Hooniverse goes to Flowmaster's factory

XFM_PipeTIps Automotive journalists like to talk about cars’ “souls.” While that has many connotations about performance and styling, I feel like the discussion of automotive soul revolves around what the car physically says: A car’s exhaust and engine note give a visceral understanding of the car. That said, few really take pause to consider how such things are produced, but Hooniverse was recently given the opportunity to consider this when we were offered a our of Flowmaster’s muffler factory in Sacramento. Understand that no great epiphany was presented regarding exhausts and exhaust notes from this tour, but the view of American manufacturing and skilled labor was a refreshing one in this automotive context. Each muffler is simply its own bit of industrial art that adds a quick shot of aural soulfulness to whatever it’s attached. Rather than try to make any other foolhardy/”profound” statements about exhausts, enjoy a short photo essay from the Flowmaster facility after the jump. XFM_RawMaterialBender The 160,000-square-foot factory sits on the very edge of West Sacramento near I-80. The building had previously been a food warehouse before Flowmaster repurposed it as a production facility. Most of the 330 employees at the factory have worked there for more than a decade, some of whom have worked there for nearly a quarter of a century. XFM_RawMaterial XFM_RawMaterial2 Raw tubing for the exhaust plumbing arrives in long sticks of stainless steel tubing. Flowmaster uses all-American steel in several different SAE grades. Most of the work being done during the visit was with 304 and 409 steel. XFM_RawMaterialCut The tubing is cut to size before bending. XFM_MandrelBend XFM_MandrelBend2 This tubing required two separate mandrel bends from the bender, one of four benders in the factory. This particular bender can work with tubing up to four inches in diameter, which is used for diesel truck exhausts and can be hard to work with. XFM_Bending_Waste XFM_BendingWasteTip “Waste” from the bending and cutting of the exhaust tubing gets stored in bins and then reworked for use in other applications, including inlet and exhaust tips for the mufflers. A press like this can put out up to 2,500 inlets per shift, though workers frequently rotate positions to limit monotony and reduce strain from repetitive movements. XFM_TipsQA Press operators participate in the quality assurance process; exhaust tips that don’t meet specification because of cracking, kinking, or other defects get tossed in the bin in the foreground. These get reworked or recycled. XFM_FirstArticle At the start of every shift or when beginning work on a different part, the operator or welder must provide a first article for review by the Quality Assurance team. The QA person matches the part number and specifications, examines weld quality, and measures the exit and inlet diameters to make sure they’re within tolerance. XFM_Presses XFM_Presses2 The factory includes 25 presses, which range in age from a few years to a 1910 press from Cannery Row (lower photo on left). All of the machines are customized for Flowmaster’s applications by in-house machinists. This includes rebuilding and rewiring and occasionally also includes a complete rework of the hydraulics. XFM_InletCap XFM_OutputEndcap XFM_Delta XFM_Endcaps Mesh bins neatly hold the smaller pressed pieces until they’re assembled in the muffler. XFM_Hangers2 XFM_Hangers Flowmaster kits frequently include exhaust hangers in various diameters. The hangers’ raw material is contained in a giant spool of solid steel, which feeds a robotic press that cuts and forms them into the proper shape in a mesmerizing whirlwind before dropping them into a pile to be picked up later. XFM_Muffler_Form Steel for the muffler cases and other pieces are cut to size and then stacked. XFM_Employee2 The muffler case is then shaped in a press (left) and queued up for spot welding (right). XFM_Muffler_Outer2 XFM_Muffler_Outer The formed muffler cases are stacked after being spot-welded. XFM_RoboWeld XFM_RoboWeld2 Many of the muffler welds can be done with robotics. Flowmaster uses several robot welders to seam-weld the cases and perform other simple welds. FM_ManualWeld Many of the more challenging welds, however, must be completed manually. Flowmaster employs a workforce of skilled welders, some of whom have worked at the factory for more than 20 years and can fill in at just about any position in the facility. XFM_ManualWeld2 XFM_ManualWeld3 This particular welder has worked at Flowmaster for 23 years. His output of nearly complete “Outlaw” mufflers (for Boss Mustangs) can be seen stacked at the right in the bottom photo. XFM_Painting Flowmaster paints all of their mufflers with a dull matte gray powder coat or with flat black paint. The clips that hold the mufflers in the spray booth rotate so the mufflers receive an even coat of paint. Flowmaster worked with nearby University of California, Davis to track all of their paint to improve efficiency and minimize any of the atomized paint escaping beyond the paint booth. A single ounce of paint is sufficient to coat each muffler. FM_FinishedMustang Production manager Brian Wrathall holds a finished Outlaw muffler, painted and ready to ship. XFM_Palletizing Finished muffler assemblies are palletized before being boxed with the production date stamped on the familiar red-and-black box. XFM_Warehouse The boxed mufflers are palletized again and stretch-wrapped before being put in the warehouse. XFM_Shipping XFM_Shipping2 Orders are assembled from the warehouse and then stretch-wrapped again for shipping. These include everything from direct orders to huge shipments for high-volume vendors. The shipping department receives up to a dozen pickups on a given day. XFM_Trans1 Flowmaster is actually a subsidiary of Driven Performance Brands, who also build and sell Hurst shifters and driveline conversions. Flowmaster also operates a research and development facility in Boise, Idaho, and a tech center a few blocks from the factory where they test-fit products. XFM_FinishedMufflers Most of the work during our visit was being done to complete Deltaflow mufflers (top), in which the delta-shaped pieces reduce exhaust volume while the tuning chamber gives resonance to the exhaust note. The newer laminar-flow muffler (bottom) controls the flow of exhaust gases through the two linked conical sections while the mesh section reduces the exhaust volume. The inner case is surrounded by layer of insulation that greatly reduces the heat of the outside case. XFM_LEDE2 The only thing missing from the tour was an audio demonstration on an actual application, but we would soon be privy to that with a visit to Calistoga Speedway for the King of the West Sprint Car Series. Check back tomorrow for that story. Disclaimer: Flowmaster provided travel arrangements and accommodations for this visit. [All photos copyright 2014 Hooniverse/Eric Rood]

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