Within the cycling world, Tacx is one of THE biggest manufacturer names NOT associated with the production of a bike frame. Tacx is a hardware company making components as “simple” as jockey wheels and drinks bottles, through to state of the art turbo trainers, built using input from global leaders in the field of electromagnetics. I have been lucky enough to have Tacx open their factory doors to me and my camera this month, to get an insight into how a tech giant continues to flourish in a highly competitive market, whilst being a proudly family owned, and consumer focused business
The House that Tacx Built – Tacx Factory Visit – #TitaniumAdventures
February is a month known not to have the best weather. I don’t care how interesting the potential review is that I’m heading towards is, the concept of flying through torrential rain and storms doesn’t really fill me with joy. So whilst I was very glad that, when it actually came for me to board the plan to the Netherlands, the weather had cleared wonderfully – my concern about flying wasn’t greatly improved when I saw my plane had PROPELLERS!
Unsurprisingly, I survived the flight. I was met by Sven Roggeveen, of the Tacx team, at Schiphol airport. Any of you who have come to read this from either the Tacx Flux or Tacx Neo groups on Facebook will probably be aware of him. Sven is an active member of those groups relaying information both to and from the factory HQ in Hollands in response to comments received
The Tacx factory is located in Wassenaar, near Amsterdam and is frankly a strangely deceptive building when seen for the first time. You turn onto what appears to be a small industrial estate off the side of the main road. There is no major fan fair, no imposing edifice to cycling and the technology developed here. Just a grey building with a few offices attached surround by a few trees and bordered by a lawn. To be fair, I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, perhaps something more in Tacx baby blue!
But the appearance of the Tacx Factory is actually quite in keeping with the whole company, where substance is prized over aesthetics. To that end, Tacx is a family business, which started life as a bike shop opened in 1957 by the founder Koos Tacx. However, it wasn’t until 1972, when it’s founder started making indoor training rollers, when the company direction as we know it today started to emerge
The statement that “Tacx company is very much a family business”, is strengthed by the active employment of 3 generations of the Tacx family. In turn, when the youngest members of the family have come to work at the factory, they have invariably brought with them university friends who have shown dedication and flare in the areas of design and engineering. As such, the company as a whole has a very genuine, very real feel to it, which is reflected by the people I had the chance to talk to, and in the factory building as a whole. There is no major grandeur to the operation here. This is a company that appears to be steadfastly focused on progressive engineering and dedicated on-site production. As such, they don’t have much time for ostentatious displays.
That in-house production is something that Tacx is very proud of and very keen to protect. The company has certainly considered production facilities in the Far East but is drastically put off by the impact on responsiveness which comes with a global production network in spite of the calculated reduction in over head costs.
The Tacx products are completely in-house creations. Every step from concept sketches, to formal design, and prototyping; through the mould designs and on to product manufacture. All are kept in-house. With engineers developing portfolio careers in-house, being able to list hundreds of moulds and components they have created over the years.
Such dedicated in-house staffing allows Tacx an astonishing ability to respond to comments from testers and feedback within their production cycles. A good example of this was the Deva bottle cage; this was designed for the Tour of Flanders and Paris– Roubaix races. In the season this small part went into production, it underwent many iterative changes, practically after every race following feedback from cycling pros to hone the design before finally releasing it to the public. This also gives the teams behind the Tacx products a true sense of pride and ownership in their designs and their work
The ability to react quickly also extends beyond product designs to general factory maintenance too. Before I arrived, a component mould developed a crack causing a fabrication machine to be taken offline
In other companies, resolution of this component failure would involve an external contractor coming in, and approx 72 hours of downtime as a replacement mould is produced. At Tacx, a new mould was fabricated in house, and the machine was ready to resume production again with a shut down of only 12 hours.
With my introduction and back ground to the factory complete, it was time to don the high-viz vest and head into the factory itself
It might sound daft, but in many ways being shown around the factory, with freedom to talk to anyone, and photograph anything, the trip almost became an art project! Trust me, if you ever get the chance to go around ANY factory with a camera – do so!
Here is a little something for you to ponder for a moment. As we entered the plastics part of the factory, Sven was keen to show off a hopper containing black, hard beads. Can you guess what this is?
Those pellets are the raw essence of Neo and Flux trainers. The very base material which will be turned into the structural plastic sides. The black pellets are actually made by Samsung and are the same material which riot shields are made from. You can’t just walk into B&Q or HomeDepot and buy this stuff. It has a very limited number of licensees.
