During a trip earlier this summer, I had the pleasure and privilege to be invited behind closed doors into the world of the fine folks at Wiseco Performance Products, part of the Performance Motorsports International manufacturing conglomerate. PMI’s manufacturing reach includes Wiseco, JE Pistons, and Innovate Motorsports, and on this trip it was extremely educational to learn how Wiseco takes raw materials and turns them into finished pistons suitable for a wide range of applications from powersports to diesel performance vehicles.
I’ve cultivated a working relationship over the years with Wiseco’s Automotive Sales Manager, Nick D’Agostino, so when I proposed the visit, he was excited to show me the company’s inner workings – and take me for barbecue once we were done with the visit. Not a bad deal for me, eh?
Once I arrived at the company’s massive manufacturing facility, I had to sign in and affix a visitor’s badge to my shirt, then I was ushered into the area where prying eyes usually can’t see – with an escort, of course. Let me prefix the rest of this post by explaining that there are a number of steps to the manufacturing process I simply can’t show you because they are proprietary to Wiseco. What I can show you and talk about is quite interesting, just don’t expect to leave this post thinking you’re going to open a piston manufacturing facility tomorrow.
It’s taken the folks at Wiseco, founded by Clyde Wiseman in 1940, over 75 years to develop their product line into what it is today: high-quality, well-engineered, trendsetting performance equipment for the automotive, powersports, and marine markets. Today, the company has three strategically-located distribution centers – Ohio, Canada, and Europe, to service their worldwide customer base. The company has customers in Europe, South America, Africa, Australia, and Asia in addition to here in North America.
Here is where the entire process begins – the raw materials are stacked on these gigantic racks outside. Each one contains lengths of aluminum in varying diameters. One consistency among them is apparent when speaking with Wiseco’s Director of Operations, Jeff Lovell.
“Wiseco sources several different variations of raw military-grade aluminum alloy sourced in the United States to ensure composition integrity,” says Jeff Lovell, Director of Operations at Wiseco.
“There is a problem in the industry with low-cost country sourcing of materials following quality standards.”
Once the raw pieces are brought into the building, they’re chopped down to a size not a whole lot different from a hockey puck. Of course, this initial size depends upon the size of the final pistons for the batch, but while I was there, they all appeared to be pretty close to that.
Then it’s time to get hot – literally! As the blanks travel down this length of conveyor, they are heated up to a specific temperature, which helps to make them malleable for the next step of the process…
Where these two craftsmen drop the pre-heated puck into the forging press, where hundreds of tons of pressure are applied to the material to create the piston blank. The ground shakes under your feet when this takes place, and the press is so tall that a hole had to be cut into the roof for the press to be installed, then closed up. Once the puck is turned into a blank, it’s plucked out of the press, still aflame, but now in the rough shape of the final piston. I could have easily stood in front of this machine all day long and watched the dance these two guys did while working. Worker number one drops the blank in, CRASH, worker number one picks the forging back up, worker two does the rinse and repeat, all day long. Amazing, yet such a simple process.
Once the forging is pulled from the machine, it’s dropped into the crate to cool down – and it’s still on fire at this point. Even standing a few feet away I could feel the heat from these pieces.
These forging blanks have been heat-treated to improve durability and await the next step of the machine operations.
The Ohio facility where the magic happens contains well over 150,000 sq-ft of manufacturing equipment, including multiple forging presses and dozens of CNC machines – each piston is touched by over 20 people during the manufacturing process, each of whom is checking and double-checking the work of the previous employees to make sure that when the box of pistons goes out the door, quality control is never, ever an issue.
Raw piston forgings have their own area within the factory. There are hundreds of containers dedicated to housing the materials.
Each CNC machine is capable of dozens of different cutting operations depending upon the final product desired. This is just a sampling of cutting heads from one machine.
While I couldn’t physically climb into the CNC machines to shoot any photography, the folks at Wiseco were kind enough to share these shots of the machinery in action. Many of the processes and procedures of their manufacturing operations are proprietary, so I didn’t glean much information about what’s happening here. I will say that I could have stood there and watched the machines make pistons all day – it’s a fascinating process.
This employee has a keen eye for detail, deburring pistons before they are set for final inspection. Sharp edges are no good, so she makes quick work of them and prepares each piston for final packaging.
The climate-controlled measuring room has the equipment – and the staff – to ensure that the products are accurate down to the smallest measurement. Wiseco has made a significant investment in this equipment to ensure accuracy and repeatability.
These completed pistons await a white-glove inspection to ensure they are perfect and ready for shipping.
This is just one small part of the packaging and shipping area. One thing I found interesting is how PMI has integrated the manufacturing operations of JE Pistons into the facility. Instead of mixing all of the resources and the machinery together, the two companies are run almost as mirrors of one another. There was a designated area for all of the JE machinery and packaging that was completely separate of the area where the Wiseco product is manufactured, but all of the manufacturing processes are duplicated down to the smallest detail.
Racks upon racks upon racks of finished products, parts, and individual finished pieces such as piston pins and locks populate the warehouse area of the building. I got lost more than a few times, asking “weren’t we just here?” when in fact we hadn’t even been in that part of the building yet. The facility has been added to a number of times over the years, as Wiseco continues to maximize the production capabilities of the factory.
I had an opportunity to interact with the engineers as well. I was curious as to what goes into the design of the forging, and they were happy to explain it to me.
“There are many things that are taken into account but the primary focus is on the intended usage and application of the forging. We need to determine if weight is a primary concern, or perhaps strength. These types of questions can be answered by looking at the intended usage,” says Wiseco’s Clayton Stothers.
“Some of our forgings are extremely focused, and only work with one specific head type. But in most cases design the forgings to have a moderately broad range of applications. For example, most 4V overhead cam engines will have similar layouts so the forging could work across those types.”
One concept that is very important to the Wiseco team is to test their own products, in-house, and for that they have an engine dyno at the ready. Although it wasn’t running on the day I was there, Wiseco’s Nick D’Agostino says they use it regularly for durability and longevity testing.
“I don’t want my customers to be our test subjects,” he says. “We supply them with a finished product that we know is going to work properly in their application.”
Just some of the machinery in this gigantic factory. It truly was a staggering and overwhelming visit, and one I’d love to repeat given the opportunity.
The finished product. D’Agostino boasts that Wiseco’s premium products can be found inside the engines of some of the world’s most accomplished professional and sportsman racers, from NHRA and NASCAR champions down to the Saturday night local-track bracket-racing champion and beyond.