During a recent trip to Japan, the folks at Work Wheels invited me to visit their headquarters in Osaka, and as a self-confessed wheel whore, of course I had to accept. It got even better when local friend, and owner of H-Sport in Kyoto, Hideki Fukui offered to drive me there from Kyoto in his modified Audi TT-RS.
Work Wheels is celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, and continues to build upon the foundations they have established over that time. Sadly, founding owner Takeshi Tanaka passed away in 2015, but his daughter Chika Tanaka has taken the reigns and has an obvious passion for both the future of the company, and wheels in general.
The assembly plant that I not only got to visit, but was allowed complete access to, is located in Sakai, a neighbourhood just south of the company HQ in Osaka. It was built in 2000, covering roughly 3,000 sq. m. (32,000 sq. ft), and is where every 2 piece and 3 piece wheel that Work manufactures is built up. This includes their own brands, but also those for OEM and other companies, such as through their new partnership to produce 2-piece wheels for US based Vossen Wheels.
Production happens a little over 100 miles west of Osaka, with all barrels and centers made in house. The components are then transported to this assembly plant, where everything is inspected multiple times throughout the process of being put together. From my perspective it seemed like every time a barrel reached another step in the process, the next white glove clad worker was waiting to check the run-out. The photos you see of the dial-gauges aren’t a single work station; almost every step had it’s own gauge, and it was always used. As someone who has re-assembled my own vintage 3-piece wheels over late nights in my garage, I suddenly realized how much more care I could, and possibly should, be taking over it!
All the faces for both 2 and 3 piece wheels are inspected by hand before the final assembly, both for visual imperfections and also to make sure that they are the exact specification that was ordered by the customer. Each order has its’ own spec sheet, with width, offsets, colors, and much more printed for the workers to use. When asked about how often faults are found, my guide from the company, Koji Takasu, was suitably proud to say that they have a error rate of 0.002%. To put that a different way, that’s one reject for every fifty thousand wheels.
For the two piece wheels, the barrels are first prepared with a small roughened strip where the center will meet it, to promote a better welded process. They are then placed around a cylindrical heating element, which expands the metal slightly, so that the adept worker can seamlessly place the center into it without having to scratch the already polished inner lip. They are then cooled, finally bringing the two pieces together for the first time. Both pieces are then loaded into a mechanical welding machine, with a thick steel plate added temporarily to protect the polished finishes during the process, before being turned 360′ while the welder does its thing.
Work believes strongly that welding their multi-piece wheels offers the best strength available, and it does seem to be the standard in Japan. However, they’re aware of the desire to be able to change lips and modify sizes in the tuner scenes in North America and elsewhere, so will leave certain wheels un-welded upon request. I’m a sucker for assembly lines and machinery, so watching this part of the process fascinated me, although personally if it’s possible I’ll always take my split rims as splits please; so with that, we headed over to the 3-piece assembly area.
The 3-piece wheels take a similar but slightly different path through the factory. There is no heating, and rather than adding one bolt at a time, as you or I would do, there are ingenious steel forms which are loaded up with the correct hardware. These are then placed on to the wheel in the correct orientation, so that all of the bolts seat quickly and with minimal fuss. One major ‘lightbulb’ moment during the assembly for me was seeing the run-off of both the lip and the barrel being measured during the build-up. Again, when I’ve re-assembled my own wheels I’d never thought to do this, and I feel a little foolish for never thinking of it. Once everything on this young Work wheel is lined up, a laser guided machine takes the first pass at tightening the hardware down. Then it’s on to a human hand to do the familiar crisscross pattern of torquing the bolts that any one who has installed cylinder head studs etc will recognize.
Now assembled, both the 2- and 3-piece wheels rejoin the same conveyor belt and move towards the end of the first part of their journey into the world. All are reinspected again, for any issues with the finishes, for runoff, and every single bolt is visually checked to ensure that they have received a locking compound and have been torqued. At this point, they get one last buff, before being boxed up and shipped somewhere around the world where their new owner is waiting to mount them up on a car.
I really didn’t know what the expect when I got invited to seeing this important step of the split-wheel building process. Honestly, I think I expected more machines and dirt and noise and automation. Instead, I found a hugely detailed and caring process, where every single wheel is picked up, and inspected, and stared at, and cleaned, and tested, and almost lovingly processed, before moving on to the next person who will do the same, and then again to the next person. That means when you’re at a big car show, and there’s maybe a dozen cars wearing Work Wheels of various designs, then that hands-on process has been repeated hundreds of times for just that small group of cars alone. And I think that’s pretty darn cool.
As an awesome end to the tour, Chika, Tosi, and Hideki, all humored my dietery lifestyle choice by having their first ‘vegan meal’ at an adorable little restaurant in Osaka. While merrily munching on tofu, we talked excitedly about upsizing trends, and four spoke wheels, and hardware colours, and any number of other wheel related things that you and your friends probably talk about in your garages, on forums, or at GTGs. To see the senior management of a major wheel manufacturer have such honest passion, knowledge, and interest in what they do, and what we as car enthusiasts love, is quite possibly the coolest thing I saw on a tour that was full of very cool things. So to all the Work Wheels family, in my best attempt at speaking Japanese, domo arigato!