When I first reviewed the Tacx Neo, I wasn’t a great fan of the sway that the unit had, not being certain if it was a feature or an oversight in the plastic materials used. It was explained to me on the visit that the 5 degrees of flex into the Neo was not only intentional but actually took their engineers time to find a material which had the flexible properties they wanted for the Neo, without compromising in structural rigidity or compressive strength.
The raw pellets, destined to become the trainer sides, arrive from South Korea by the palette load and sit quietly waiting to be poured into hoppers to be extruded into recognisable plastic components
All the resins are compression moulded. Utilising massive industrial articulated knee presses to force the materials into desired shapes. Looking at the huge hinges moving forwards and back, I couldn’t help imagining the workings of an ocean liners engine room.
Following the intense loading pressures, the machines move in an oddly quiet fashion back from the press. I was surprised, in the most mechanised part of the factory there is no need for ear defenders, something which took me about half-way around the tour to realise.
The production facilitates are not dominated by huge force pushing machines, but also have delicate dances occurring in the air, as robotic arms swoop into machines plucking out the freshly pressed components
The Tacx family was one of the earliest plants in Holland to employ automation in this way. Coming to the emerging field of robotics early on, one of the Tacx sons has now become an industry expert in factory robotics, and their use in all levels of production. Whether from the extruding of plastic bottles
On to the welding of metal tubes which will go on to form the legs of their wheel-on trainers such as the Tacx Bushido or Genius
I appreciate it is going to sound very cliche, but actually watching the robots work, whilst welding, and moving tubes, or just pulling the components out of the massive presses before stacking the components with care was quite mesmerising. It is simply an elegant dance.
I UNDERSTAND the these are just programmed movements, in a known environment, to precise measurements. BUT the little boy who still lives inside me, the one who sat on building sites watching excavators carving out the earth for new housing estates, was still mesmerised by their arcs and turns. There was almost something caring in the way the arms would slow down before gently releasing their cargo onto stacks. I’m sure for the people who work in the factory it all becomes very “normal”, very quickly. But for a chap who spends at least half of his time dealing with bodies and things which go *squish* when poked, it was an impressive show.
So there we have it, massive pressures, clever materials and a little robotic dance to bring you a fresh side of Flux. Best served on a bed of hot Zwift laps!
As the Tacx factory is currently at maximum capacity, they cannot manage to produce products fast enough for their order books, questions about efficiency are constantly being thrown around. With all available factory floor space full, and machines working at max capacity, until a possible new factory extension is completed, Tacx is limited to trying to optimise an already streamlined manufacturing process. The automated machines can be set up to run programs with minimal human input, allowing the factory to continue to produce components 24hrs a day seven days a week. However, the machines still have to be paused and re-tasked to produce other components whilst there is not space for a series of single component dedicated machines. Still, excess demand must be a lovely problem to have!
That said, I cant imagine that having a stream of Zwifters trundling through the factory over the last few weeks asking “What are your quality control checks?” and the machines being stopped to demonstrate, actually helps. Still, it does suggest that Tacx is very open regarding their spot checks and current QC procedures, which they went into in a lot of detail for me.
The Issue of the Flux
Now Tacx didn’t just happen to open their doors to me as they liked my pros (as much as I might like to delude myself that way!). I was ostensibly offered my tour off the back of a problematic first Flux test and the direct dialogue with the factory which led to my Flux Redux Followup post
As mentioned, Tacx has a big emphasis on controlling the whole industrial widget. As such 95% of all components which Tacx uses in their products are built in-house. So it is to the significant anger, frustration and disappointment of the Tacx design team, that the issues experienced on some Tacx Flux units were due to one of those externally sourced components. Namely the Tacx Flux flywheel.
As a result, ALL of the fly wheels which now come into Tacx Factory are intensively inspected before they can go into the factory units. This is leading to large numbers of rejected parts. Under many work benches, where Flux units are assembled and tested, there are bins of rejected fly wheels which the teams are not 100% happy with
I was genuinely surprised to see crates of flywheels marked with “Niet Goed” – i.e., wheels which have failed Tacx’s highly stringent internal checks on these external components. It is much to Tacx’s chagrin, that they are not able to manufacture these components in-house currently. But I would not be surprised to hear they are actively looking at what would be required to do that!
