walk through this factory and start to grasp the challenges of manufacturing a product that is measured in the thousands of meters and hundreds of thousands of individual pieces per day, the concept of ‘quality’ begins to take on a clearer meaning.
Quality is a common theme here in Coimbra. And it goes well beyond a tagline or corporate marching orders or even a logo on a t-shirt. 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.
Each day, SRAM Portugal tests raw materials for uniformity, tests assembled products for quality, tests processes for accuracy and investigates new ideas about chain design for their feasibility. While there is stress in this work, it seems impossible to find a person here who doesn’t seem genuinely happy to be here.
Perhaps this is why, 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 bicycle chain is proudly system-engineered and manufactured in Coimbra, Portugal.