Sometimes even the best laid plans take a while to play out and because of Ma Nature’s open assault on the New England area this winter, it took way too long for me to make the couple hour drive from the Boston area to the manufacturing facilities of FK Rod Ends and Fragola Performance Systems in Southington, Connecticut to take a tour and see how the highest quality rod ends as well as the highest quality hose ends and fittings in the industry are made. This was actually my second visit to the facility. About a decade ago I had been to both FK and Fragola plants to see how their products were made for a story in Hot Rod magazine but because I can hardly remember what I had for dinner last night, I was in need of a serious refresh and the fact remains that every gearhead on Earth loves manufacturing, machinery, and seeing raw materials converted into finished products in their natural habitat.
The first thing I’ll tell you is that the Fragola family is as hands on a group as I think I have ever seen in this industry. From patriarch Frank who founded the companies and as you’ll learn a little later is a genius in more ways than one, to his sons and daughters who oversee different aspects of the businesses from manufacturing to financials, to their kids who are now active in the operation as well. Even the employees come in multiple generations with fathers and sons working within the same buildings on the factory floor. Without getting overly dramatic about it, it is evident right off the bat that this is a family owned and operated business because of the level of pride and care that is evident from the second you set foot in the door of the lobby. They have employees who retired and CAME BACK because they missed the work and the environment so much. That’s incredible in this day and age.
But the reality is all the feel good stuff in the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if the product that you are turning out isn’t any good. FK has been an industry leader in rod ends for more than three decades and that’s because they use the highest quality materials, they have stringent quality control standards, and they keep inventory on the shelf to fill orders RIGHT NOW. While I was at the facility, some big requests came through the ordering system and no one broke a sweat because the stuff was on the shelf and ready to roll. They pride themselves on their ability to react quickly and fulfill a customer’s immediate request and their manufacturing operation is established to the point that they can react on the floor quickly if they need to handle a request that they had not anticipated previously.
When we think of rod ends, car guys and truck guys think of suspension systems and other automotive systems but the reality is that you interact with rod ends in virtually every aspect of your life. They are in your house, your car, that elevator you ride to your office each day, your lawn mower, that snow blower that cleared your driveway this winter, etc. More importantly they are used in all kinds of industrial applications, in factories that produce everything from potato chips to military ordinance, and literally whatever else you can dream up. Because of that, there are tens of thousands of variations of how these seemingly “simple” pieces are constructed. From the amount of resistance in the bearing to the thread size and the material used in construction, the yeoman-like rod end is actually a tough little hero in disguise. Below you’ll see photos from our visit with captions and we’ll show you the inside of the FK facility. It is a cool place that even has some secrets that we can talk about but we couldn’t photograph. That’s what happens when you deal with innovators. They want to protect themselves from the guys out there who’d rather cheat than outwork you.
The Fragola Performance Systems facility, which is right across the street from FK is another model of manufacturing greatness. It may sound like we’re tripping all over ourselves to praise company founder Frank Fragola but the guy really is a genius. The way that the who facility is laid out, the manner in which things happen, and the machines used to manufacture the parts were all scienced out by him. When you start to consider all the moving elements of a manufacturing operation, it becomes all that much more mind-boggling to understand Fragola “saw” all of this in his head before the first machine was plunked down on the factory floor.
There are dozens of screw machines that are turning out thousands of pieces per hour, there are tumblers, and our favorite are the thread rolling machines. See, all of the threads in a Fragola product are rolled not cut. As any good gearhead knows that a rolled thread is VASTLY superior to a cut thread and there are a whole sections worth of thread rolling machines where guys drop fittings in raw and they emerge threaded. Frank can often be found in the factory at the thread rolling machines with baskets of fittings, threading one after the next. The fellows at the plant told us that he enjoys doing it as a form of relaxation. That’s hardcore and it speaks to the fact that it isn’t just a family’s name over the door, it is a way of life for these people and that’s important.
I am the son of small business owner and I understand and appreciate what it means to have your name on something. Often times we see a dedicated first generation followed by a not so dedicated second generation, and then by the time the third generation of a family is at the helm of the business, all the passion is gone. I am here to personally tell you that is 100% not the case at FK and Fragola Performance Systems. The sons, daughters, and now grandkids of the founder are working hard each day and creating their own legacy. If you couldn’t tell, I was impressed.
NOW ONTO THE PHOTOS!