I suppose that this brings me to needing to detail further the faults people actually saw in the early Tacx Flux – which has been placed at about 2% of units. There were two issues with the Flux initially. One relating to an over-tightening of a spring in during assembly, and the other relating to the manufacturing defects on the above Flux fly-wheels. But I think rather than have a medic attempting to discuss an engineering problem; I’ll stick to my area and let the Tacx Head of Product Design – Martin Smits explain:
Just to clarify Martin’s point with a picture. If the bolt on the Tacx Flux flywheel is overtightened during assembly, in the presence of injection moulding defects in the flywheel, those cracks propagate when you put significant wattage through the cassette, over time this results in more cracks, and well, the wheel falling off!
As a result of these findings, Tacx now rigorously test both the flywheels themselves, in addition to every Tacx Flux before leaves the factory. No unit is given a serial number until it has been tested. This is thought perhaps to be one of the reasons for failures seen across a range of serial numbers. As the serial numbers do not relate to production order, but test orders.
But that testing is alone not enough for Tacx now. A selection of Flux units are also pulled out for what might be described as ultimate testing. Testing each Flux for 15mins at a range of wattages is one thing – which frankly most people would accept. However, Tacx is now taking these selected Flux, and sticking 2000-4000watts through them. Clearly, more wattage than most Flux will ever even hope to see, but as Martin Smits has already explained, it was wattage issues which highlighted the flywheel defects in the first place. Tacx now want to do all the can now to ensure units leaving the factory are up to Tacx expected standards
Apparently, the largest wattage they have forced through the Tacx Flux is 8000 watts, at which point rather that seeing an issue with the fly-wheel, the drive belt snapped…Which given the unit and components are rated for 1500 watts, I think is a reasonable failure point!
One thing which is very clear with Tacx at the moment – they are hurting over the issues the Flux had when it launched. This is a small family of dedicated engineers who have seen the units going out of the factory, and have been heart broken to see those units coming back. As a result, they have quite literally stripped these units back to the bare metal to understand what has happened and adapt to address it
Whilst at the factory, we discussed the accuracy of the electromagnets inside the Flux. Given that there are only eight magnets in the Flux, vs. the 32 which live inside the Neo, I wondered if that was the limiting factor. Martin explained that the difference in the accuracy is not related to the magnets, but more the belt system, vs. the electromagnetic brake on the Neo.
Walking over the the Neo test beds, Martin practically exuded enthusiasm talking about the Neo accuracy. It is very clear that the Neo is his baby
Martin was very keen to show the testing of the Neo before they leave the factory. Whilst discussing accuracy, I commented that Elite is trying to target a 0.5% accuracy with their optical strain gauge on the Drivo, and could the Tacx Neo be made more accurately?
The accuracy on the Neo only approaches the 1% level, when you start putting through large wattages, in the region of 1500+ watts. Below that, the Neo is also significantly more accurate, as can be seen here, with a 0.18% accuracy at 344 watts. Below 100 watts, the accuracy is down to 0.02%!1
So why the 1% accuracy choice? Martin explains that is was simply a PR decision. Apparently, a trainer that has a higher wattage is viewed as better, than a trainer with a better accuracy. So 2000watts was proclaimed on the Tacx Neo box, and the accuracy given for at that level.
Martin brims with stories about the Tacx Neo design process. Utilising in-house engineers and having close links with the Universities in the region Martin’s team were able to master the eddy currents present within electromagnetic coils used in the Neo to give both the generation of power, but also the exceptionally responsive resistance controls.
One area that causes Martin to show the pride in his team of engineers with the time it took to build this unique turbo trainer. Processing from a blank piece of paper, to the finished product in only 18months. They attribute this rapid turn around, due to having the whole of the design and production team in-house. The close nit approach to manufacturing is something which was raised again and again during my visit, and is something that Tacx as a company clearly values, and is now bringing to bare to increase the quality control checks on their products.
The nature of the electromagnet inside the Neo does mean there is still further scope for enhancements and development via firmware updates. Zwifters have seen road feel regarding cobbles being applied to their spins around Watopia and Zwift’s other virtual worlds. But the Neo is now capable of simulating nine different road surfaces, including mud and sand so that one feature is still providing scope to create a more immersive experience on a turbo trainer. Hopefully which will be mirrored in Zwift over time
The engineers at Tacx have also developed a new functionality with the firmware, which will allow for the Neo to be used in sports injury rehab. By levering the adjustability of the virtual fly wheel, the Neo can now provide isokinetic resistance to help with muscle and tendon injury rehab – If you want to understand a little bit more about isokinetic exercises for injuries – take a look here at the PDF from the Journal of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences
Unfortunately whilst I was in the factory, only the Android Tacx app had been updated to be able to access the new firmware functions, so I wasn’t able to update my iPhone to be able to test it at home – but it certainly looks like a very interesting new field for Tacx to explore – medical devices.
Being on the Tacx factory floor, and having direct access to key people, such as Martin Smits gave me the opportunity to ask a few questions which were sent in via the TitaniumGeek Facebook page – two of the more prominent questions were:
“Sometimes it feels as if the Neo “slips” when you suddenly put a large force through it when doing low cadence, as there is no belt to slip why is this? Does that mean the unit has a lower accuracy at lower wattages?”
The explanation here is a simple physics one apparently, and is merely to do with resistances and force applied. The example I was given was that you would get the same slip if you try to push a full cup across a table – initially, nothing happens, and then as you increase pressure, and overcome the early inertia you get a slip, then smooth movement. This is not a failure in the unit, but a characteristic of electromagnets, and physics.
“Why does the NEO smell like burnt plastic after a sprint over 700W?”
Now I would have expected this to have been a slightly sticky question, what I didn’t expect was that Martin would crack of huge grin and laugh. Martin explained that they burn in the capacitors on each Neo at the factory putting a current directly into the units, which would be comparable to 500watts of effort. The smell some riders have commented on, is that same capacitor burn in occurring when the rider generates higher wattages than that factory burn in. It is a completely normal aspect to new capacitors and should pass after a few minutes. The issue is, that at home not many riders are going to be able to maintain in excess of 500watts for a few MINUTES. A result the burn in at higher than 500watts takes longer in the home environment. Martin has argued that they should be putting greater current into the trainers, to burn in at a higher power in the factory, but apparently this is limited by the current delivered to the factory by the electricity grid, and it was not felt to be cost effective to increase the current available in the factory for the narrow use case.
“Given the Neo has a steering accessory, any plans to update it and thereby giving us hardware steering in Zwift?
We discussed the current Tacx steering module, which they feel could be adapted on the Zwift side as an input, but the current ANT+ FEC codes do not contain instructions for steering, although Tacx has proposed this initially.
“Time Scale for the Neo 2 etc.? Any thoughts on a travel trainer? I travel with a Tacx Satori, but it’s still heavy!”
Again I got another grin from Martin. He struck me as an engineer who is excited about challenges he is working and wants to tell people about his ideas but also knows he’ll get glared at if he says too much. He says that with the developments to the Neo firmware, and how it is positioned in the market, there will not be any changes there for the next 18months as least. As for a travel unit, apparently this has been something he has been very interested in for a while, and “We can see a lot of easy scalability in the electromagnets.” A comment he makes and gesture to the Tacx Magnum which brooding on the other side of the conference room
“The Neo has the ability to generate power, why not include a USB port to power your GPS, etc.?”
This was a function that they looked at early on in the planning of the Neo, but didn’t like the idea of cables training all over the bike, and potentially getting caught somewhere, so that idea was abandoned. On another prototype unit, they actually looked at having the turbo-generating power, and pushing it back to the national grid! But the nature of the variability of the power surges caused problems for the power grid in the Netherlands. But that Martin still has other ideas he is exploring on using that potential for power generation, but would only smile and go no further
I thoroughly enjoyed my time visiting the Tacx factory. I had fully expected it to be an interesting and enlightening day, but I did not expect the enthusiasm of the people working there. Every aspect of the factory has a buzz to it.
As mentioned in spite of the factory running at full capacity, more than 100,000 turbos left the Netherlands for pain caves across the planet. Whilst I was there, trucks were busily bringing in fresh units to place in the warehouse. These pallets and their cargo only rested for moments, before they are separated to full fill customers orders, to then shrink wrapped to further pallets and labelled for distribution to locations such as Japan, Iceland and the here in the UK
Three generations of the Tacx family work in the business that Koos Tacx gave his name to in the 1950’s. During discussions with Sven while touring the facilities, I was told how Koos Tacx and his wife are still actively involved in the running of the company, and that getting the Tacx Magnum market has been a personal quest for the founder. I must confess to feeling a little sceptical that either the Octagenarian or his wife were really working in the business most days. So I was a little taken aback to see the venerable Mrs Tacx hanging up her coat, and heading into her offices after her lunchtime break.
Seeing Mrs Tacx still engaging with day to day business in the Tacx factor confirmed just how true the statement that this is a family business is. The company filled with people who love and are dedicated their job. The taking pride in the products they design, build and produce is clear not just marking hyperbole!
Oh yes, as a final note, of course being in Holland, I did see a few Tulips, which earned me a few brownie points bringing them home!